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Men’s Football How a return to socialism can help Bolivian football

BOLIVIA took a positive step towards restoring some kind of order last week when Luis Arce and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party triumphed in a historic general election.

The result comes just under a year after former president and MAS leader Evo Morales was ousted following a report from the US-based Organisation of American States claiming that the October 2019 election which saw Morales re-elected was fraudulent.

The move was seen by many, including Morales, as a US-influenced coup, with the imperialists eyeing Bolivia’s increasingly valuable Lithium reserves that lie under the salt flats of Salar de Uyuni.

Arce received 55 per cent of the overall vote in the 2020 election — more than Morales’s 47 per cent in 2019 — with his nearest challenger, the centre-right candidate Carlos Mesa, polling just 29 per cent of the vote.

The country will remain turbulent, as does much of the world in the current climate, but this election will allow Bolivia to build some form of stability thanks to a majority in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. 

It will also help them fight Covid-19, as it will mean a restoration of Bolivian-Cuban relations and a return of the hundreds of Cuban doctors who were deported under the right-wing interim government.

But what of the country’s football? – asks hardly anyone.

If the country itself could be considered to be turbulent, unpredictable and generally ignored by much of the media outside of the region, then this is reflected in its national sport. 

It remains to be seen whether the election result will be good for football. Morales himself is a football fan, and though Arce prefers basketball, it is likely that the new-look socialist government under the latter will encourage the development of sport generally.

Bolivia are the lowest-ranked side in South America’s quaifying rounds for the 2022 World Cup, and have only made it to three World Cups in their history, the most recent being USA ‘94.

It was there, at the old Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, that Bolivia picked up their only point in a World Cup, drawing 0-0 with South Korea. They also scored their first and only World Cup goal in that tournament, when Erwin Sanchez netted in a 3-1 loss to Spain at Soldier Field, Chicago.

Their only other appearances on the world stage came way back in the first-ever World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay, and in the 1950 tournament in Brazil. They are widely tipped to finish bottom of the league in 2022 qualifying, so their wait for a return to the top table of international football looks set to continue.

When it comes to club football, no Bolivian side has even made the final of South America’s version of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, and only Bolivar have made the final of the Europa League equivalent — the Copa Sudamericana — losing 2-1 on aggregate to Boca Juniors, despite a 1-0 win in the home leg in La Paz.

Home advantage is huge for Bolivia and Bolivian clubs, perhaps more so than for any other country in the world. This is thanks to the altitude of the highest capital city in the world, La Paz, and other cities such as Cochabamba. This favours those used to playing football in the thin air of the Andes, where there is less oxygen to breathe.

Bolivia’s only international triumph came on home soil, or rather rock, winning the 1963 Copa America thanks to a dramatic final game against Brazil in Cochabamba that finished 5-4 to the hosts. They were runners-up in the only other Copa America to be held in Bolivia, in 1997.

The altitude is seen as such an advantage that opponents have complained it offers an unfair edge to teams such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, all of whose capital cities are high in the Andes. 

Following suggestions in 2007 that games at such heights should be banned, Morales, then Bolivia’s president, said: “This is not only a ban on Bolivia, it’s a ban on the universality of sports.”

Some measures were put in place but only lasted around a year, and Bolivian sides have been adding to the diversity of this varied region ever since.

South American World Cup qualifying is one of the most interesting and challenging tournaments in world football. The geographical challenges, as well as the sporting ones, make for a unique competition, and it could be argued that it’s even more interesting than the World Cup itself.

The Bolivian national team and some Bolivian club sides use their base in the clouds to try to gain an advantage. And, as alluded to earlier, they definitely need all the help they can get.

This season, Cochabamba-based side Jorge Wilstermann made it through to the Copa Libertadores knock-out stages after finishing top of their group.

“Wilstermann’s historic win against Colo-Colo meant Bolivia avoided a third consecutive year without any clubs in the knockout stage of the Libertadores,” says Chile-based South American football expert Adam Brandon.

“Since Bolivar reached the semis in 2014, Bolivian sides haven’t really impressed and have been too reliant on home form, but the impressive thing about this Wilstermann qualification is they picked up a draw in Brazil and a win in Santiago in the last two matchdays to qualify in first.”

Though expectations are certainly not high, this is an encouraging sign for the team named after the pioneering Bolivian aviator who was his country’s first civilian pilot.

Bolivar dropped into the Copa Sudamericana having finished third in their Copa Libertadores group and, following yesterday's draw, will face Chilean side Audax Italiano in the second round at the end of the month.

This means there will be a Bolivian presence in the continent’s secondary continental competition, as well as a hope in the Libertadores in the shape of Wilstermann.

The national team, meanwhile, lost both its opening games of World Cup qualifying this month despite a heavy focus on their game against Argentina in La Paz, before which Bolivia’s coach Cesar Farias commented that his side wanted “to eat the liver of our opponents at altitude.”

The Bolivian 11 that started that match contained just five players from the previous game’s starting line-up who lost 5-0 to Brazil in Sao Paulo. They were perhaps surprised when Argentina appeared to display superior fitness to their altitude-acclimatised players, resulting in a 2-1 defeat for Bolivia.

The refusal of Libertadores participants Wilstermann and Bolivar to release their players for that fixture didn’t help matters and is a reminder that, despite some positives, there are still numerous issues in the Bolivian game that need to be sorted if they are to help themselves at all levels.

As the welcome victory for Arce and MAS in the Bolivian presidential elections provides a base from which the country can build, maybe Bolivian football can begin to follow suit.

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