Kicking Into Thin Air
Associated Press / June 25, 2007 / La Paz, Bolivia

    Evo Morales swears playing soccer at high altitude can’t hurt you. Lying flat on my back on the floor of my apartment after another loss to the Bolivian president and his team of retired World Cup ringers, I’m inclined to agree.

    Sure, I’ve got a twitchy, lung-deep cough, a pair of knotted legs and a cleat-smashed big toe. But if a low-country reporter whose only regular exercise is typing really fast can hack his way through a soccer game up here at 11,800 feet above sea level, then what is Pele whining about?

    The Brazilian soccer god has joined many of his lowland countrymen in supporting a recent decision by FIFA to ban international matches above 8,200 feet, excluding the capitals of Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador as well as the stadiums of top teams in Peru, Chile, and Mexico.

    Based on somewhat arbitrarily defined health risks (why not ban games in extreme heat or cold?), the ruling aims to undo the highland teams’ considerable home-field advantage over their visiting lowland rivals. While provoking howls of protest across the Andes, the measure has drawn support from fans and officials alike in flatland futbol giants Argentina and Brazil, with one Brazilian soccer official even hailing the altitude ban as “a victory for humankind.”

    Those are fighting words in Bolivia, whose poor but proud soccer fans are generally accustomed to considering themselves part of humankind. The day after the ban was announced, Morales summoned the foreign press to the presidential palace and fired back: “He who wins at altitude wins with dignity; he who fears altitude has no dignity.”

    During the press conference I reminded the president he still owed us foreign correspondents a chance to redeem our own dignity after a blurry 11-1 or 12-1 whipping he and his boys gave us last October. Evo grinned at the challenge, and immediately added us to the ticket for a nationwide high-altitude sports rally late last month.

    The day began with Evo hopping on a trampoline on the street in front of the presidential palace not long after sunup, and the president went on to play three other soccer games before our own.

    If all the action wore the man down, it was hard to tell. Evo’s only 47 years old, and though sporting an age-appropriate thickness around the middle, he’s fit enough to run his administration on a relentless dawn-to-midnight schedule, taking his vacations only in 90 minute breaks on the soccer pitch. He’s an able player, strong if not flashy, prowling the top of the box while younger staffers and the aging stars of Bolivia’s 1994 World Cup team lead the attack down the wings.

    When the crossing pass comes his way, he is quick to leap for a header and happy to mix it up in front of the goal. Last year one defender accidentally broke his nose.

    On this particular afternoon, we journalists escaped La Paz’s Hernando Siles Stadium with only a 2-0 defeat, a moral victory given our own rudderless defense (everyone wants to guard the president; no one can guard the World Cup guys.)

    Evo has since continued his protest against the FIFA ban with games at the foot of a disappearing Andean glacier, on an icy slope 19,700 feet up the slope of a dormant volcano, and against Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte at near-sea-level Asuncion.

    Earlier this month, Evo faced off against a team of Brazilian diplomats in the manicured garden of the Brazilian ambassador’s La Paz mansion. As waiters in white gloves and string ties served caipirinhas and fried cheese, the president and his security guards gamely thrashed the diplomats 6-0.
    Even the Brazilians’ wives and children were unable to resist the occasional “Evo!” cheer.

    Being that close to a head of state out there yelling and sweating like anyone else can tend to make one a bit giddy, no matter who you’re supposed to be rooting for. During our own game, a rare press corps attack left Evo and I idling together at midfield, hands on hips, eyes following the action downfield. Or his were: I was staring at Evo instead, soaking up an exclusive presidential moment and searching my asphyxiated brain for a clever remark.

    In our wheezing silence I suddenly saw how plainly human he seemed, free for a rare moment of all the handlers, the guards, the howling media dog pack and the fleet of tinted-window Land Cruisers. The baggage that so clearly divides us on any other day had vanished, freeing us from the roles of president and reporter, Indian and gringo, former llama herder and spoiled college boy. We were just a couple dudes — “humankind,” to say it fancy — running around a grassy field in the sunshine.

    To complain that my lungs were on fire would have only killed the moment.

    I rotated out a few minutes later. As the referee blew the final whistle, and security guards in red and green tracksuits bolted on to the field to surround the president. The television scrum shouldered their cameras and galloped after them, swearing at each others’ snaking microphone cables. And next to me on the sidelines a round-bellied school teacher suddenly appeared, exhorting his class of wide-eyed 10-year-old girls to get out there and grab Evo for an autograph.

    At his barked command, they broke onto the field at a dead sprint, utterly oblivious to the allegedly treacherous Andean air. “Run!” the teacher bellowed. “Run!”