Hitting the heights

Bolivia's home ground in their capital city La Paz has always been controversial, says Keith Richards

If there was any consolation for Bolivians after their national side’s 1-0 defeat on June 6, the first ever on home soil by Venezuela, it was the unquestionable proof that altitude is not unbeatable. A team can come from near sea level and win in La Paz, the world’s highest international football venue, if it is sufficiently motivated and well enough trained – and enjoys the requisite stroke of good fortune. 

Venezuela won through solid organisation, resolute defence, no little gamesmanship and a couple of fortunate moments. In the 23rd minute Marcelo Martins allowed himself to be put off by the visitors’ delaying tactics and ended up shovelling a penalty over the bar. Seven minutes later, Bolivian defender Ronald Rivero mystifyingly put through his own goal.

Otherwise, the claret shirts barely had a shot on target. Yet the Bolivians, who were supposed to brush the Venezuelans aside having thrashed Argentina 6-1 two months before, allowed themselves to be stifled and frustrated, a fact reflected in their two red cards. The visitors had arrived in La Paz ten days earlier to acclimatise, having already trained in the Ecuadorian capital, Quito. Their repertoire of playacting and time-wasting was generously overlooked by spectators who applauded them from the pitch.

The home side’s coach Erwin Sánchez was a key midfielder in the only Bolivian team to achieve World Cup qualification, for USA 94. On the way he played in a 7-0 drubbing of Venezuela, traditionally the continent’s whipping-boys. This time, though, isolated grunts of “Sánchez out” had turned into a full-throated chorus by the end. Sánchez’s job had been made harder by the unexplained withdrawal from the squad of forward Joaquín Botero, whose hat-trick floored Argentina and who remains top scorer in the South American qualifiers.

Bolivia weren’t helped either by the sparse attendance of just over 20,000 which was due partly to the date: many people who might have attended were partying in the streets and enjoying the dance processions of the annual Christian-pagan La Paz festival, Gran Poder. Things got so quiet, once Venezuela’s stranglehold tightened, that the bells from a nearby convent could be distinctly heard.

Opponents of the countries’ presidents, Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez, had suspected a pact between the two for a 1-1 draw; the stroppy nature of the game belied that. Indeed, Chávez had to deny paying Morales to secure the win, rather than discuss the altitude question that had been brought to the fore again by Bolivia’s humiliation of Diego Maradona’s Argentina on April 1. Maradona remains popular here, having maintained his opposition to FIFA’s ban on matches at over 2,500 metres – from which La Paz has been specifically excepted for now. He had also played in a Bolivia v Argentina match in March 2008 both to gather food and clothing for flood victims and to protest against the ridiculous and autocratic ban.

The issue has also added to Morales’s popularity, particularly when he made the gesture of playing a game at 6,000 metres on the slopes of Bolivia’s highest mountain, Sajama, in June 2007 (his team won). In contrast, Sepp Blatter is seen as a traitor: a plaque at the stadium used to quote the FIFA president to the effect that the Swiss have no fear of playing at altitude.

Nor should they: several footballers have died in action over the last five years, all at near sea-level. Cameroon’s Marc-Vivien Foé, Antonio Puerta of Sevilla and Motherwell’s Phil O’Donnell are among the best-known examples. Age can be discounted: the Egyptian Mohamed Abdel-Wahad was a mere 22, and Walsall’s Anton Reid just 16. Altitude has hardly turned the Andean nations into world-beaters: Bolivia, for instance, have qualified for one World Cup, and won the Copa América on home soil in 1963, beating Brazil in the final (in Cochabamba, at 2,523m, just inside Blatter’s no-go zone).

As was pointed out in WSC 245 the limit is arbitrary, medically unsound and entirely politically motivated. If a lesser footballing power than Brazil had made the initial complaint it would surely have fallen on deaf ears. Walking downhill from the stadium, weaving among Gran Poder revellers oblivious to the result as they toiled through rivulets of beer and piss, I was reminded that, to some Bolivians at least, there are more important things in life than football.

From WSC 270 August 2009