It’s just before six in the morning, the gloaming skies are lightening by the minute as the sun comes up over the mountains, and we’ve just arrived at the Peruvian-Bolivian border. Despite lying under the towering Andes and next to the vast watery expanse of Lake Titicaca, this is a bleak and rather depressing place. Around the length of a football pitch up the hill ahead lies the border itself, marked by a brick wall and rather inglorious metal arch. Our bus is prevented from driving toward it at present by a chain across the road, reminiscent of something from a private parking space. We’re waiting for the border guards to wake up and open for the day. The guards kindly allow some of us to use the toilet in the border post which make those at the Vetch appear distinctly modern and hygienic. One look at the spartan cells is enough to convince us that spending any time in a Peruvian prison is not a good idea. In the meantime dozens of locals on foot and bicycle are scurrying across the border in either direction, many taking advantage of the lack of early morning policing to smuggle small quantities of food and consumer goods into Peru from Bolivia where prices are cheaper. The arrival of our bus has also brought out the local currency dealer who sits near the chain at a stall resembling that of an ice cream vendor, changing small quantities of cash. Similar scenes await us on the other side of the walled hill at the Bolivian entry post, with the added comedy value of seeing our pointy wool hatted driver having to climb up on the wall of the customs post to wake up the officials.
With formalities out of the way, we’re soon aboard the boat across the lake, and onward by another bus across the Bolivian Altiplano to La Paz. Bolivia is South America’s poorest country, and this is emphasised when we pass through El Alto, now officially a separate city, but in practice the start of the de facto capitol. Rural poverty exacerbated by the collapse of the agricultural and tin industries have led to a mass movement of Bolivians from country to capitol in recent years, and the majority of them end up scraping a living here. Conditions are the worst we have seen on our trip to date, and whilst the houses might be made of brick, they are built on the stony desert dust of the southern altiplano and few have running water or electricity. In Rio the poverty was highlighted by the close proximity of many favelas to affluent areas and the beauty of the city’s surrounds. Here the poverty is grinding and uniform.
Stadium of Light….At Sixes and Sevens in La Paz
If our first view of what is, in effect, greater La Paz is sobering, the first view of the city itself is simply stunning. La Paz is built on what appears to be a crater in the Andes, the city running down a hillside that falls over 1000 feet. At dusk the city lights lie below us like stars in an inverted sky, whilst the snow capped peak of the Illimani mountain glows orange in the reflected light. In the midst of this wonder of light can be seen one particular constellation which acts as an immediate focus for any football fan – the floodlights of the Bolivian National Stadium where local heroes Bolivar tonight take on Gremio of Brazil in the Copa Libertores.
Whilst I had been aware of the fixture before leaving Britain, precise information as to kick off time and tickets had proved more difficult. Our bus was due to arrive at six, whilst the best information I’d been able to glean was that the kick off was at seven. As it turned out the bus didn’t get in until nearly seven, whilst we were to learn that the game had started just after six. A frantic taxi ride accross town threading through the crazy traffic of the narrow streets and hills of this very Latin American city had been accompanied by a manic radio commentary during which Gutierrez of Bolivar scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game to the now predictable cry of “gooo-aaal”! In the rush to leave the cab I misunderstood the drivers fare demand and would have been quite happy to run away having given him a 50 Boliviano note. He strenuously pointed out that I was due 35 change. These dishonest South Americans…..
Arriving after half time, there initially seemed no way into the ground, as every ticket window was closed. This was particularly frustrating when we could see spaces on the upper tiers of the stadium. Five thousand miles from home, and stopped just a few yards from the stadium with entrance money in our pockets but no way in. The roars of the crowd mocked the football fans’ worst nightmare. However, there were literally thousands milling outside the ground, and sure enough, with around twenty five minutes left the Police threw open the gates, and we joined the throng surging through the concrete bowels of the stadium. We rushed andrenalin fuelled down seemingly endless tunnels and suddenly found ourselves high on the concrete benches of the upper tier behind the Bolivar goal. There were officially 16,000 at the match that night, but literally thousands of freeloaders must have boosted the crowd for the closing stages.
Pan American Games
This was the final group game, and Bolivar were running neck and neck with UNAM of Mexico for the second qualifying spot. In essence they needed to equal whatever the Mexicans did in their match with Penarol of Uruguay in order to progress. Gremio were already guaranteed a passage through as group winners. As the match entered the final fifteen minutes the news was that UNAM were 3-1 up, meaning that Bolivar needed a second goal at the very least. However, despite their guaranteed progress, the Brazilians were not rolling over. This made for a compelling finale to the match as the sky blues attacked in numbers, whilst Gremio were looking dangerous on the break. Bolivar made a number of good chances but on each occasion the ball went narrowly wide, or the Brazilian goalkeeper was equal to the challenge. In fact, the nearest to a further score was when Gremio hit the post with a snap shot. Despite the Brazilians having a man sent off in injury time for no discernable reason, Bolivar could not force the crucial score. As the final seconds ticked away the home fans started to jeer their coach, and the final whistle saw hundreds of white polystyrene “cushions” being hurled in his direction. Next morning, the local sports pages talked of the loss of a “historic opportunity”.
Sitting on the uncovered concrete benches of the top tier of the North Curve of the National Stadium on a fine if typically chilly Andean evening with the dark outline of the mountains on one side and the lights of the upper parts of the city on the other, it was difficult not to feel a sense of excitement at being at this important sporting event in this new and strange city with it’s distinct sense of “otherness”. The opposite South Curve is obviously the home end and is suitably noisy and bedecked in sky blue and white. However, as in Brazil, many members of the crowd sitting around us were respectable looking middle aged men and family groups, far from the stereotype one might expect to see at a South American football match on the basis of some reports. Many of the women present were Aymaran or Quechuan Indians in traditional dress including the voluminous skirts, plaited hair and bowler hats. Outside the ground afterwards the atmosphere was distinctly unthreatening, with a large proportion of young women wearing the sky blue tops of the home team. Football is clearly big news with the women of Bolivia, a trend underlined over the time we were in La Paz when the Bolivian Women’s team reached the final of a South American Women’s International tournament in Peru. Unlike in Britain where such an event would merit a few lines in the daily sports reports, this is front page news of the day in Bolivia, the main football story, and relegates the men to the status of afterthoughts.
A Place in the History Books
The apparent Indian following for Bolivar may be no coincidence, as the team take it’s name from the liberator of South America from Spanish rule and effective founder of the state of Bolivia, Simon Bolivar. Bolivar and his accomplice San Martin drove the Spanish out in the early years of the Nineteenth Century with the ideal of creating an independent South America, although Bolivar was to arguably become the prototype for the meglomanic dictators who were to subsequently dominate Latin American history. Bolivia was created out of the former Spanish protectorate of Peru during this period. However, it seems Bolivian history has a natural inclination to tragedy, and along with Peru, they became involved in the disastrous War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879. Both lost land in the Atacama Desert to the Chileans. The loss of the mineral deposits was bad enough, but worse still for the Bolivians, they lost their coastline, thus inhibiting their ability to export their remaining substantial mining produce. The loss has had a devastating effect on the Bolivian psyche, and remains a national running sore to this day. This is even reflected in football chants for the national team, one of which goes along the lines of “Wonderful Bolivia! Forever with a coastline!”
Whether access to the sea might have genuinely made any difference to the development of Bolivia is hard to say. What seems more certain is that various foreign companies exploited the natural resources and workforce, giving little in return. The collapse of the world market for tin in the 1980s more or less wiped out the county’s mining industry, whilst in a country where so many have so little the calls of international monetary organisations to tighten belts ring hollow. Little wonder that the image of another icon of Latin America, Che Guevara, remains popular. This is not the commercialised student chic of the affluent West, or the official iconography of Cuba. In countries where politicians promise much but deliver little, the image of a man who was prepared to give his life for the poor has assumed a posthumous quasi-religious resonance. Ironically, back in 1967, the putative Bolivian revolution fell apart amidst misconceptions and lack of awareness amongst the local population. One of his final diary entries read, “The expected support does not exist”.
Thirty five years on from Che’s demise, the poverty of Bolivia grinds on. Strikes are a regular occurrence, and the government’s reaction often brutally repressive. In the main square the central police station is riddled with bullet holes, souvenirs of a demonstration earlier this year which got out of hand. On that occasion it seems that there was a misunderstanding worthy of F Troop, when the army and police started shooting at each other, which at least makes a change from shooting at the crowd or innocent bystanders. As part of the latest round of economic measures much of the country’s rail network has fallen apart, and it is no longer possible to catch a train to or from the capitol. If the current state of Bolivia would pain it’s creator, then the state of the rail network would pain the men who founded the team who are the main city rivals to the team that carry Bolivar’s name.
Football was brought to Bolivia by British railway workers (presumably not employees of First Great Western, or else they’d still be waiting) who built the then proud national network to service the mines. Naturally, these itinerants formed teams wherever they went, and many carried and continue to carry their English names. Blooming, Destroyers, the now defunct Always Ready and La Paz’s other main professional team, The Strongest are part of that tradition. Founded in 1908 The Strongest enjoyed much early success until the foundation of Bolivar twenty years later saw the young pretenders go on to become Bolivia’s most successful club side. Saturday afternoon sees The Strongest take on Independiente Petrolero of Sucre in the weekend’s televised game in the opening section of the national championship.
Bolivia’s true national championship only dates from the 1960s, having previously been essentially a La Paz affair. Outside the capitol, challenges have historically come from the likes of Jorge Willsterman of Cochabamba and Oriente Petrolero of Santa Cruz. Otherwise, there’s Club Litoral, whose abbreviated form in the league tables anticipates a night of commentating gaffes if they ever came up against Deportivo Wanka of Peru. The current structure is that the twelve teams in the top division play each other once on a home and away basis in the opening round. The championship then divides in two, and the top six and bottom six play in mini-leagues. Matters are complicated by the addition of a local derby to the second round regardless of which mini-league the teams have fallen into. Relegation is decided by a complex formula to determine who the worst team has been over a number of seasons. This appears to be a ruse which makes relegation for any of the big name teams nigh impossible, as one bad season is far from fatal.
Mile High Stadium
The game is again to be played at the National Stadium, a modern two tier all seater concrete bowl with running track holding 55,000. The slogan “Hector Siles Stadium – Symbol of the Dignity of the Bolivian People” is emblazoned at the back of the top tier. Unfortunately, only around 2000 dignified souls turned up for the match, which gave it an atmosphere similar to a mid-week county cricket fixture, despite the efforts of the fifty-odd strong “barmy army” with their impressive array of yellow and black banners and yellow flares. The laid back atmosphere was added to by the supporters’ band, whose efforts in the sunshine made the whole affair slightly reminiscent of an afternoon on the prom at Bournemouth. To make matters even more surreal there is a presence of at least 100 riot police with shields, truncheons and tear gas, for a game which appeared to draw next to zero away support.
The stadium itself was the source of much controversy in the mid 1990s when it was temporarily banned as an international venue by FIFA, due to altitude. Certainly altitude sickness is a problem in the Andes, and nobody would pretend that some players might not be adversely affected. However, the cynic might also think that the fuss was as much due to the emergence of a genuine challenge from a Bolivian team who scored a historic win over Brazil in the 1994 World Cup Qualifiers. Whilst it was true that Bolivia qualified with a 100% home record and did little away, the playing of games at La Paz not significantly aided the team in the thirty years since the 1963 South American Championship was won on home soil. Results in La Paz during that period were a decidedly mixed bag. Suddenly, however, the emergence of the likes of Jaime Moreno (once of Middlesbrough) and Marco Etcheverry worried the likes of Brazil and Argentina.
What the complaints didn’t take into account was that most of the Bolivian players were themselves based with teams either outside of their country or with non capitol teams. Players in the Bolivian and Peruvian national leagues coped with such changes on a week in week out basis. Equally, complained the Bolivians, the likes of Brazil and Colombia regularly played “difficult” fixtures at venues such as Salvador de Bahia or Barranquila, where the tropical heat and humidity raise other health issues. The Bolivians were briefly seeing the benefit of a youth academy policy which saw them rise from also-rans to genuine competitors. The smell of whingeing and manipulation from the major nations of South America was quickly detected by Bolivian noses. After appeal and further consideration by FIFA the ruling was rescinded and football in La Paz breathed the thin air once again. This didn’t stop Jamaica taking part in one of the more ridiculous internationals of recent years in 1997. Losing badly at half time, the Jamaicans spent the second half apparently feigning altitude sickness, bemusing the Bolivians as they spent 45 minutes collapsing and having laughing fits.
The match itself is a fine affair as The Strongest run out 6-1 winners. Whilst the objective standard is difficult to judge, the emphasis on skill and movement makes for better entertainment than most British fixtures. Interestingly, Independiente make the better start, dominating the first quarter and going a goal ahead. However, “El Tigre” score two goals before half time which change the game irretrievably. Two further goals before the hour settle the match and the rest of the game is a pleasant stroll in the sunshine for The Strongest. Their striker Gigena scores a hat-trick, although his skill on the ground is mirrored by complete ineptitude in the air reminiscent of Walter Boyd. The introduction of substitute Loscri for the second half is decisive, as the Leon Britton like elusive runner stretches the Independiente defence. Unusually, Independiente have changed their kit at half time swapping their white shirts for Arsenal style red and white. If they were wearing the “wrong colour shirts” in the first half, the shirts for the second were clearly indescribable .
If one classic excuse for losing holds no credibility, might another? Did Independiente fall foul of the altitude? Certainly their defending in the second half belied a certain light headedness, and the running of the home team was on a different level. However, a simpler explanation might lie in tactics and approach. Gremio seemed to suffer no ill effects a few days earlier despite having come from a far lower altitude than Sucre based Independiente. Altitude can be a problem if exercise is continual, but apparently can be overcome if a player plays in short bursts. Gremio seemed to play well within themselves, letting the ball do the work, then suddenly hitting Bolivar on the break. Independiente started like an express train, pressing the Strongest and being first to the ball for thirty minutes. By the second half they were easy prey to the home team’s quick passing style. Were they simply undone by ill thought tactics?
Opium of the People?
Football in Bolivia is hugely popular, and the women’s success suggests that participation is not a problem. Certainly Bolivian internationals are well attended in La Paz, as are derby games between Bolivar and The Strongest. However, the 1997 Copa America tournament in the country was poorly attended, as are many league fixtures. Perhaps the poverty of the country precludes people spending money on attending matches, but as entry prices for the Strongest fixture started at 10 Bolivars (about £1-20), one might have thought that a few more punters from the nearby middle class Miraflores district would have turned up. Perhaps the fact that the match was televised didn’t help, but then again television ownership in Bolivia is not high. Possibly low adult literacy means that information is hard to communicate, although word of mouth would surely spread if the interest was there. Possibly public interest doesn’t extend beyond the “main event” of the big fixture. Whatever the reasons, money is a huge problem in Bolivian football, and the FA have recently declared themselves broke and unable to employ a coach for the national side. Benefactors and volunteers step forward please.
Up until recently The Strongest played their home fixtures at their Achumani stadium, which they shared with Destroyers and Always Ready. The latter have gone out of business, whilst the former no longer play in the top division, perhaps reflecting a demise in La Paz club football. Pre match expectation was for a crowd of around 5000, bearing in mind the side’s disappointing start to the season. A healthy enough crowd in a smaller ground, but still paltry in a vast bowl that holds ten times that amount. As Che Guevara commented in another context – the anticipated support did not exist.
Sadly, La Paz is the end of the road for this particular trip. Looking down from the air at the Andes stretching south, the desire is to be down there, on the ground, travelling on to the south of Bolivia, across to Chile, into Argentina, down to Patagonia and back up to Buenos Aires. Perhaps north across Uruguay to return to Brazil. So many places and things to see, not enough time to see them all.
Latin American football will always have that exotic flavour of mystical names from far away places. In many ways the off the field problems are a reflection of both the broader economic problems of the continent and the current globalised climate of football. Money talks, the best players flee the land for the paycheques of richer countries, and the club owners put personal greed above the needs of the club in too many cases. Too many playing fields seem to be uneven and favour the big name clubs. Yet those famous club names slip off the tongue invitingly: Boca Juniors, River Plate, Colo-Colo, Penarol, Santos et al.
On the field, the beautiful game is still the ideal, even if the dark side of the game comes to the fore rather too often. Ball control, beating a man, swift movement and passing all seem to be valued ahead of work rate, effort and organisation. Is it due to climate that the South American approach seems more compelling than the relatively prosaic virtues of Northern Europe? Certainly tropical heat or the thin air at altitude may well separate the Rivaldos from the Roy Keanes, and making the ball do the work is a necessity in such conditions. Giving the ball away cheaply as often as in the English Premiership and the resultant rush to get it back could lead to the odd heart attack in the tropics. Running around like an amphetamine driven manic dervish might be all very well on a cold night in Newcastle or Manchester, but would probably lead to collapse in Cuzco or La Paz. In South America giving the ball away could be bad for your health.
There again, is there something deeper in the social circumstances or collective soul of South America that encourages individual skill? Does kicking a tennis ball or bundle of rags around a makeshift pitch develop ball skills in a way that top class equipment at a well appointed sports centre cannot? Or do terrible economic and social conditions encourage a love of the spectacular and audacious when playing with a football. Is there also a difference in cultural values between continents?
I recall an interview with a leading Brazilian musician where he stated that he believed the most valuable skill of his musical compatriots was their ability to improvise. Is there a parallel in football? Compare with much of Europe where the musical traditions of the establishment involve disciplined orchestras playing pre-arranged parts in a collective effort, and even the star soloist has only minimal room to improvise within set perimeters. Does this reflect a difference in mind set between the two continents as a result of years of different cultural development? Does a country’s football reflect deeper matters of national psyche?
The problem with such musings is that every time you think you’ve hit on a convincing explanation, an exception springs to mind that sets you back to square one. For example, the Dutch play the beautiful game, whilst the Argentine team of 1990 were the epitome of cynical organisation notwithstanding the presence of the star soloist, Maradona. Ironically, in that tournament the Dutch proved to be petulant and moody, whilst at least until the final, the Argentines proved to be the epitome of cynical cool, confounding cultural stereotypes. Maybe the ability to defy simple explanation is the fascination of the world’s greatest game.
One thing that is certain is that this is a beautiful, compelling continent. The natural wonders are incredible, and the culture fascinating, always with new nuances. The huge economic, social and political problems present questions that place our own lives in Western Europe in a very different perspective. The adventurous and naturally inquisitive will want to see and experience more.
Cost need not be an issue – we travelled and lived quite comfortably without breaking the bank, and living even more cheaply would be possible. Sadly, time is limited, and for now we have to return across the Atlantic. Sixteen hours in a plane home is nobody’s idea of fun, but a price worth paying. I’m sure we’ll be back. Hopefully some of you might read this and want to pick up the phone, get on the internet and jump on that plane. If that’s the case don’t just think about it – do it.