Power to the people: Diego Maradona
backs the Bolivians  [AFP]
Former Argentina football star Diego Maradona and Bolivian president Evo Morales matched football skills at a charity game in the Bolivian capital as the Argentine hero joined the football-mad president in rejecting a Fifa ban on high-altitude international matches.

The two 47-year-olds played every minute of the spirited hour-long game, delighting 25,000 fans from both countries at Hernando Siles Stadium, high in
the Andes at 3,600 metres above sea level.

Maradona's led a team of retired Argentine all-stars to a 7-4 victory over Morales' motley squad of several dozen former Bolivian greats, palace staffers, security guards, and local television newcasters.

"I speak for all of Argentina when I say that we do not fear the altitude,'' Maradona told the cheering crowd at halftime.

"All of us have to play where were we were born, my brothers and sisters.

"Not even God can ban that, much less (Sepp) Blatter,'' he added, referring to the president of Fifa.

Fifa cap altitude

Fifa last week ratified a rule requiring players to arrive at the host city a week before international games above 2,750 metres, and two weeks for matches higher than 3,000 metres, to allow time to adjust to the thin air.

With football teams' complicated travel schedules, the rule essentially bans high-altitude games.

Fifa has expressed concern about possible negative health effects on lowland players, and said that high-altitude games would give highland nations like Bolivia a greater home-field advantage.

Not all countries seemed to mind, however. Chile announced on Monday it would ignore the Fifa ruling for its upcoming World Cup qualifying match against Bolivia and play the June 14 game as originally scheduled in La Paz.

Admission for Monday's charity match was a donation for victims of catastrophic flooding in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, and fans arrived at the park bearing clothes, bags of sugar or rice, even packages of toilet paper.

Maradona scored three goals to Morales' one. A military band launched into a Bolivian patriotic song after Maradona's first score, as if the great player had in a single moment brought back the dignity Bolivian fans feel Fifa has stripped away from their national game.

As he departed the field after the final whistle, a winded but exultant Maradona defiantly pounded his still-heaving chest and issued his verdict on playing at high altitude.

"Yes you can!'' he hollered, giving the delirious crowd a thumbs up.

Source: Agencies