Cruising at 12,000ft: Bolivia’s Golden Generation

Posted: April 20, 2020 in Uncategorized, World Cup

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Within the grand holy temple of South American football, the Bolivian game barely gets its own pew. Outside the continent, meanwhile, it only ever seems to come up in the context of the altitude at the national stadium, sitting 11,932 feet above sea level, making the Estadio Hernando Siles one of the most intimidating in the world.

Yet Bolivia have rarely been able to convert that advantage into tangible success. Though they were present at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 and again in 1950, they were not required to qualify, and departed both without so much as scoring a goal. The 1980s saw a spate of Copa Libertadores semi-final appearances by Bolivian clubs, but little beyond that.

The early 90s, however, would see a clutch of cultured footballers emerge from what is one of South America’s poorest countries, and, harnessed by a wily adventurer from the Basque Country, they would carry Bolivia all the way to their first World Cup finals for 44 years, making history en route…

Angels and Demons

Diablo

Xabier Azkargorta, a magnificently moustached doctor of traumatic medicine, had enjoyed a respectable managerial career during the 1980s, achieving top 10 finishes with Espanyol, Real Valladolid and Sevilla before dwindling opportunities in his homeland pushed him to roll the dice on the Bolivia job in 1993. With the CONMEBOL qualifiers for USA ’94 due to kick off that July, Azkargorta surveyed his inheritance: a strong goalkeeper in Carlos Trucco; a diverse set of forwards, including the rapier-like William Ramallo, target man Alvaro Pena and future Middlesbrough star Jaime Moreno; and most importantly of all, a trio of gifted creators to build around.

The best-known of these was Erwin Sanchez, ‘the Platini of the Andes’ – a wispy, probing player with a clairvoyant eye for a pass. Sanchez was at the time the only member of the squad playing in Europe, starring for Boavista after not quite fitting in at Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Benfica. In the same midfield was reliable playmaker Jose Cesar Baldivieso, while ahead of them both, operating between the lines was the volcanic wild card, Marco Etcheverry.

‘El  Diablo’ was as likely to stick one on an opponent as stick one in the top corner, but alongside his physical power and what was arguably a surfeit of passion, his unpredictable movement on and off the ball rendered marking him akin to trying to catch a puff of smoke, or wrestle an eel. To incorporate all three and give them the freedom they needed to flourish, Azkargorta demanded sacrifice and selflessness from the rest of the team, in a 5-4-1 which was solid but by no means as negative as it first appeared.

The new coach also, from the outset, instilled a fervent belief in his charges that they could go as far as they wanted. “Azkargorta really ate into our heads,” recalled Trucco, “and made us believe we could qualify”.

History Boys

bolivia-vs-brazil

If a statement were needed that this Bolivia team had more going for it than the altitude advantage, it was delivered in gloriously OTT fashion as La Verde kicked off their qualifying campaign with a 7-1 win in Venezuela. Ceding the opener to the hosts, they roared back to lead 3-1 by half time, but did the real damage in an eight-minute second half burst that produced four more goals, Ramallo and Sanchez each completing hat tricks. The old cliché claims that you’re never more vulnerable than after you’ve scored, but throughout qualifying Bolivia would be at their most dangerous after they’d struck, frequently following up a goal with another and another, smelling blood in the water like the flesh-stripping piranhas found in the River Yata.

This would be the last outing for CONMEBOL’s two-group split qualifying format, and a week after the annihilation of Venezuela, the Siles welcomed Group B’s overwhelming favourites, Brazil. The Selecao hadn’t had too much difficulty with the altitude in La Paz in previous qualifying rounds – then again, they hadn’t encountered too many problems with anyone, having never lost a World Cup qualifier.

Carlos Alberto Parreira, however, was to that point perhaps the most cautious coach in Brazil’s history, and he’d been spooked by the strength of Azkargorta’s side after their battering of Venezuela. Already under fire at home for unpopular team selections, he now second guessed his best team, consulting doctors before picking the XI he believed was best equipped to deal with the altitude.

It would backfire spectacularly. The changes knocked the fluidity out of the Selecao, while midfielder Luis Henrique had to be replaced before half time after showing signs of altitude sickness. It seemed as if Brazil had survived a nervy contest when Claudio Taffarel saved Sanchez’s second half penalty.

Keeping tabs on El Diablo, however, was a task of nailing-jelly-to-the-wall futility. Despite tearing an abductor muscle after just 10 minutes, he had been the game’s standout player, and in the 88th minute, with the dark curls of his Gene Simmons mane flowing, he again wriggled free for just a fraction of a second, his low cross squirming through Taffarel’s legs and into the net.

Immediately, back came Bolivia’s piranhas, and a peach of a ball from Etcheverry fed Alvaro Pena, who calmly poked past Taffarel’s outstretched leg and into the far corner. Brazil would, of course, go on to lift the World Cup the following summer, but their 40-year unbeaten qualifying run run was over, not at the hands of Argentina or Uruguay, but Bolivia. It remains the greatest moment in the country’s football history.

La Verde’s next opponents were Uruguay, their chief rivals for the remaining qualifying spot alongside the Brazilians, who were seen off with another quick-fire burst of goals, three in 15 minutes from Sanchez, Etcheverry and Ramallo enough for victory at the Siles. Another Ramallo goal accounted for Ecuador the following week, before Venzuela came to La Paz seeking to atone for their hammering, only to find themselves victims of another seven-goal mauling, as La Verde cemented their status as CONMEBOL’s highest scorers.

A wobble was perhaps inevitable, and arrived when a vengeful Brazil issued a receipt in Recife for July’s humiliation, administering a 6-0 drubbing. The hangover carried over to Montevideo, where Uruguay avenged their own defeat with a 2-1 win in a close game.

Nevertheless, just a point in Ecuador in their final game would be enough to secure Bolivia’s passage to USA ’94, and Ramallo, the top scorer in the entire South American qualifying round, struck again to earn it. Qualifiers in their own right for the first time ever, the country ground to a halt and the celebrations went on for days.

Snakebit in Chicago

Etcheverry-expulsado-vs-Alemania

La Verde’s impressive showing in qualifying made them a dark horse pick for several pundits heading into the World Cup, despite a pig of a group that included Spain and Germany. Things got tougher long before a ball was kicked when Etcheverry sustained a serious knee injury playing for Chile’s Colo Colo in November, leaving him touch and go to even make the plane. In the end he was named in the the final 22, but hadn’t recovered sufficiently to start the competition’s opening game at Soldier Field, Chicago against Germany. He’d make it onto the pitch, but not for long…

A more conservative Bolivia managed to keep pace with the world champions for long spells despite trailing to Jurgen Klinsmann’s goal, and were very much still in the contest when El Diablo was introduced in the 78th minute. Just six minutes later, however, following a brief skirmish, his unwise if understandable reaction was to kick out at Lothar Matthaus. The inevitable red card followed, and the last of Bolivia’s hopes were sunk.

Worse was to follow. An oddly timed FIFA meeting the following week decreed, mid-tournament, that all suspensions for straight red cards would be increased from one match to two, ruling Etcheverry out for the entire group stage. Suspicions in Bolivia were stirred that this was further Brazilian revenge – FIFA President (and Rio native) Joao Havelange had already instigated the first scrutiny of the altitude at the Siles in the wake of Brazil’s defeat there, and this felt like further punishment.

That paranoia was only heightened after their next game, a bad-tempered goalless draw with South Korea. Bolivia dominated possession and had some good chances – Baldivieso missed a sitter – but lacked a cutting edge without El Diablo. Scottish referee Leslie Mottram turned in an extremely eccentric performance; having waved away what looked like an obvious red card offence when a clean-through Ramallo was hauled down, he became card happy whenever a green shirt was the guilty party. Baldivieso earned a booking that would keep him out of the final group game against Spain; defender Luis Cristaldo became the second Bolivia player to be dismissed at the tournament after picking up two yellows for fairly innocuous misdemeanours  (beside himself, he squared up to Mottram before being persuaded to leave the field). As the Koreans belatedly pushed for a winner against the 10 men, the referee inexplicably found nine minutes of added time.

In the Bolivian camp, there was fury: “It’s fine that we have to play Spain and South Korea and Germany,” said Cristaldo, “but now we have to play FIFA and the referees”. Guido Mariaca, President of the Bolivian Soccer Federation, implied there was a conspiracy afoot: “In the past, things have always been made hard for Bolivia, and this is no different”.

Beating the Spain of Guardiola and Hierro would’ve been a tall order at full strength, but without three key players it was all but impossible. La Verde gave it their best but were 2-0 down by the 66th minute; they did, at least, score their first ever World Cup goal to reduce the arrears, and it was fitting that the ever classy Sanchez should be the man to score it with a fierce, deflected drive. Nevertheless, Bolivia’s tournament ended in disappointment and bitterness.

Last Hurrah

1997-07-25-bolivia-3-1-mexico-partido-medios

The World Cup should have been a springboard for Bolivian football but instead their golden generation melted away. Azkargorta left to try and revive the fortunes of the Chilean national side with altogether less success. In his absence, there would be a last hurrah for Bolivia when the country hosted the 1997 Copa America, a combination of home advantage and many participants not fielding full strength sides allowing them to make it all the way to the final. It was Etcheverry who dragged them there, finally atoning for his sins in Chicago, but it would again be Brazil who had the last laugh.

Ironically, El Diablo would become a star in the country where he’d briefly become a villain, as the MVP of the DC United side that dominated the early days of MLS. His countryman, Moreno, would also shine in Washington.

Sanchez, meanwhile, would play an instrumental role in Boavista’s unlikely title win of 2001, the last occasion that the Portuguese Primera Liga was won by a team outside the traditional ‘big three’ of Benfica, Sporting and Porto.

Azkargorta returned to manage La Verde in 2012, but was unable to recapture the magic of 1993, and Bolivia have never really come close to World Cup qualification in the years since. Their wait goes on, not just for new heroes, but for a new devil.

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