Off to South Africa

In 2006, I suffered through the poor 3 and out showing by the US in World Cup watching the games in a couple bars in Arlington, VA and in a German cultural center in Washington, DC. Bolivia did not qualify.

In 2002, I remember the early morning hours before my flight to spend another year in Bolivia. I had to scream with joy into a pillow, as to not wake my parents, when the US upset Portugal. That tournament would prove to be the best finish of the US team and I watched the rest of the tournament in Bolivia, often at many obscene hours because of the time difference with Japan and South Korea. Again, Bolivia did not qualify.

In 1998, I recorded the games on my VCR (what are those? asks digital natives) because I was working at a summer program for kids, but I begged and pleaded with my co-workers not to tell me the scores. Many of them fed me incorrect score lines to mess with my head. The US finished dead last and Bolivia did not qualify.

In 1994, I could care less about soccer/football, which ironically was the year that both Bolivia qualified and the US hosted the WC. If that same situation occurred today, I would have done just about anything to be at Bolivia’s opening match against Germany in Chicago. However, I did catch a single match in the Cotton Bowl, upon the insistence of my father who took me to see Argentina vs. Bulgaria. That was the game where Diego Maradona had been suspended prior to kickoff because of drug use. I spent the entire match marveling at the intensity of the crowd and took in the atmosphere. I can definitively say that it was that game that got me hooked on the sport.

Now 16 years later, I am hours away from boarding a plane to Johannesburg to see the 2010 World Cup with a greater appreciation of what it all means. These past several years, I have taken in local matches in about half a dozen countries giving me a greater insight to those local cultures, I have suffered through the ups and downs of Bolivia (ups: 6-1 drubbing of Argentina downs: just about everything else), and put down some local roots in Cochabamba by investing myself in the local club team.

Attending this tournament also means giving up the opportunity to work with my students back in DC, which is something I had done for the past 6 summers.

So, I think it’s time to dust off my blog and write/post photos/post videos about my 28 days in South Africa, where I have tickets to 8 games (for now), and see what happens. I’ll also be doing some work while I am there, writing for Global Voices and for Highway Africa. More on that later…

A United Bolivia Against FIFA Ban

Cross-post of my most recent Global Voices article.

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Sitting in the middle of the Miraflores neighborhood of La Paz, Bolivia, the Hernando Siles stadium is home to several local professional football teams and is home to the Bolivian National Team. Even though the squad has finished at the bottom of the table for the past three World Cup qualifying process, the advantage that high altitude is said to give was one of the catalysts in the qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, Bolivia’s first and only appearance. Santa Cruz blogger E. writes in Voz Boliviana [ES], “In 1993, when we qualified for the World Cup USA ’94, the entire country was in a state of joy, optimism, and nationalism. The feat was merited because we qualified by our own efforts.”

Recently, the international football governing body, FIFA, announced that international matches will no longer be permitted to be played in stadiums above 2500 m, putting many stadiums in Bolivia off-limits, and dashing the hopes for qualifying once again for the world’s biggest sporting event.

The decision mobilized the Bolivian government headed by President Evo Morales, a self-professed football fanatic, who sent a high-ranking delegation to Zurich, Switzerland to speak directly with FIFA President Sepp Blatter and declared it “Challenge Day“. Marches and demonstrations against the ban took place across the country. Bloggers also joined the united voice against this decision.

The decision is drawing the ire of Bolivians across the country and cutting across ideological lines. Andres Pucci [ES] of Santa Cruz, writes:

El deporte, sea cual fuese es algo universal, que se lo practica desde los lugares mas calientes y húmedos hasta los mas fríos y secos, desde lo mas bajo hasta lo mas alto.

Para algunos jugadores es también difícil jugar por ejemplo en Recife Brasil a las 1500 horas a mas de 40 grados Celcius, como subir a mas de 3500 metros es difícil para otros , pero es parte del deporte, de la visita que se hace a otro pueblo, lugar, región para disputar algún encuentro

The universal sport is played in the hottest and most humid places to the coldest and most humid to the lowest altitude.For some players, it is also very difficult, for example, to play in Recife, Brazil at 3:00 p.m. at a tempreature of 40 degrees Celsius than it is to play at 3500 meters above sea level, which is difficult for others. This a part of the sport, to visit another country, place, or region to play a match.

Sergio Asturizaga, a Bolivian living in Brazil, blogs at Así como me ves me tienes [ES] and recalls a time that Blatter visited La Paz at a time when there was constant debate regarding matches at high altitude. Blatter reassured the Bolivian federation and lent his support for the stadium. To commemorate this visit and his statements, a large plaque was placed on the stadium exterior walls. Hugo Miranda of Angel Caido [ES] provides us with the text of these words that are found on the stadium wall.

I was born in the mountains.

My hometown in Switzerland sits across from the highest mountains in Europe. For that reason, I am not afraid of the altitude.

Joseph Blatter, FIFA President on February 11, 2000

Miranda lives in Oruro, which is one of the cities that would be affected. He draws conclusions to what this decision is really about by this ban:

A FIFA solo busca dinero y lamentablemente para que sus patrocinadores sigan desenbolsando esas cantidades de dinero necesita que los de siempre: Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay esten en sus torneos.

FIFA is only looking for money and unfortunately that in order that its sponsors continue to give out these amounts of money they need the same teams: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay to be part of the tournament.

Carlos Machiado Salas of Guccio’s [ES] writes:

Si quieren vetar los stadios de las ciudades de altura, donde hasta ahora no ha muerto nadie por el tema de la altura, deberían vetar también los stadios de Buenos Aires y Sao Paulo, donde al mes muere una persona a lo menos por la violencia de las barras bravas.

If they want to ban the stadiums located in high-altitude cities, where until now, no one has died because of the altitude, then they should also ban the stadiums in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, where at least one person dies per month due to the violence within the barra bravas (supporter groups).

If international football is outlawed from being placed in these places, what comes next? Willy Andres [ES] wonders if all sports might be affected from being placed at high altitudes. Gery M. of Nacido en Bolivia [ES] writes that this decision from FIFA might have other long lasting affects on the youth of these coutries, who might be discouraged from playing sports, which can help improve the quality of life in these countries.

Morales First Trip to the U.S.?

Last week, store Bolivian football star Marco “el Diablo” Etcheverry held his tribute and farewell match in Santa Cruz. Traditionally these games finally mean retirement once and for all. Etcheverry held onto the hope to have one more go at it, but clearly, he no longer was the maestro that helped Bolivia qualify for its first and only World Cup in 1994.

On the guest list for that friendly and not-so-serious match were other aging South American stars, such as a pudgy Jose Luis Chilavert. Another surprising name that was invited was none other than the new Bolivian President, Evo Morales. A self-proclaimed soccer nut, Morales was looking forward to donning the #10 jersey. However, a tiny problem on the runways of Bolivian airports, caused a change in plans.

There might be another opportunity for Morales to play alongside Etcheverry. “El Diablo” also starred in the U.S. for four-time champs DC United. Much of his post-World Cup career took place in Washington, which coincidentally is home to approximately 300,000 Bolivians. It only makes sense to play a similar farewell tribute match here. Again, Etcheverry said he would be honored to have Morales play in this match in the United States. So, this may be Morales’ first visit to the United States and it may be for reasons other than relations with the U.S government.

It seems that Morales is just as big of a fan of the former player, as Etcheverry was recently given a portrait of himself made out of coca leaves, as good friend Hugo Chavez also received a similar portrait of Simon Bolivar.

“These things (coca portraits) are not given out so easily. I hope it serves as a reminder from me, a person who admired him during those beautiful days when the national team qualified for the World Cup in the United States,” said Morales.

No word on the date of this match.

Why this sudden buddy-buddy relationship between Morales and Etcheverry? It’s no secret that many of the ex-football players want to take control over the Bolivian Football Federation (FBF). Every qualifying cycle something always goes wrong. Money seems to be misspent, conflicts arise between National Team and league clubs and utter failure on the pitch seem to be the fault of everyone involved. However, the FBF holds the responsibility of administering the entire process and often is given much of the blame.

The ex-national team players think they have what it takes to run the show since they were players and know what is needed. Etcheverry clearly wants to be the eventual coach for the national team, as he is close friends with U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who is rumored to take him along this summer in Germany. Other ex-football stars like Erwin “Platini” Sanchez also have eyes set on helping Bolivian football advance past 9th and 10th place finishes. Julio Cesar Baldivieso, was a huge MAS campaign supporter, last December and was rumored to be the next Minister of Sports, if that position was created. The position remained as a Vice-Ministry.

Morales ran as the candidate of change. If there was a time to make these fundamental changes in the Bolivian Football Federation, now is the time to do it. With Morales on your side, these much-needed changes are much easier and it doesn’t hurt that the President wants to relive those beautiful days when the Bolivian National Team was a success.

Note: The 300,000 number is simply a guess. There currently is no reliable data regarding the number of legal and undocumented Bolivians in the Washington, DC area, which many include communities such as Woodbridge and Manassas and other cities in Maryland. I used the 250K figure provided by the El Deber article and bumped it up a bit. By no means, was this meant to be given as fact.

What Could Have Been

This weekend features the first leg of a series of home-and-home series between countries to qualify for the remaining five berths in the World Cup for next summer.

South America’s fifth place team plays the winner of the Oceania region for one of those slots. Saturday’s match is a replay of the same scenario with Uruguay meeting Australia for the coveted spot in 2001. Back when the qualifying process began in 2003, ed according to my calculations Bolivia had a legitimate shot at making the 5th place finish. Winning every single game at home with the psychological and physiological advantage of the high altitude stadium could have made these dreams a reality.

However, illness those calculations were off by a large margin. Not only did Bolivia not come anywhere close to 5th, discount it finished dead last, including several terrible losses and ties in La Paz. At the time, I remember daydreaming and vowing that if Bolivia were to have the opportunity to play in that playoff series, I would be in Bolivia for that week no matter what. Even if I had to fly to Bolivia for one day and fly back the next, it would be well worth it to be in an environment where a return to the World Cup was on a possibility.

There’s always 2009.

The five games slated for Saturday:

EUROPE:
• Czech Republic vs. Norway
• Spain vs. Slovakia
• Turkey vs. Switzerland

SOUTH AMERICA/OCEANIA
• Uruguay vs. Australia

NORTH, CENTRAL AMERICA & CARRIBBEAN/ASIA
• Trinidad & Tobago vs. Bahrain

Tough Crowd

My hometown football teams were trounced yesterday. If these were the late 1980s, story I would be greatly depressed over the defeat of the Washington Redskins, who lost 36-0 to the NY Giants. John Riggins, Art Monk and Darrell Green no longer play for this American football team and my interest in that sport has diminished to practically zero.

The Cochabamba team Wilstermann also lost to Oruro’s San Jose placing in jeopardy their chances to move onto the next round in the tournament. It’s been a year since I’ve seen them play in the Felix Capriles stadium and I don’t recognize half of the names on the roster. I miss those days when my cousin and I wouldn’t miss a Sunday afternoon game and the chance to chomp on piping hot cheese empanadas.

Finally, my last team, DC United, which plays in Major League Soccer will not have the opportunity to defend its championship. At the hands of the Chicago Fire, DCU was embarrassed at home 4-0 in front of a crowd of nearly 20,000. It’s far better to lose convincingly than to lose in the remaining seconds or as a result of a fluke call. Bolivian flags could be seen throughout the stadium in honor of #99 Jaime Moreno, who is a finalist for league Most Valuable Player. Fans around me were frustrated and some booed the team as they entered their lockerroom at halftime, many just left before the game completed. That was the extent of the visible displeasure.

In Madrid, I saw a game between the local Atletico Madrid vs. Atletico Bilbao. The homeside played rather horribly and after the visitors took a one goal lead, the fans became increasingly impatient. When Bilbao scored its second goal, one fan in the next section cheered, as if he were turning on his own team for their poor play. At that, with about 30 minutes to go in the game, he grabbed his son and exited the stadium in disgust.

By far, Cochabamba fans are the most demanding that I’ve seen with their own team. Some say Wilstermann plays better on the road, than in front their own fans. Why? Because it seems that the local fans expect a goleada every match. Whistles, the South American version of booing, are heard at any hint of missed goal opportunities, even if Wilstermann was leading. I have also seen fans throw items, with an aim on the players, onto the pitch, such as full 2-liter bottles of Pepsi, water balloons, oranges, and bottle rockets. This is when they are losing at a crucial time in the season. At times, the police in full riot gear needed to protect players (even the local team) with their riot shields when taking corner kicks. With fans like that, who needs enemies?

Tie and the Final Spot

Facing a bored and lifeless Brazil team, Bolivia played a superb second half which featured an equalizing goal and numerous near misses. At halftime, coach Ovidio Messa inserted Jose Alfredo Castillo and Daner Pachi which energized the team. A brilliant cross into the box by Pachi found the head of Joaquin Botero who crossed it to a charging Castillo who knocked it home tying the game 1-1. After that, Bolivia continued to attack, but couldn’t find the go-ahead goal. Bolivia plays its final match against Peru in Lima on Wednesday. Once again, defender Ronald Raldes of Rosario Central stood head and shoulders over anyone else on the pitch rendering goalscorer Adriano (Inter Milan) ineffective.

The four teams that I have qualified for the World Cup from the South America region are: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Ecuador. The fifth place team faces Australia in a home and away playoff for the right to enter the World Cup competition. Three teams have the possibility of sliding into the final spot. Uruguay is the only team that holds its own destiny. A win gives them enough points to earn that fifth place spot. A tie leaves them open to the possibility of one of the other teams to overtake them. Chile and Colombia must win and hope for a Uruguay loss or tie and a loss by the other team for any shot.

Uruguay – 22 points (home against Argentina)
Colombia – 21 points (away against Paraguay)
Chile – 21 points (home against Ecuador)

Already there are speculations that Argentina may take it easy on Uruguay. In 2001 facing the same scenario, except Uruguay only needed a tie to advance, the two teams tied. Newspaper reports quoted the then-coach of Uruguay of saying that the tie was “set up”, which angered the other teams with similar possibilities of advancing. Both Argentina and Uruguay have denied that any such plan is in place for Wednesday’s match.

Bolivia – Brazil

The Bolivian National Team is mathematically eliminated from any chance of qualifying for next summer’s World Cup in Germany. The squad was in a similar position four years ago during the run-up to the World Cup in Japan/South Korea 2002 when it last faced Brazil in La Paz in November 2001.

The result that night was a 3-1 victory for the home side over the South American powerhouse, viagra sale which happened to end up winning the World Cup that next summer. Two goals by “El Emperador” Julio Cesar Baldivieso (pictured – photo BBC) and his subsequent “Condor Soaring” celebration would seal the victory. The win would only be a moral victory in front of the packed house and would save an otherwise disappointing campaign. Bolivia will face Brazil on Sunday for the second to last date in the two year World Cup qualifying cycle.

Sunday’s game will not count for much, sickness as Brazil has already qualified for Germany 2006 and Bolivia is jut hoping to stay out of the cellar. However, troche any time you face Brazil in your home stadium, it is a special occasion.

The good news for Bolivian fans in the U.S. is that the game won’t be limited to Closed Circuit television as it has been all throughout the qualifying process. The game will be on live on Telemundo at 4 p.m. EST. More good news for Bolivian fans is that Baldivieso has been called into the team after a lengthy absence. This has the makings of déjà vu.

Boca Meltdown

I finally saw the replay of the Boca Juniors – Chivas game in Buenos Aires where the Boca players and fans lost their minds. The game featured the Boca coach spitting on the Chivas player Adolfo Bautista as he was being escorted off the pitch, as well as a couple of Boca “fans” who came onto the field to take swings and kicks at the Chivas forward. Finally, the game was halted when the referees could not guarantee safety from the projectiles sent from the stands. Chivas moves on to the finals of the Copa Libertadores on a 4-0 aggregate score. I considered myself a Boca sympathizer, having been to la Bombonera (Boca’s stadium) and admiring many of their players (Riquelme and Tevez), but I now see why many non-football fans in Bs. As. abhor any mention of Boca.