LNTUP

When Andes becomes the curse

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A dive into the not so talked about aspect of Argentina’s loss to Bolivia.

For the past few days, the media have spent much of their time talking about a diminutive Argentine. Lionel Messi, this is the name which has recently been under the scanner of the football fraternity owing to the suspension of the person by football’s elite body.

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There are as always two groups of people, one protecting the little genius, and the other offcourse pondering on his ‘special powers’ of ‘talking to the air’! Whatever it maybe but one thing that everyone is agreeing is the exaggeration in the magnitude of punishment by FIFA.

The announcement of Lionel Messi’s suspension of four matches for Albiceleste came came just 6 hours before the all important FIFA World Cup qualifiers clash against Bolivia. According to many it was an well programmed act by FIFA to dismantle Argentina’s world cup hopes and some big political masterminds were behind this decision while for some others it was a great decision by FIFA and they even appreciated them for not thinking twice before taking this bold step against one of the most prominent faces of the game.

There will always be the yin-yang force behind such controversies but the bottomline was Messi-less Argentina lost to Bolivia 2-0! For many it was a shock, even without the mercurial Messi, Argentina should be strong enough on paper to beat Bolivia.

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It automatically attracted criticisms for the whole team, the Albiceleste have failed to prove that they are self-sufficient without their talismanic skipper. Argentina’s world cup dreams are in stake after the loss.

Although people have talked about many tactical reasons behind the loss of Bauzza’s men but the most popular opinion is that the team went into a phase of mental setback after the news of Messi’s suspension and were not professional enough to recover from the shock in just 6 hours. Amidst all these views, opinions and criticisms, one thing that has been not much talked about is the stadium where the match took place-Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz. That’s where our story begins.

High-Altitude football controversy:

The announcement:

In May, 2007, an announcement by FIFA shook the whole world. FIFA announced that there will be no international matches taking place in venues which are situated at a height of 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) above sea level.

The decision came after a chain of executive and other expert committee meetings over a span of four months. FIFA cited that the ‘unfair advantage’ for the hosts and ‘acclimatisation’ issues and potential hazards surrounding this of the visiting teams as the prime reasons behind their decision.

Medical aspects:

The thickness of the air is much low in higher altitudes. As a result, the concentration of Oxygen gas is much low compared to the sea level. It’s a direct disadvantage for the visiting teams as they are not accustomed to playing in such conditions.

It may cause ‘Acute mountain sickness’ in milder cases and in severe cases it may cause ‘High Altitude Pulmonary Edema'(HAPE) and ‘High Altitude Cerebral Edema'(HACE) which may prove to be fatal.

Scientific it might hear but life does not always want to listen to science especially in cases where a nation’s history or image is at stake.

Blow to the Andean States:

Andean States •Orange: Both geographically and politically •Blue: Only geographically
Andean States
•Orange: Both geographically and politically
•Blue: Only geographically

This verdict by the elite body of football came as a dooming news for the Andean nations.’Andean States’ are the countries through which Andes mountain range passes. Andes connects geographically a group of Nations in South America which are as follows:

•Colombia
•Venezuela
•Ecuador
•Peru
•Bolivia
•Chille
•Argentina

(The last two although geographically are Andean nations but geopolitically they are not as Andes is not a major portion of their landscape and does not influence the human life and politics as much as it does to the aforementioned countries)

These ‘Andean States’ have shared a pretty much similar culture from the time of the Incas. Their cuisine, their language and lifestyles reflect that uncanny inter-relationship which is deep rooted, owing to the geographical landmark ie. Andes.

As a consequence of this mountainous landscape, these countries also have some stadiums situated at some of the highest elevations in the world. For example,

•Estadio Hernando Siles(La Paz, Bolivia)- 3637 metres (11,932 ft)

•Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa(Quito, Ecuador)-2782 metres (9,127 ft)

•Estadia el Campin (Bogota, Colombia)-2600 metres

•Estadio Nacional (Lima, Peru) etc.
(Only the capital city stadiums stadiums are enlisted here as the national teams generally play their qualifiers at capital city stadiums)

bolivia stadium
Estadio Hernando Siles at La Paz in Bolivia. The venue that often attracts controversy

All these stadiums of the Andean States of South America became ineligible to host FIFA World Cup qualifiers after the announcement of FIFA. It was no more limited to the footballing world, the issue brought international political attention as the declaration was an demeaner to the image, geography and history of the countries.
(Mexican city Toluca which hosted the 1970 and 1986 WC games also got barred)

Backdrop or origin of this announcement:

The complaints regarding the problems in playing in High-Altitude venues have historically been a common thing in world football. But two incidents forced FIFA to consider the issue seriously.

In 2007, Peru announced that they will play their WC qualifiers home games against the tough opponents in Cuzco, which is almost 3,400 metres above sea level. Although Peru generally played their qualifiers at Lima which is at much lower elevation, this sudden change in their decision exhibited that they were trying to take advantage of the altitude issue which according to many seemed ‘unsporting’.

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In a Copa Libertadores match against Real Potosí of Bolivia, Flamengo was playing in the Potosí stadium situated at an elevation of almost 4,000 metres! The conditions were already hostile but as it started raining the situation became absolutely ‘improper to pursue the game’. Flamengo players had to use bottled oxygen to complete the match!

After this match, Flamengo demanded to ban these High-Altitude venues to CONMEBOL from hosting or they threatened to boycott the tournament. But CONMEBOL remained unresponsive to the demands of the most popular club in Brazil. Then Flamengo gathered support from the other clubs of the country on this issue and unitedly asked Brazil Football Confederation to look into the issue. Their complaint was that La Paz and other Andean venues left visiting players gasping for breath with pounding hearts. Brazil Football Confederation requested FIFA to consider the case and after a series of meetings, football’s elite body arrived at the historic announcement in May, 2007.

Movements against the declaration:

Bolivia, leaders of the campaign:

All the Andean States were more or less affected by the announcement made by FIFA but none so much as Bolivia. Besides La Paz, the capital city stadium, Sucre and Potosí became ineligible for hosting international matches as well after this ludicrous decision.

The President of Bolivia then came into action-Evo Morales, popularly known as ‘Evo’. He was the first ‘Red Indian’ in the country’s history to reach the throne of Presidency. Evo became the president of Bolivia in January, 2006. He represented the Socialist party in the country and was a prominent leftist face in Latin America. Evo, who also played squash and football at amateur level considered this announcement as an insult to the nation and made this an agenda for his upcoming activities.

He decided to lead the campaign against this decision and arranged an emergency cabinet meeting. After the meeting Morales said,”This is not a ban on Bolivia, but it is also a ban on the universality of the sports”. He termed the decision by FIFA as ‘Football apartheid’.
Morales invited other countries, the Andean States and even other neighbouring Latin American nations to support them on this issue so that pressure can be imposed upon Blatter’s FIFA internationally. Morales said,”We can not allow discrimination in football, we can not allow…….exclusion in the world of sports.”

It became clear that it has become a prestige issue for Morales when he asked the president of Bolivia’s political enemies Chile to stand by them. Forgetting the cold relationship between the two nations, Evo asked Chilean President Michelle Bachelet who was on a tour of Switzerland to present the case to Sepp Blatter in FIFA’s head office at Zurich. Miss Bachelet accepted it and presented the scenario to the FIFA president, but they were reluctant to change their minds.

Getting the support of Maradona:

In the fight against so called ‘Football apartheid’, Bolivia suddenly won the backing of a huge character-Diego Armando Maradona. Diego was against any such discrimination and criticised FIFA’s decision saying that they insulted mother nature! Diego, a disciple of Fidel Castro is also a renowned leftist face in the continent of South America as well as the whole world. Morales utilised this similarity of their political ideology as a weapon to win the backing of world football’s one of the most talked about names.

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Maradona played a friendly match at the Hernando Siles Stadium at La Paz captaining a team of ex-Argentine internationals against the team led by the president of the country Evo Morales. Diego’s team won 7-4 and Diego stayed on the field for an hour in a stadium with one of the highest elevations in the world. It was a silent statement to the rest of the world that if a 47 year old can play in such hostile conditions then so can the rest.

Few years later in 1st April, 2009 when the 6-1 defeat of Maradona coached Argentina in the hands of Bolivia at the same venue made the headlines worldwide and the altitude issue became a hot topic of discussion among the football pundits, Maradona did not blame the conditions and rather praised the Bolivian players “From goalkeeper to the last substitute.”!

Uniting the nations:

Morales’ movement was slowly becoming prominent and was also getting worldwide attention when he decided to take it to the next level by uniting the nations. He organized an elite body meeting in Bolivia in which the ministers and mayors of the 6 Andean nations participated.

The motto of the meeting was to demarcate the points showing that the altitude factor did not necessary favour the hosts and the ‘unfair advantage’ is non-existent. Their main points were the following alongside a detailed report:

•There is no scientific evidence which shows that playing in the high altitude hampers the players health or is life-threatening.

•People should be allowed to play and watch matches in their own environment. While FIFA’s motto is to spread the game even to the remotest corner of the globe, such decision proves to be self-contradictory.

•Altitude never played major role in deciding the fate of a match, let alone a tournament. If it did then Bolivia would not have qualified for only one World Cup(1994) inspite of playing their home matches in the qualifiers at La Paz for eternity.(In 1950, there was special invitation for Bolivia). Bolivia lost the Copa America final against Brazil at home.
No Bolivian or Ecuadorian club team ever won a major international trophy. Only one Peruvian side-Cienciano from Cruzco managed to lift the Copa Sudamericana in 2003.

Suspension of the ban:

Slowly but steadily pressure was compounding on FIFA. To minimise it in June 2007 they raised the altitude limits. In a new declaration they said that the stadiums which are above 3,000 metre of sea-level will not be able to host international matches, increasing the range from 2.5 thousand metres to 3 thousand metres.

By this declaration although most of the Andean nations’ capitals got license to host matches but La Paz, the Bolivian capital remained deprived.

After this modification, contrary to FIFA’S belief of annihilating the movement, the campaign gained more intensity much to the humiliation of football’s elite body. All the South American nations stood by Bolivia except Brazil offcourse, who were instrumental in imposing the ban.
A letter of protest from CONMEBOL, the governing body of football in South America was sent to FIFA being backed by all the member associations of CONMEBOL except Brazil.
In May, 2008 FIFA withdrew the ban provisionally as the FIFA President said,”Let’s reopen the discussion.” It was finally put to rest when on 10th June, 2010 Blatter while being asked about the altitude issue commented,”The issue of altitude is not on FIFA’s agenda.”
The long battle has thus finally been won. The Andean nations won the battle for their geographical existence.

Although FIFA withdrew the ban amidst international political pressure, that does not change the fact that some of the venues in the aforementioned countries really offer hostile situations to the visitors.

The recent loss of Argentina to Bolivia at La Paz has become subsided by the news of Messi’s suspension. The reason for the loss is mainly attributed to the absence of the talismanic No 10 of ‘La Albiceleste’ and some lame policies by Argentina coach Bauzza who is standing on the verge of getting sacked. Although these reasons completely hold merit but people are surprisingly forgetting Argentina’s baneful record in Bolivia. From 1973 to 2005, Argentina were winless on the soil of Bolivia, a time span in which they won 2 World Cups and lifted 2 Copa America titles!

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Daniel Passarella who coached the Argentine national side in the early nineties, said after a humiliating loss at Quito(Another Andean venue),”The ball does not turn in this altitude.” The World Cup winning captain was heavily criticised after this comment but was he really wrong? The answer is ‘No!’. Andes have historically offered challenge to its intruders. It does not always matter too much what FIFA says on this, neither does the stands of the political leaders of this part of the world, as there will always be theories and anti-theories. What matters is we understanding the diversity of mother nature and the limitations of human beings. The day we really get to know the art of balancing, the yin-yang force will give rise to harmony. Or the ‘Curse of Andes’ will keep haunting both its residents and the intruders for ages!