The Air Up There

In the Bolivian futbol world, purchase the La Paz-based Club Bolivar may just be the equivalent of the “Evil Empire”. Okay, maybe that reference and comparison to the New York Yankees is a stretch, but nevertheless, the “Academia” is envied by all of the other clubs in the country. Their deep pockets and roster filled with National Team regulars are two factors that have placed them as the country’s most popular and most successful in all of Bolivia. Even their Club President, Mauro Cuellar, is as detested by the fans of other teams, like a certain Mr. Steinbrenner. Yet, you have to respect Bolivar’s belief that anything short of a Championship is considered a failure (like the Yankees).

After selling off their prized asset in 2003, Joaquin Botero, to UNAM Pumas in Mexico, Bolivar was able to use that money to bring in a wealth of talent for the beginning of the Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious club championship on the continent.

Their Unofficial 12th man will certainly not be sold off in the near future. Resting some 3600 meters above sea level, Bolivar and the other three professional teams in the capital, can always count on the altitude to contribute to a victory. No one can pinpoint exactly to what degree the altitude affects athletic competitions, but it has been known to linger in the psyche of visiting teams. There have been many tactics to counteract the psychological and physiological effects. Some teams arrive to La Paz just hours before kick-off. Other teams have made La Paz their temporary home for two weeks trying to acclimatize themselves to the effects. Others refuse to admit in the press that it will play a role in determining the outcome, but ultimately it becomes apparent during play.

This advantage could be seen once again during their first game of the Copa Libertadores. Their victim on that night was none other than Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires. Recently crowned World Champions after beating AC Milan in Japan, the team most certainly was undoubtedly aware that many Argentine teams had little success in Hernando Siles Stadium. The Argentine commentators on Fox Sports spent over an hour discussing the altitude backed up with scientific facts regarding oxygen capacity prior to the game’s start. However, Argentina is not the only team to be concerned of playing in La Paz.

When Brasil was struggling to qualify for Japan/Korea 2002, with a handful of games left on their schedule, they offered the Bolivian Futbol Federation a large sum of money to move the game scheduled for La Paz to the lowlands of Santa Cruz. Knowing full well that, Bolivia, without their altitude bully for protection would most likely succumb to the four-time World Cup champs. Fortunately for Bolivians, moving sites of games during the qualifying process was prohibitied. Otherwise, the Board of Directors most likely would have been tempted to pocket that money. Bolivia ended up winning the game 3-1, and Brasil also ended up qualifying anyhow regardless of the lost and won the World Cup the following year.

No one is that delusional to think that Bolivia has players who can compete with Brasil or Argentina on a neutral field at sea level, but in a country of 9 million where the football infrastrucutre is poor at best, federation administration is corrupt, and its World Cup history is limited to one year in 1994, Bolivian futbol fans have to make the most of what they are given.

I’m not a Bolivarista, my loyalties are held by Cochabamba club Jorge Wilstermann. But it’s not difficult to admire what Bolivar has done. In a time where teams carry foreign “refuerzos” (reinforcements), Bolivar beat Boca Juniors with a team comprised entirely of Bolivians. Many of whom make up the bulk of the National Team. This fact can only add to the mystique of playing among the clouds.

At least visiting teams can take comfort in knowing that there is a stadium in Potosi, which sits at an even higher altitude than the capital. I do not think the Federation will play games there due to the lower seating capacity.