BOLIVIA doesn’t get much football publicity but historians will tell you that Los Altiplanicos did play in the first World Cup in 1930. They’ve barely made a mark on the global game since and have qualified for just three tournaments, the last being in 1994.
It already looks unlikely that Bolivia will feature in 2018. They are languishing near the bottom of the CONMEBOL qualifying competition having won two of their 12 games so far.
The national team’s greatest achievement was the 1963 Copa America, when Bolivia won the competition as hosts. Although having the very distinct advantage of being the home nation, this was no mean feat as Bolivia beat Argentina 3-2 and Brazil 5-4 on the way to lifting the cup. In 1997, when they were hosts once more, Bolivia finished runners-up. These isolated moments of success can, to some extent, be explained.
Life isn’t easy, however, for Bolivians. Their country is South America’s poorest and life expectancy is below 67 for adult males. And at the moment, Bolivia is suffering its worst drought in 25 years and the government has declared a state of emergency.
The country’s economy has often been over concentrated on individual industry sectors, such as tin, silver and cocoa, making it very vulnerable to downturns. Moreover, inflation and corruption have both plagued Bolivia’s economic development. To make life even more complicated, Bolivia has a long track record of military coups.
The Bolivian Football Association has a long line of scandals in its 90-year history. Only this week, its president, Rolando Lopez, was arrested on corruption charges. His predecesor, Carlos Chavez, was also accused of embezzling funds.
If that’s not enough, Bolivian teams have to play the high altitude game. La Paz is almost 12,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest capital city in the world. It is sometimes referred to as a “vertical city”. Against this backdrop, Bolivia have undoubtedly benefitted.
In 2007, FIFA temporarily banned international matches being played at such high altitude. At the time, Bolivia were incensed and its President, Evo Morales accused FIFA of trying to implement “football apartheid”. Nevertheless, over the years, some results have suggested that Bolivian teams have an advantage when playing at the lofty peaks of their home grounds.
While La Paz is awash with football teams, only two play in the top división, the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano – The Strongest and Bolivar, the latter named after Simón Bolívar, one of the founders of the country.
As the football world currently mourns the tragic loss of Brazilian team Chapecoense, Bolivian fans will be only too aware that in September 1969, The Strongest, a club formed by demobbed military men in 1908, were wiped out when their place crashed in the rural area of Viloco as it returned from Santa Cruz. A total of 83 were killed, including 17 players.
The Strongest had only won the Bolivian championship once at that point but in 1970, just months after the crash, they were runners-up to Chaco Petrolero, another La Paz club. They won their second title in 1974. Since then, in modern times, they have been champions 11 times.
The Strongest and Bolivar have been locking horns since 1927 in the Clásico Paceño. Invariably, they are chasing the top honours in Bolivia, but in 2015 Jorge Wilstermann from Cochabamba won the title. Both La Paz teams were in the 2016 Copa Libertadores, along with fellow Bolivians Oriente Petrolero, who fell at the first hurdle. Bolivar were surprise semi-finalists in 2014 in the competition.
The signs are that Bolivar may regain the title in 2016-17. In the Torneo Apertura, Bolivar hold a five point lead over The Strongest after 16 games. Both clubs use the 42,000 capacity Estadio Hernano Siles, the largest stadium in Bolivia and a unique experience on derby day – it is also said to haunted. Bolivar have had the upper hand in the games between the two clubs, historially and this season. The Strongest will have to wait until the Clausura to get even. Two more big derbies await the La Paz football public.