Diego Maradona Heads Back To Nosebleed Country

Tim Sturtridge on the build-up to Argentina's clash with Bolivia at high-altitude.
Football has a rich history of haunting moments, those flippant remarks and outlandish statements which come back to bite you in bum.

Brian Clough labelled goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski “a circus clown in gloves” before the Pole pulled off save after save to deny England a place at the 1974 World Cup finals and bring down the curtain on Sir Alf Ramsey’s tenure.

Diego Maradona’s performance at the 1986 World Cup finals will continue to haunt the English, no-one more so than Terry Butcher it seems. However, there maybe a little haunting coming ‘El Diego’s’ way over the next few days.

Argentina play a World Cup Qualifier in La Paz as part of their campaign to get to South Africa 2010. The game comes a year after Maradona took part in a kick-about with Bolivia’s president Evo Morales.

The event was staged in protest against FIFA’s ban on football matches being played at an altitude in excess of 2,750 metres above sea level.

At the time, Maradona said that FIFA’s rule was absurd and that the world’s governing body had no right to interfere with where football was played.

“I speak for all of Argentina when I say that we do not fear the altitude,” said the former Napoli man. “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.”

A year on and the FIFA altitude ban has been overturned and El Diego has stepped into the hot-seat as Argentina’s boss.

Have these events made the World Cup winner change his mind?

“We’re working on the altitude matter,” he said. “You have to face up to the altitude and not be afraid of it. If you fear it, then the doubts start.” Refreshing stuff from a man who has always slept in the bed that he has made for himself.

The altitude ban had initially come into place following complaints by the Brazilian Football Association and other influential FIFA members that an unfair advantage existed to the players acclimatised to the conditions.

Brazilian club Flamengo vowed to boycott high-altitude matches after a gruelling encounter with Real Potosi of Bolivia at nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. The match left several of the team in need of oxygen bottles.

Action was taken by FIFA and a ban on matches being held at an altitude in excess of 2,750 metres above sea level was imposed.

“The executive committee have listened to a proposal from the medical committee and have decided to act because to play at above that altitude is not healthy or fair,” said Sepp Blatter back in May 2007.

The countries affected included Ecuador, Colombia and Peru but it was Bolivia who unified them and led the protests of what the country’s President called a “football apartheid”.

FIFA have changed their tune and rebuked the ban pending further investigation. Blatter and the boys raised the altitude limit from to 3,000 metres above sea level.

They also made a further exception for La Paz, situated at 3,600m, because of its significance to football in Bolivia.

Nowhere in the world is there a President more dedicated to the football of his land. Evo first demonstrated his gift for organisation when he founded and ran a team called Fraternity in his local area when he was just 13.

He had to juggle managing the football team with his work sheering llamas as he grew up in poverty.

When drought forced him and his family to move, it was his football prowess that opened doors for him and in 1981 he was made the head of his local football association. He was forced to give up this post and concentrate on working the family farm after his father’s death two years later.

He vocally opposed the military rule of Bolivia in the 80s and his politics moved further and further towards the left with his support for trade unions.

Morales became Bolivia’s first fully indigenous head of state in 2006, 470 years since the Spanish Conquest.

He talks of football not as just another politician jumping on the bandwagon looking for a few easy votes but as a passionate player and fan.

“Football is not only about championships, trophies or medals,” Morales told Fox Sports recently. “Football makes us forget the politicians who are our problem. The 90 minutes take you away from poverty.”

After the game with Maradona, Evo and the Argentine legend signed the football and sent it to Fidel Castro. Evo signed, ‘With admiration for Fidel’, and El Diego signed, ‘To the maestro of my soul, with love’.

In that game, Morales managed to bag one goal while Diego claimed a hat-trick before donating the match ball to Cuba.

Now Argentina travel to Bolivia four days after playing Venezuela in Buenos Aires, leaving them little time to acclimatise to the altitude.

El Diego will hope he did not score an embarrassing own goal when he chose to stand tall in Bolivia a year ago.

Tim Sturtridge, Goal.com