Home 2004-05 Atletica
Landlocked at the geographical heart of South America between the majestic Andes and steamy Amazon rainforest, Bolivia features the kind of scenery that will take your breath away, not to mention ruthless drug lords, crippling altitude sickness and deadly mountain roads all of which are liable to relieve you of that bothersome pulse as well. Of particular note is the infamous El Camino De La Muerte aka ‘Death Road. This treacherous highway between Coroico and the capital La Paz has no guard rail, a sheer 600 metre drop and each year deposits an average of 26 vehicles into the great abyss. In 2009 Jeremy Clarkson came memorably close to bumping up this figure to 27 whilst filming Top Gear’s Bolivia special but, in perhaps the greatest tragedy the road has ever known, the petrolhead motormouth lived to fight another day, a privilege he evidently took a little too literally if the circumstances of his sacking from the BBC are anything to go by.
When Bolivians aren’t too busy tumbling to their deaths in clapped out Ford Transits they can be found hard at work cultivating their chief cash crop; the controversial coca leaf which, when utilised correctly, results in an invigorating green tea, while in its whiter, somewhat less legal form, produces people who make suspiciously frequent trips to the Weatherspoons toilets before challenging the quiz machine to a fistfight. Powdered noses aside, it turns out Bolivia also has no qualms about being high in the more traditional sense, with national capital La Paz comfortably the world’s loftiest at a dizzying 3,650 metres above sea level. Throw in the fact that over 55% of the population claim pure Amerindian descent and you have a perfect trifecta of coke-addled, oxygen-starved natives exhibiting all the erratic behaviour that this entails. Fun traditions include “Wrestling Cholitas” where women in traditional dress perform vigorous suplexes in front of bemused tourists, “Cha’lla”, the act of tossing a dead llama or dog under the foundations of a new home to bring good luck (presumably not to the llama or dog) and an indigenous dance festival that invariably descends into an ugly brawl known locally as “Tinku” and in England as “Saturday night.”
Historically, Bolivia has a proud military tradition, largely consisting of proud military defeats. In fact the country was once roughly twice its present day size but was forced to cede vast swathes of territory owing to a rather haphazard three step combat strategy; 1) Pick a fight with a militarily superior neighbour, i.e. any of them. 2) Lose. 3) Repeat. Essentially Bolivia is the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, persistently spoiling for a fight even as various appendages are unceremoniously lopped off.
The 19th century War of the Pacific against Chile proved particularly damaging as it cost Bolivians access to the sea, something that still rankles today to the point where they maintain an active navy in anticipation of one day reclaiming their lost coastline. Until then they’ll have to satisfy themselves with patrolling their sizeable lakes, including Titicaca and Poopo. Stop sniggering.
The Bolivian Football Federation crest features an Andean Condor, which is something of a perfect metaphor for the national team; impressive at high altitudes but distinctly less formidable when brought down to earth. As previously mentioned, La Paz sits at an uncomfortably breathless elevation and as visiting teams rarely get more than a couple of days to acclimatise Bolivia’s home advantage is more pronounced than most.* Unsurprisingly all of the team’s finest moments have come on home soil including their sole Copa America triumph in 1963, finishing runners up to Brazil at the 1997 edition and the frankly hilarious 6-1 thrashing of Diego Maradona’s Argentina during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers.
Speaking of the World Cup, Bolivia have reached the finals on three separate occasions in 1930, 1950 and 1994, however only their most recent outing at USA 94 could be considered genuine ‘qualification’ as on both previous occasions the organisers, struggling to make up the numbers, implemented a ‘turn up and you can play’ policy, a strategy my club Charlton Athletic have apparently been applying to the playing staff if recent performances are any indication. During that one successful qualifying campaign the Bolivians made another notable piece of history by beating Brazil 2-0 (predictably at home) thus handing their opponents a first ever World Cup qualifying defeat. Ultimately both teams would end up on the plane to America, and while the Brazilians would on to win the whole thing the Bolivia were, to no one’s great surprise, a bit shoddy closer to sea level and despite a first ever World Cup point (0-0 vs South Korea) and a first ever goal (1-3 vs Spain) they made a swift exit and haven’t come close to making the finals since.
*In 2007 FIFA temporarily banned World Cup qualifiers from taking place above 2,500 metres citing concerns over players’ safety. Following Bolivian protests along the lines that, for them, descending to the sticky, humid tropics of Brazil, Paraguay et al wasn’t exactly a picnic either, the limit was raised to 3,000 metres with La Paz’s Estadio Hernando Siles given special exemption, making the ban completely pointless.
Look at that collar!!! Honestly, you could go hang gliding. This Bolivia shirt was donned during the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, a fact it’s clearly keen to remind us all of via a patch on the right sleeve bearing the logo of Germany 06 and the word “eliminatorias” which I assume is Spanish for “eliminators” but could also mean “fuck me, that’s a big collar.”
I recall purchasing this shirt from Subside Sports in 2006 when still at University, and its early presence in my collection from a time before I’d even contemplated making a grab for FIFA’s entire contingent isn’t easy to explain, although it does stand as testament to what you end up buying at 4:30AM with a student loan in your bank account and way too much snakebite in your system. Pretty sure I even wore this down the student union bar a few times, and yes, I did get some funny looks and the occasional question as to whether I was actually from Bolivia, ironically from revellers who, judging by their dilated pupils and manic energy probably had plenty of ‘Bolivian’ in their own bloodstream.