Nick Dorrington ponders whether the return of the great Basque manager Xabier Azkargorta will inspire a new generation of Bolivian players
The 2011 Copa América seemed to illustrate the closing gap in quality between the traditionally stronger and weaker nations in South America, but there was one team to whom that didn't apply. Bolivia were eliminated at the group stage with just a solitary point to their name and now, four matches in, lie dead last in the qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup.
The most worrying aspect of their poor performance at the Copa América was that, while the likes of Brazil, Chile and Peru were fielding relatively young squads, Bolivia had an average age of 27.9 – the highest of all 12 nations competing. Worse still, there are precious few players coming through domestically who look of the requisite standard to compete at international level, the likes of Rudy Cardozo and Darwin Rios notwithstanding.
It is into this malaise that Xabier Azkargorta, the man who led Bolivia to their only World Cup qualification in 1994, returns. Azkargorta has been hired by the government on a four-year mandate to oversee youth development. Remembered fondly for having fashioned a successful team from a band of talented but wayward individuals, the fantastically moustached Basque will be fully aware of his task, having visited Bolivia frequently since his stint as national team coach. "I see that football is deeply rooted in people's hearts and in the legs of the players," he observed upon taking on the role. "The government is aware of the need to help create projects that can provide encouragement to the youth and I think that is the best way to develop football here."
One of the first issues he intends to tackle is the lack of regular competition for young players. While other South American leagues such as those in Argentina and Paraguay have leagues at each age group from under-14 upwards, Bolivia has no such structure in place. "I am not concerned with development up to 12 years old, because I think that up until that age the schools and families should have control," Azkargorta commented. "The problem is from 14 to 19, when young people have more issues, and it is in this period that there is no substitute for good competition."
The paucity of funds preventing most clubs from investing sufficiently in youth development will require Azkargorta to focus his attention on the privately owned academies, such as the famous El Tahuichi in Santa Cruz. These academies fill the gap and supply young players to the clubs. El Tahuichi has done a sterling job in this regard, providing over 200 players to league clubs since its inception in 1978, 43 of whom have turned out for the national team. But there is a lack of integration between it and other quality academies, such as Enrique Happ in Cochabamba and Ramiro Castillo in La Paz.
Azkargorta will presumably look to forge links between these and other academies to provide the sort of structured competition that he feels is vital to tempt youngsters away from the life of drink, drugs and partying that engulfs a high percentage of Bolivia's youth. The clubs will have to get involved at some point, however, with token gestures such as the upcoming rule mandating that second division teams field a certain number of players below a specified age doing little to get to the heart of the problem. Club Bolívar have an agreement with Barcelona that sees coaches travel from Catalonia to La Paz to assist in the training of young players, but few other clubs have the funds or the will to be as proactive about developing their own players.
The current national team coach Gustavo Quinteros, who played under Azkargorta in the 1994 World Cup, clearly feels that his former coach will have a significant impact. He commented recently that he expects Bolivia's young players to be "on par with the best in South America within a few years". Such expectations are unrealistic and do little to make Azkargorta's already difficult task any easier, especially when funding is likely to be tight.
The man himself, however, appears unburdened by the responsibility of turning around Bolivia's fortunes, remaining ever the pragmatist when asked whether he could help create a generation of players like those he coached to World Cup qualification. "There are no diseases, nobody is sick," he explained. "All we need is work, work and more work, and above all, honesty."
From WSC 299 January 2012