SAJAMA, Bolivia – Weaving around icy boulders and scrambling to avoid sliding down the snow-covered mountainside, President Evo Morales and his staff played a soccer match on Bolivia's highest peak Tuesday, gleefully thumbing their noses at FIFA's ban on high-altitude games.
"Wherever you can make love, you can play sports," said Morales, who was winded but smiling after scoring the winning goal against a team of local mountaineers.
The match on the uneven field 19,700 feet high in the Andes lasted only about 15 minutes, including the time spent recovering the ball after it skittered away down the slope.
Citing concerns for players' health and an unfair home advantage for highland teams, FIFA decided last month to prohibit international tournaments and World Cup qualifying matches above 8,200 feet. That rules out the capitals of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and the stadiums of leading teams in Peru, Chile and Mexico.
The decision was seen as such an insult in Bolivia, it has temporarily united the public often bitterly divided over Morales' populist reforms.
It's also given Morales a chance to rally Bolivia around his twin passions of soccer and South American unity while showing his knack for political stagecraft.
After attending a llama sacrifice for good luck, Morales and the other players flew by helicopter up to a rocky saddle below the peak of Sajama, a dormant Andean volcano that rises to 21,463 feet above sea level.
Experts in high-altitude medicine acknowledge that highland teams have a distinct edge over visitors, but dismissed any serious health risks.
Travelers often feel dizzy and exhausted on arrival in La Paz, the world's highest capital, and "the last thing you think of is, 'Let's go sprint for 90 minutes,"' said Dr. Robert Roach, head of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado.
"You feel bad. But that's just because of the hard work, it's not because there's anything dangerous to it."