LA PAZ (Reuters) - Andean countries vowed on Monday to fight a ban by FIFA on high-altitude soccer matches, with Bolivian President Evo Morales saying the measure discriminated against mountainous nations.
The move by world soccer’s governing body to set a limit of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level for international games is a blow for Bolivia, which has the advantage of playing home World Cup qualifiers at 3,600 metres in La Paz.
“We cannot allow discrimination in soccer, we cannot allow ... exclusion in the world of sport,” Morales said after an emergency meeting with his cabinet and soccer chiefs in the Andean nation, which last qualified for the World Cup in 1994.
The measure, announced by FIFA President Sepp Blatter on Sunday, also drew criticism from Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.
The Andean Community of Nations (CAN), a trade bloc representing the four countries, issued a statement attacking the ban and urging national soccer federations across the region to lobby for it to be overturned.
Announcing the rule change, FIFA’s Blatter said games at high altitudes were a health hazard and distorted fair competition, but critics played down the health risks and some said hot weather could be just as dangerous.
“As far as I can remember, no one’s ever died during a soccer match at high altitude,” Ecuador assistant manager Armando Osma said in a statement from its soccer association.
“We’ll defend to the death our right to play football at altitudes above 2,500 meters, and the right to play in Quito,” federation chief Luis Chiriboga told local media.
Ecuador played in the last two World Cups on the back of their performances in Quito at 2,800 meters and have not lost at home in nearly six years.
Bolivia’s Morales, a soccer fan who sometimes amuses his supporters with impromptu kickabouts, said he would send a diplomatic mission to Switzerland to press FIFA to reconsider what he described as “a ban on the universality of sport”.
Bolivia have enjoyed famous wins over Brazil and Argentina in the highland city of La Paz and were runners-up to the Brazilians when the nation hosted the Copa America in 1997.
A top official at the South American confederation told Reuters that while individual countries could complain about the new rule to FIFA, the region’s governing body had to obey it.
Francisco Figueredo, the group’s executive secretary, said it would not stop any South American country hosting internationals because they all had suitable stadiums below the 2,500-metre mark.
Elsewhere in the Andes, Colombia’s capital Bogota lies at about 2,700 metres, although the Colombians have preferred to stage matches in the steamy Caribbean port of Barranquilla.
Peru had planned to play home games at high altitude in the Andean city of Cuzco following their poor showing in the capital Lima, their traditional venue.
Former Argentina coach Carlos Bilardo said the decision was “wrong” and suggested if FIFA wanted to be fair it should also ban internationals at venues where temperatures are very high.
“It’s not the same as playing in Bogota, Quito or La Paz ... but it’s no good playing at high temperatures,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Luis Ampuero in Buenos Aires, Gideon Long in Lima and Alonso Soto in Quito