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Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 00:25 GMT 01:25 UK
Bolivian footballers reach new high
The match (Photo: Clinica IPPA)
The highest match in the world gets under way
By Andrew Enever in La Paz

Two of the players who were to take part in the highest football match in the world did not even make it to the pitch - struck down by altitude sickness as they climbed their way to the 6542m (21,424 ft) summit.

But armed with four orange footballs and two goalposts painted black to aid visibility in the snow, the 15 remaining players set about laying out the pitch for their historic fixture on Mount Sajama, South America's second highest mountain.

At 1030 last Thursday, the referee blew his whistle.

Mount Sajama (Photo: Clinica IPPA)
Mt Sajama's flat summit provided the perfect pitch
Mario Perez Mamani knocked the ball to Primo Quispe Luna who laid it back to Juan Caballero Churata.

The match was under way, and for once those starring in the arena of a world footballing event were all Bolivian.

The plan had been hatched some time before, in the offices of the Club Andino Boliviano and the High Altitude Pathology Institute (Ippa) back in the world's highest capital city, La Paz.

Three doctors at Ippa, experts on the effects of altitude, were convinced that sporting activities could take place at very high altitudes.

And with a flat, snow covered crater at its summit, Sajama, an extinct Andean volcano lying close to the Bolivia-Chile border, offered the perfect environment to test the theory.

Initial attempt

Ippa and Club Andino announced at the end of June that an attempt would be made to stage a match on 7 July.

On the day, a team of 35 began their ascent, but logistical problems and terrible weather conditions thwarted the attempt.

We have demonstrated that with good physical and mental health one can take part in any sport at any altitude

Bolivian doctor

"We were not well enough prepared," said Dr Gustavo Zubieta Snr.

"Many set off to reach the summit but very few actually got there."

Following the failure, a number of organisations that had backed the first attempt withdrew their interest. But undeterred by the lack of support, Ippa and Club Andino began preparations for a second attempt.

Race to the top

This time there was a sense of urgency, as the failure had opened a window for groups from other parts of the world to achieve the record first.

In particular, the Japanese Government had expressed an interest in leading an expedition.

But the preparations moved quickly and less than a month after the first attempt, with a smaller more cohesive group, and perfect conditions, the match went ahead successfully.

The two teams, one made up of villagers from Sajama, and the other from members of the La Paz Mountain and Trekking Guides Association, played for 20 minutes each way on the 35m by 50m pitch.

Top of the world

"Those who took part are extraordinary men," said Dr Zubieta. "They climbed to 6542m and after using up a large part of their energy still played a football match.

"They could beat any team in the world at this altitude."

Ippa, who had funded the record breaking expedition, carried out tests on all the players following the match and none of them showed problems in reaction to their high altitude exertions.

"We have demonstrated that with good physical and mental health one can take part in any sport at any altitude," claimed Dr Zubieta.

"The Bolivian people are happy to see us winning in football because we have always lost in the major championships.

"This was the best championship of all because no players had ever played at this altitude. This group of Bolivians did and they won," he said.

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