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Guest Post – Football at the highest level in Bolivia

By Simon McKenzie

Any tourist can visit the well-known attractions in a foreign country, but, if you want to experience a slice of real life, one of the best ways to do it is to visit a football ground on match day. There are many good reasons to take in a game while traveling abroad – the atmosphere and spectacle of the crowd is different in every country, and often the locals will talk to you out of a mixture of curiosity and pride that you have chosen to watch their team. Also,after a hard day’s walking and sightseeing, a late afternoon or evening at the stadium can be a good way to rest those weary legs and sample the local fast food (some of the best sausages I have ever eaten were bought at stadia in Poland and Argentina).

I recently had the very good fortune to spend 25 days in Bolivia, and I saw three matches in three different cities. None of the matches were derbies or clasicos, and the crowds were very small, but at each of them the Bolivian supporters made enough noise for three or five times that number of people. My mid-range match tickets were 40 Bolivianos (about NZ$8.50/€5/£4.50/US$5.80), and, in the case of one lower-league game, free.

Practically every tiny village in Bolivia has a football ground, many of them brand new –you can’t travel far without seeing goalposts. It’s a seemingly admirable policy of President Evo Morales’ government, but several Bolivians I spoke to thought the money spent on pitches and seats for spectators would have been better spent on local hospitals or improving the water supply.

I had a smattering of basic Spanish phrases before I went to Bolivia, and I spent two weeks in the constitutional capital Sucre taking Spanish classes for four hours a day. It helped immensely – very few people there speak English, so learning a little bit of the language goes a long way. (Although with several indigenous languages widely spoken in Bolivia in addition to Spanish, chiefly Quechua and Aymara, many people were fascinated by te reo Māori.)

It’s a very friendly and safe country – once I dropped my wallet getting out of a taxi but didn’t notice until a few minutes later; a teenager found it and returned it to me with the money untouched. However, some people struggle with the altitude in the Altiplano, the area of South America where the Andes mountain range is at its widest. The airport in El Alto, which serves the financial capital and seat of government La Paz, is 4061 metres above sea level, and the national stadium in La Paz, the Estadio Hernando Siles, is 3637 metres above sea level (a little higher in the top tiers of the grandstands).The high altitude offers quite the home advantage to the Bolivian national team– their home record is vastly superior to their away record. In 2007 FIFA banned World Cup qualifying games at altitudes above 2500 metres (the height at which altitude sickness generally begins to affect some people), but Bolivia campaigned for and won an exemption for the stadium. After Brazil played therein 2017, Neymar took time out from feigning injury to call the conditions at the stadium “inhumane” due to the altitude. But if you can handle the height,it’s a wonderful stadium in which to see a game.

La Paz is a dramatic location for a city of more than a million people,with buildings rising all the way up the steep valley walls and more uphill streets than Wellington. Fortunately, there’s an extensive network of cable cars with spectacular views called Mi Teleferico, and the Linea Blanca (White Line) goes past the Estadio Hernando Siles. There are two cable car stations roughly equidistant from the stadium,but if you get out at Estacion Monumento Busch the walk to the ground is downhill (a bonus at this sort of altitude). Which brings us to the first match of my trip:

3 November: The Strongest 5, Real Potosi 1

Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz

There were plenty of stalls selling food and unofficial merchandise outside the ground (I was unable to find an official merchandise store anywhere in Bolivia), but it turned out to be a very small crowd; only about 5,000 out of a capacity of 41,000. The atmosphere – as it was for almost all my time in Bolivia – was exuberant but ultimately very relaxed. As a foreigner at a game in Bolivia, you’re a rarity and will draw a few stares, but fans are far more likely to practice their English with you than direct any taunts or hostility in your direction (the whole time I was in the country the only voices I heard raised in anger were irate drivers in bad traffic).

Before the game, the majority of the Strongest team that won the inaugural Liga del Futbol Profesional Boliviano in 1977-78 were presented to the public, and there were 16 players and backroom staff on the pitch(presumably some have now passed on or were unavailable to attend). Despite the small crowd, they were showered with reverence. There have been football tournament sand leagues in Bolivia since the early 1900s, but 1977 was the beginning of the current top-tier competition, and The Strongest won it first. They weren’t about to let the visitors spoil the celebration.

Real Potosi’s home matches are played at Potosi’s Estadio Victor Agustin Ugarte, which is about 60 metres higher above sea level than the Estadio Hernando Siles. So while the visitors weren’t hampered by the altitude in La Paz, they proved to be no match for The Strongest in footballing terms. The home side were 2-0 up at half time, and they added a third in the eighth minute of the second half. The fans weren’t unduly perturbed when Real Potosi got a goal back eight minutes later, and it only took “El Tigre” another three minutes to restore their three-goal lead. It seemed to be settled at 4-1,but a minute into stoppage time man-of-the-match Rudy Cardozo scored his second of the game to make it 5-1 and send The Strongest to the top of the table,level with San Jose on points but ahead on goal difference. “Dominador absoluto”, as the newspaper La Razon called them the next day, in a phrase that needs no translation.

The ultras of the curva sur (south curve) were in fine voice throughout,and, with their battalion of about ten drummers and a similar number with brass instruments, they made a glorious racket. Another smaller group of fans in the east stand – but with a similar number of musicians in tow – made a competing hullaballoo, but the two groups took it in turns to play music and lead the chants, and it never got repetitive. It was a great atmosphere – one can only imagine what it must be like with 40,000 fans instead of just 5,000.

11 November: Universitario de Sucre 0, San Jose 4

Estadio Olimpico Patria, Sucre

When planning my trip to Bolivia, I decided to spend two weeks in Sucre studying Spanish and teaching English on a voluntary basis. It’s Bolivia’s most beautiful city, and, at 2800 metres, the altitude is less of an issue than in La Paz. I hoped had to see two or three games there, but the home-and-away schedule meant I could only see one. Nonetheless, as the city in which I would spend the most time in Bolivia, I decided to adopt Universitario de Sucre as my Bolivian team. Trying to follow their results from abroad is a bit like it was trying to follow Italian football in the early 2000s – there are no websites in English (most of the clubs don’t even have official websites); you can get live scores, and sometimes live radio feeds, but streaming of TV feeds is still far in the future.

It has been a tough season for “Los Doctos”, as Universitario de Sucreare known. They have been setting records, but for consecutive losses and biggest losing margins. The Bolivian top flight is played over two different tournaments, the Apertura and the Clausura, with relegation being decided between combined results, and at the time of writing there are just three games left in the Clausura. Universitario have grown used to their place in the topflight since 2005, winning the Torneo Apertura in 2008 and the Torneo Clausurain 2014, and occasionally taking part in South America’s Copa Libertadores (the continent’s equivalent of the Champions League). But for most of this season they have been in 14th and last place, with the occasional climb to 13th (14th place is relegated, 13th goes to a relegation playoff).

It was always going to be a tough task facing San Jose from the city of Oruro, who had been top of the table or thereabouts for most of the Apertura and Clausura seasons. The crowd was very small – perhaps 2500, if I am being generous, in a stadium that can hold 30,000 – but again the spectators made more noise than they were entitled to with drums, trumpets and trombones. It was a little subdued, as you would expect in such a terrible season, but there were none of the tirades of abuse that a team doing so badly would be subjected to in England or Scotland. Just a lot of wounded pride. San Jose added salt to the wounds with two first-half goals and two in the last ten minutes of the second to win 4-0. Universitario’s only real chance came when keeper Ivan Brun stepped up to take a free kick in the second half, but to no avail.

One of the Bolivian students in my English class showed me some clips of the stadium when it was sold out (from the 2014 Clausura-winning season) and I wished I could have seen that spectacle, but it was still a wonderful day out in the afternoon sun. From what he tells me, the attendances are rising a little again as the fans try to urge their team to an unlikely rescue from relegation.

I’m back in Norway now, where I live. It’s a lot colder than Bolivia! But on December 5th, the night before I finished writing this, Universitario faced The Strongest in Sucre. “Nojugó bien pero ganó” – they didn’t play well, but they won; 2-1. There is still faint hope that Universitario might survive in the top flight.

18 November: Uyuni Royal Sporting Club 3, Gremio 2

Estadio Oficial Uyuni

During a day trip to the stunning Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flat and deservedly Bolivia’s top tourist attraction – my driver told me that several games were being played that day at the Estadio Oficial Uyuni. Most of Uyuni’s population of nearly 30,000 work in some capacity related to the large tourist industry that caters to visitors to the 11000-square-kilometre salt flat. It’s a dusty little city 3680 metres above sea level, with dozens of tourist restaurants and bars, and some proper local ones if you venture a few blocks away from the main strip (the roast chicken at Pollos Super Campeon was as good as any I found in Bolivia). It has two dirt football grounds – the groundwater in Uyuni is too salty to irrigate grass, and filtered water too precious – and the Estadio Oficial Uyuni has five plain tiers of cement seating around most of its perimeter.

After my tour of the Salar de Uyuni, I had to walk slowly to the ground as I was behind a funeral procession with a brass band – a little like a second line at a New Orleans funeral – and it would have been disrespectful to overtake the mourners. Arriving at the stadium about 15 minutes into a match, I looked for someone collecting ticket money, but the dilapidated box office was unstaffed and nobody seemed to be charging for admission. I was the only foreigner in the stadium – most of the crowd of about 250-300 appeared to be friends or relatives of the players. I took a seat in the sun (not much choice, there was no cover over the seats), bought an ice cream from a roving vendor and settled in for what turned out to be the last match of the day’s local tournament. It was the home team, Uyuni Royal Sporting Club – who are celebrating their centenary in 2018 – against Gremio (not the famous team from Porto Alegre Brazil, but elsewhere in the Potosi department of Bolivia). Gremio had the better of the play for a long period but squandered several chances, only managing to put one away when it could have well been four. Uyuni Royal SC forced their way back into contention with a headed goal, and both teams ended up scoring a goal in each half. I figured out that Uyuni must have scored before I entered (later confirmed by another spectator) when several of the players’children ran onto the pitch alongside a few photographers and a radio interviewer and the team were presented with the trophy as Primera A Club Casegural Campeones 2018. Only fitting in their centenary year!

That turned out to be the last match I saw in Bolivia. I was in La Paz on the day of the big city derby, The Strongest vs Bolivar, but unfortunately had to be at the airport around kickoff time. However, given the number of well-behaved people I saw in the streets wearing shirts of both clubs (often together, with no jibes or jeers to be heard), it looked like it would have been a very well-attended but still noisy affair. Bolivia was a tremendous holiday destination, and it’s well worth adding to your bucket list (everyone should stay at Las Olas in Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca at least once in their lives). You won’t be disappointed if you decide to see some football matches as well.

[Simon McKenzie is a Kiwi living in Norway, who didn’t know what the fuss was about football until he saw Roma play. He is now a fan of Roma, Dunfermline Athletic, Universitario de Sucre and Barcelona in that approximate order.]

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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