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A BRIEF HISTORY OF FOOTBALL IN BOLIVIA

Under the shadows of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Bolivia has a fascinating history in football, making it one of the most interesting nations in the sport with a domestic league to keep an eye on. This is their story.

Bolivia, a country located in the central zone of South America has an extremely plentiful history since its independence in 1825. Bolivia consists of some of the finest sites and natural wonders the world has to offer. It is certainly a unique place with the country having two capital cities (La Paz and Sucre). Along with that, the fact that Bolivia is made up of one-third of the Andean mountain meaning a lot of the state is very high above sea level is certainly fascinating.

Just like many other countries on the continent, football is the game that is on most Bolivians’ minds. Not only do they have a rich history as a nation but also as a footballing nation. Their history and representation in the sport is captivating.

Bolivia first started playing competitively all the way back in 1926. That year, they participated in the South American Cup in Chile. It was certainly a learning curve for the national team as they took some heavy losses to the hosts Chile, along with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Bolivia were fortunate enough to enter the inaugural World Cup of 1930 hosted by Uruguay.

The national team showed a lot of excitement in search of their first international win in their short history. However, they did not make it past the group stage and that would be their only World Cup appearance until 1950. Bolivia, fortunately, made the 1950 World Cup due to the situation going on between South American countries where they were in disagreement with the Brazilian Football Confederation.

With this, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador all rejected the invitation. Therefore, Bolivia being another South American country took the spot in the World Cup. Once again, they exited very early with no success or goals to count in the tournament. Out of the three World Cups they have entered, they have never made it past the group stage.  

Victor
VICTOR AGUSTIN UGARTE OVIEDO IS ONE OF THE GREATEST BOLIVIAN FOOTBALLERS EVER

The Bolivian national team have never had any outstanding world class players who have lit up the footballing nation. Although in terms of national heroes they have certainly had plenty. The history-making player to captain the team in it’s first World Cup of 1930 was Rafael Méndez. He was one of the inaugural players to feature in both the 1926 South American Championship and the World Cup.

He played his footballing career in La Paz, Bolivia. Méndez and his fellow teammates who featured in the tournament were the catalysts of what was to come for Bolivian football. The following tournament of 1950 featured one player in particular who became a Bolivian legend because of his record and his stature as a player, Víctor Agustín Ugarte Oviedo. The Bolivian was prolific in front of goal as a forward and went on to score 16 goals in 45 international games, making him third on the list of all-time top scorers for his nation.

His contribution came in the 1950 World Cup and the 1963 Copa América win. His heroism in a green jersey went noticed as the city of Potosí named the stadium in honor of his name. A lot of great players have played for La Verde and represented their nation with passion and honor as most of them were playing for their local professional teams such as Bolivar and The Strongest.

In modern times, the Bolivian players most remembered are Marco Etcheverry, who went onto have a successful career abroad for DC United and his national team scoring 13 goals in total. Another on that list was Joaquín Botero, who had an incredible appetite for goals. A true talent who throughout his career scored plenty of goals for club and country. His 20 goals in 48 games for Bolivia is enough to see him at the top of the all-time top scorers’ list. Botero’s domestic record, though, is mightily impressive. In his four years at Bolivar, he managed an astounding 111 goals in 132 games, and in 2002 he held the top scorers’ record for that year over some big names including Ronaldo with 49 goals.

Managers have been plentiful for Bolivia with many different names coming in over the years. But the first manager to lead them in the 1930 World Cup was Ulises Saucedo, who may not have had a successful stint as manager, but what makes him fascinating is his participation as a referee in the tournament.

Bolivia’s next appointment as manager in the 1950 World Cup was Italian Mario Pretto, who spent his long footballing career playing for Napoli. Once his career ended he took the Bolivian national job and unfortunately had no luck in the role. The most important manager of Bolivia’s history, of course, has to be the Brazilian, Danilo Alvim, who led them to their one and only Copa América title in 1963.

With very little success in the World Cup, Bolivia’s history in the Copa América is something to recognize. The tournament in 1963 was an iconic moment in Bolivian football that had an almighty impact on their future in world football.

That year, they were deemed as hosts of the 1963 South American Championship which is otherwise known as Copa América. Before 1963, Bolivia had never looked like leading competitors or capable of winning such tournament. Little did people know, that tournament was about to change the general perception.

Estadio Hernando Siles
THE ESTADIO HERNANDO SILES HAS GIVEN BOLIVIA AN ADVANTAGE SEVERAL TIMES

The Bolivian national team surprised the world of football by winning the Copa América in 1963 on home soil. The reason Bolivia enjoyed success in the tournament was because of their home advantage and the altitude of their venue – the Estadio Hernando Siles stands over 11,000 feet above sea levels making it one of the highest stadiums in the world.

The national team did the exceptional and went the entire competition undefeated. An incredible feat that gave them the title with five wins and one draw, it was a historic period for the national team.

Due to the disadvantage of playing in the country, several nations, including Uruguay and Venezuela refused to participate. Chile, meanwhile, were not invited due to political tension, making it a seven-nation championship and raising the odds of an upset.

Bolivia’s opening game was a cracker that saw them draw 4-4 against a strong Ecuador team, with Máximo Alcócer opening his goalscoring account for the tournament in what was his most memorable time as a footballer. Their next game took place a week later at the infamous Estadio Félix Capriles, another stadium high in the mountains of Bolivia. They faced off against a struggling Colombian side who never quite found their form in the championship and lost 2-1 thanks to two goals by the hero at the time, Máximo Alcócer, who was in good form.

A few days later, La Verde were back at the high altitude ground of Hernando Siles. However, their opponents Peru were not phased by the height as they are the nation with the stadium that is highest above sea level. It certainly was a spectacle as Bolivia only managed to sneak a 3-2 win against the rugged Peruvian side who managed to grab the same amount of points in the Copa América as the legendary Brazilian team.

The real test came when they faced Paraguay, who went on to finish second in the competition. It was two nations who were yet to lose and it felt like whoever won was going to go on and win the title. Bolivia showed a relentlessness on their home territory that had never been witnessed before as they took a convincing 2-0 win over the Paraguayans. Goals from Fortunato Castillo and Ausberto García were enough to give Bolivia a commanding lead at the top.

The last two games would be Bolivia’s biggest games in the tournament as they faced two astonishing South American nations in Argentina and Brazil. Argentina were still in the hunt to win the competition, but yet again, the defiable Bolivians put an end to Argentina’s hopes with a valiant 3-2 win after coming from 2-1 down in the first half.

Many of the players on that Argentine side were experienced names, having won the competition a few years prior and enjoyed domestic success with the likes of Rosario Central, Independiente, and San Lorenzo. The victory was a huge boost ahead of their clash with an inspired Brazil, who were the reigning world champions at the time.

Albeit, this was a Brazilian team that did not contain Pele in this tournament, they were weakened and it was visible in their fourth-place finish. Bolivia needed a win to cement themselves as winners of the South American Championships for the first and only time to the present day. An intense match-up that saw Brazil constantly follow every step Bolivia made. With the score locked at an incredible 4-4 and only a few minutes remaining in the Estadio Félix Capriles, the national hero, Máximo Alcócer, that had left an everlasting legacy on Bolivian football scored to win the game 5-4 over Brazil to claim the Copa América.

Without a doubt, the high altitude conditions were the prominent reason for Bolivia lifting that trophy as a similar pattern occurred when they hosted the 1997 Copa América. Unfortunately, after another superb performance in the competition, they made the final against the imperious Brazilian side once again.

This time, the Brazilians were prepared and thanks to goals by Ronaldo, Zé Roberto, and Edmundo they went on to win the Copa América title with Bolivia finishing second after another memorable tournament on home ground. Those competitions have been Bolivia’s only success at national level, and they will be hoping that Bolivia becomes the home of Copa América once again in the near future.

Máximo Alcócer was the piece jigsaw puzzle that proved to be the catalyst in Bolivia’s continuation in world football. His game-winning goal to lift Bolivia’s first trophy was paramount in what Bolivia are looking to achieve in the future. His five goals in the tournament and his vital goals at the right moment was something to uphold on a legendary basis.

1963 Copa America
BOLIVIA WERE WINNERS OF THE COPA AMERICA IN 1963

Alcócer’s contribution had helped create a foundation for Bolivia to succeed with better players and helping with football in the nation itself. He epitomized what the Bolivian team was about. His late goal in a decisive game against a world-class Brazilian side proves fairytales and underdogs can reach the top against the odds.

The 1963 win was a stepping stone for football in Bolivia as the introduction of the Academia Tahuichi Aguilera, located in Santa Cruz, was an indication that the country wanted more. It became the national football academy hoping to produce Bolivia’s next best talent.

The likes of Marco Etcheverry and Erwin Sanchez came through the academy system and future was looking bright. They were part of the 1997 team. The Tahuichi Academy was founded by Rolando Aguilera Pareja who had been living in the United States of America. He wanted his kids to be trained by a Brazilian football player and slowly but surely this attracted more and more kids. Aguilera realized that an academy for the youth had to be created.

It was designed to be a non-profit organization and in 1978 it was open for kids to learn the fundamentals of sports in general. However, the love Bolivians showed for football kick-started and in that very year, they put on a commendable showing against Brazilians, São Paulo in a goalless draw.

Then a year later, they triumphed over Independiente 4-1 in the Youth South American Championships to win the tournament in front of a large crowd. The academy is largely represented whenever Bolivia takes part in the youth World Cups and is a major building ground for Bolivian football.

From the birth of the Tahuichi Academy, they have gone onto win dozens of international competitions containing some outstanding youth academies on this planet. Most importantly, it generated some of Bolivia’s finest players that have become idols in Bolivia and create generations of young Bolivians to become successful footballers.

The Academia Tahuichi Aguilera has played a major part in Bolivian football, and has been the catalyst for creating talented and unearthed players now playing in the professional Bolivian domestic leagues, with the most important being the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano, the top league in the country and one of the biggest leagues in South American football.

Founded in 1950, the league has been won by 16 different teams, however, it has been dominated an astounding 28 times by the most popular team in Bolivia, Bolivar. They are the only Bolivian side to reach the Copa Libertadores semi-finals and Copa Sudamericana final. Bolivar have been host to some of the most successful Bolivian players including Marco Etcheverry, who went onto have a glittering professional career.

They were founded in 1925 by a group of people who named the club after the Liberator Simón Bolívar, who was responsible for leading the secession in a lot of the South American states from the Spanish Empire. The club went from one success to another in their time as a professional team. The club’s nickname is El Grande, which translates to “The Biggest” and goes along well with the name of their most fierce rivals, The Strongest.

The current title holders are San Jose who have won the championship only four times. Other clubs that have impacted Bolivian football are the club The Strongest. They are the oldest Bolivian club and most historic, winning the first ever Championship in 1911, which is quite sometime before the other clubs were founded.

The Strongest x Bolivar
BOLIVAR AND THE STRONGEST MEET FOR ONE OF THE MOST FIERCE RIVALRIES IN SOUTH AMERICA

The other standout club is Jorge Wilstermann, a fascinating club founded by a group of aviation workers in 1949, and named after one of them. They are one of three clubs to have such success in the Bolivian top division, winning the competition 14 times and managing to be the first team to reach the Copa Libertadores semi-finals.

The biggest rivalry that graces the football community in Bolivia is the derby between Bolivar and The Strongest. The rivalry they host is legendary in that it is historical and entertaining. It has provided over 200 magical games that have seen Bolivar come out on top more times since their first game in 1927. This match is certainly a spectacle in South America and amongst the best as it is a game played in the city of La Paz in the high altitude of the Estadio Hernando Siles.

A truly fascinating footballing nation with a rich history in the sport, especially at home. They have rarely won games away from home in their history, but the high altitude advantage has provided them with some fantastic wins over Brazil and Argentina. Along with winning the Copa América and finishing runners-up, of course, hosted in Bolivia. It is a country with passion, flair, and dynamism and they are truly one of the most engrossing footballing countries in South America.

BY LIAM HAYCOCK