20 May 2008

The Footballing Passion of Evo Morales

At 47, he loses no opportunity in participating in any football match he can. He has played on the side of, and against, crack professionals like Diego Maradona. He is part of Litoral, a semi-professional team that hopes to play in the main league. He is Evo Morales, President of Bolivia.

His last match was recently in Lima during the Fifth Summit of the Heads of State and Governments of Latin America, the Caribbean and the European Union. The match was organised by the Summit of the People, a parallel event to the official meeting. Morales joined in the team of Bolivians, which faced up to legendary Peruvian former World Cup players such as Héctor Chumpitaz and Julio César Uribe. With the Number 10 shirt, he scored a goal from a penalty in the 22nd minute.

The local political class did not like it. In November last year, during the Latin American summit in Santiago, Chile, Morales preferred playing a friendly game in place of attending the dinner hosted by guest Michelle Bachelet. Though the Chileans had retired stars, the President’s team won 8-1.

Football is central to the life of Evo Morales. It always has been so. At 13, he founded a team in his community with the name of Fraternity. He was the captain, representative and umpire. At 16, he was chosen technical director of the canton. “I was like the team owner. I had to sheer sheep and llama wool; my father helped me; he was very sporting; we sold the wool to buy balls, uniforms.”

In the Eighties, drought forced his family to emigrate towards Chapare. Sports was the key that opened the doors of friendship in the new land, the tool that linked him with his neighbours. “One day, played football with the settlers and was the goal scores. Later everyone wanted that I play with them.”

A photo records those days. In it, in the dusk with cloudy skies, a slim young man with a moustache is smiling. The tee shirt is sky blue with a grape-shaped collar; the shorts are black with white lines on the side. He has a sweatband on his right wrist and his foot is on a leather ball.

Football was also the road that led him to politics. Within a few months of arriving at Chapare he was elected sports secretary of the coca farmers union. In 1985, he became its secretary-general. In 1986, he led six federations and a year later was elected a Deputy.

In 1980, during the military dictatorship of Luis García Meza, an anti-drugs team burnt alive a trade unionist. Evo heard of the atrocity while on a football ground. He and other young sportsmen were called to an emergency meeting. They decided they had to support the trade union and participate in a march to defend human rights and protest against the atrocity.

Morales told Fox News in January 2008 that football “is not only about championships, trophies or medals. Football makes us forget the politicians who are our problem. The 90 minutes take you away from poverty…”

Evo Morales has recently rejected the FIFA (football’s world governing body) decision to ban World Cup elimination games played in stadiums that are 2,500 metres above sea level. According to Joseph Blatter, FIFA president, the veto is for “medical reasons and to protect the players’ health”.

Whatever the football bosses say, there is no scientific proof to show that playing in these heights is harmful. Tournaments and professional league have been played for years in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia and nothing has happened to anyone for playing there. In protest, on March 16, Evo and Maradona played a game in La Paz, Bolivia, at more than 3,600 metres above sea level. Later they sent a ball to Fidel Castro with their dedication. The Bolivian President said, “With admiration for Fidel” and Maradona, “To the maestro of my soul, with love”.

As a way of pressuring FIFA, Morales played a game in the snowy Sajama grounds, 6,542 metres above sea level, a Guinness world record. Evo scored the only goal. If as Eduardo Galeano says, “the history of football is a sad journey from pleasure to duty”, then Evo marks another route. In the international conclaves, he scores goals for the team of the Left.

Abridged, slightly altered and translated from an article in La Jornada by Luis Hernández Navarro.

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