Maradona in Bolivia charity match

Andres Schipani, La Paz

Argentine football star Diego Maradona and Bolivia's President Evo Morales have taken part in a charity football match in Bolivia's main city La Paz.

It was played to raise funds for victims of major flooding in Bolivia and to protest against a Fifa ban on high altitude international matches.

The pair led teams of retired Argentine and Bolivian football stars.

Argentina won the match 7-4, with three goals being scored by Maradona and one by Mr Morales.

The entrance ticket for the game was a pack of rice, pasta, or powder milk for the flooding victims.

"This game is important because of one single objective we have - to lift the altitude ban," said Guido, a Bolivia fan dressed in striped red, yellow and green.

"Besides from being a charity match, it shows that it is possible to play at high altitudes."

About 20,000 fans at the Hernando Siles stadium - referred to by local fans as "Bolivia's Wembley" - chanted "Evo, Evo" and "Diego, Diego".

They were surrounded by banners stating: "Football is universal, do not discriminate against us", and "We should play where we were born".

Next to the pitch, wearing the country's national colours, was Bolivia's mascot, a man dressed as a condor - an Andean bird that flies at high altitudes.

"This is solidarity, South American brotherhood," quipped the condor figure, as he diplomatically cheered for both sides.

'Ridiculous and shameful'

Last week, Fifa, football's governing body, upheld the ban on international matches in stadiums located higher than 2,750m (9,022ft) above sea level, without a period of acclimatisation.

The ban was introduced amid concerns about the effect on the health of players unaccustomed to thin air.

This decision means Bolivia cannot play qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in La Paz, which is located 3,600m above sea level.

While this has sparked outrage in Bolivia, it might also affect two other Andean capitals, Bogota and Quito.

Upon his arrival in La Paz, Maradona said the ban was "ridiculous and shameful" and a "political issue".

He accused Fifa President Sepp Blatter of "playing with the passion of the Bolivian people".

During half-time, Maradona received the Simon Bolivar Order - Bolivia's highest honour - from Mr Morales, and addressed the Bolivian crowd.

"We have shown Fifa that it is possible to run on this pitch," he said.

"You have the right to play where you were born. That cannot be decided neither by God nor much less by Blatter."

Lobs and lobbying

While the Argentine World Cup winner led a team of retired Argentine stars, artists and journalists, Mr Morales played centre-forward for his team of retired Bolivian stars.

They included the current deputy minister of sports, Milton Melgar, who played for Bolivia in the 1994 World Cup finals in the US.

Mr Morales, a well-known football fan and quite a skilful player, has lobbied hard for Bolivia to be able to continue playing in La Paz.

He even played a match at 6,000m last year to show the game could be played at high altitude.

Mr Morales called the rule "an aggression against the peoples, and aggression against sport".

"Football unites peoples but this decision seems to be confronting peoples. Fifa should revise this offensive decision," he said.

Bolivia will appeal this decision at the next Fifa congress, to be held in Australia in May.

Mr Morales is planning to ask for the support of African and European football federations as well as other Latin American nations.

Bolivia wants playing football to be a question of attitude, not altitude.

Republished from BBC News

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