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Soccer ruling incites protest

RODRIGO BUENDIA/AFP/Getty

We all learn in Political Science 101 that power is what matters in international relations. The same is true, it appears, in international soccer—or football, as the sport is known in most of the world. The two heavyweights of South American soccer, Brazil and Argentina, have been throwing their influence around at the 57th FIFA Congress (FIFA, the Federation Internationale de Football Association, is the world governing body for the sport).

After struggling in recent matches held at high altitudes, where air is thinner and oxygen absorption is lower, the two soccer superpowers successfully lobbied FIFA to ban international matches above 2,500 meters (8,202 feet).

The decision has been met with public outcry in Bolivia, where the capital, La Paz, sits 3,600 meters (11,811 feet) above sea level. Major street protests are planned for Thursday, and a media group just launched an initiative to send one million letters of protest to FIFA headquarters. Bolivian president Evo Morales, ever the populist, has taken up the cause, declaring it a violation of rights guaranteed by the United Nations:

He who wins at altitude, wins with dignity, he who fears altitude has no dignity."

These sentiments have been echoed in Quito, Ecuador (2,800 meters; 9,186 feet), where Luis Chiriboga, an Ecuadorean soccer official, announced: "We will defend to the death our right to play football at [high] altitudes." And now, Venezuela, Uruguay, and—more than a little disingenuously, given its role in lobbying for the change—Argentina are joining Morales against the high-altitude ban. This could get interesting.

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Robert Zoellick: a good choice

I'm pleased that the Bush administration has nominated a qualified and, by most accounts, downright brilliant man to head the World Bank in Robert Zoellick. After all, it could have been Bill Frist.

The few anecdotes I've heard about Zoellick are like one-liners from the Chuck Norris Facts website. He works hard—13-hour days when he was in the Bush administration—and he runs hard. Bloomberg's Rich Miller and Matthew Benjamin briefly note that, on one trip to China, Zoellick's security team had to ride motorcycles just to be able to hang with him on a long-distance jog.

He does have his critics. I tend to dismiss the talk that he's a tough boss; that's par for the course once you get to those rarified heights. More substantively, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik worries that Zoellick will be inhibited by "old-fashioned ideas that pit states against markets." And, much less charitably, Matthew Yglesias notes that Zoellick "doesn't seem to have done the country any good as US Trade Representative or as Deputy Secretary of State."

It's true that Zoellick made little headway on Darfur or Doha, but these are herculean challenges that require sustained presidential engagement. (After all, the cossacks work for the Tsar.) On China policy, Zoellick made a hugely positive impact as a thoughtful counterweight to Pentagon hawks. His September 2005 remarks to the National Committee on United States-China relations were the most insightful comments made by any Bush official over the past six years. I think Zoellick will represent a vast improvement.