Located in the central zone of South America, Bolivia has an extremely rich history since its independence in 1825. This is a country which boasts many natural wonders and, comprising one-third of the Andean mountain range, much of the country is based very high above sea level. It also quirkily retains the distinction of having two capital cities (La Paz and Sucre). Bolivia first started playing football competitively back in 1926 and participated in that year’s South American Championship in Chile. It was a tough learning curve for the national team as it suffered heavy losses to the hosts, along with Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Bolivia did enter the inaugural World Cup of 1930 hosted by Uruguay, though results were no better.
That would be their only World Cup appearance until 1950 and their participation in that tournament was more down to South American politics than footballing prowess. Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador were all in disagreement with the Brazilian Football Confederation who was organising the event, so all chose to reject their invitations. Bolivia willingly stepped in as substitute. For a second successive tournament, their participation was brief and lacking a win, a draw or even a goal to speak of.
The Bolivian national team has had plenty of national heroes, though the nation has never produced any outstanding world-class players who have put Bolivia on the wider footballing map. A famous player from the nation’s fledgeling years was Rafael Méndez from La Paz who featured in both the 1926 South American Championship and the 1930 World Cup, the latter in which he was team captain.
The 1950 World Cup starred one player in particular who became a legend within Bolivian borders because of his record and his stature: 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 to the cause was vital as far apart as the 1950 World Cup participation and the 1963 Copa América win. His heroism in a green jersey was acknowledged as the city of Potosí renamed its local stadium after him.
In modern times Bolivia’s most remembered players are Marco Etcheverry, who scored 13 international goals and had a successful career abroad for DC United, and Joaquín Botero, a striker who scored prolifically for club and country throughout his career. His 20 goals in 48 games put him at the top of his country’s all-time top scorers’ list and his domestic record is just as impressive. In his four years at Bolivar he scored 111 goals in just 132 games, while in 2002 he held the top scorers’ record for that year with 49 goals, even ahead of world stars like Ronaldo.
While international managers have been numerous over the years, the very first to lead Bolivia at the 1930 World Cup was Ulises Saucedo. He wasn’t a great success in the dugout but he did have a useful backup role as one of the tournament’s referees! The man who took the nation into the 1950 World Cup was an Italian, Mario Pretto, who had spent his playing career with Napoli. Upon retirement, he thought he would try management and somehow ended up in charge of the Bolivia national team. He too would enjoy little joy in the role.
The most important manager in Bolivia’s international history has to be the Brazilian Danilo Alvim, who led the nation to its one and only Copa América title in 1963 – the defining moment in the nation’s footballing history. That year they hosted the tournament and completed it undefeated, winning five of their six games and drawing the other.
There were a number of non-footballing factors at play which undoubtedly aided the Bolivian cause. Home advantage is telling of course and Bolivian home advantage was magnified by the altitude of their home venues – the Estadio Hernando Siles, for instance, stands over 11,000 feet above sea level making it one of the highest stadiums in the world. Uruguay and Venezuela refused to participate at all because of the altitude factor while Chile was not invited because of political tension. It left just seven competing nations and so raised the chances of a shock.
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. Their next game took place a week later at the infamous Estadio Félix Capriles, another stadium high in the mountains of Bolivia. There they faced off against a struggling Colombian side who never quite found their form in the championship and won 2-1 thanks to two goals by Máximo Alcócer – two of the five he would score in the competition.
A few days later, La Verde was back at the high altitude ground of Hernando Siles to face Peru, one of the few other South American nations not phased by playing high above sea level. Bolivia edged a tough encounter by a narrow 3-2 margin. The first real test came when the hosts faced Paraguay, who would ultimately finish second in the competition. Bolivia showed an uncharacteristic relentlessness and took a decisive 2-0 win through goals from Fortunato Castillo and Ausberto García.
The next two games would be Bolivia’s biggest in the tournament as they faced the continent’s two superpowers in Argentina and Brazil. Argentina still had aspirations to win the competition, but the defiant Bolivians put an end to their hopes with a thrilling 3-2 win after coming from 2-1 down in the first half. Brazil were the reigning world champions at the time, though this particular Brazilian squad was weakened and did not contain Pelé. Bolivia needed to win to become South American champions for the first and only time in their history. An intense and high-scoring match saw the score locked at 4-4 with only a few minutes remaining in the Estadio Félix Capriles. The scene was set for national hero Alcócer to score a late goal that won the game and the tournament for Bolivia by a 5-4 scoreline.
The high altitude conditions which were so prominent in that 1963 success played a prominent part again when Bolivia next hosted the tournament in 1997. Following another set of superb performances, once again Bolivia reached the Final against Brazil though could not replicate the result from 34 years earlier. Goals by Ronaldo, Zé Roberto, and Edmundo won the game comfortably for the Seleçäo.
The 1963 win was a stepping stone for football in Bolivia and the introduction of the Academia Tahuichi Aguilera, located in Santa Cruz, was an indication that the country wanted to progress further into the mainstream. This became the national football academy primed to produce Bolivia’s next best talent and the likes of Marco Etcheverry and Erwin Sanchez came through the academy system as part of the 1997 team.
The Tahuichi Academy was founded by Rolando Aguilera Pareja who had been living in America. He wanted promising youngsters to be trained by Brazilian coaches and slowly but surely this attracted more and more youths into the setup. 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. Progress was rapid and within a year the young Bolivians triumphed 4-1 over Independiente in the South American Youth Championships to win the tournament in front of a large crowd. The academy is significantly represented whenever Bolivia takes part in Youth World Cups and is a major building block for the Bolivian game.
The Academia Tahuichi Aguilera has helped develop many players now playing in the professional Bolivian domestic leagues, the most important of those being the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano, the top league in the country. Founded in 1950, sixteen different teams have been crowned as champions though the most significant force has been the country’s most popular club – Bolivar, champions on 28 occasions. Bolivar is also the only Bolivian club to make an impact on international competition, reaching the Copa Libertadores semi-finals and Copa Sudamericana Final.
The club was founded in 1925 by a group who named the club after the Liberator Simón Bolívar, the man responsible for leading the secession of a lot of the South American states from the Spanish Empire. The club’s nickname is El Grande, which translates to ‘The Biggest’ and sits well alongside the name of their fiercest rivals, The Strongest. Those rivals are Bolivia’s oldest club and its most historic, winning the first-ever Championship in 1911.
The other standout club is Jorge Wilstermann, a fascinating club founded in 1949 by a group of aviation workers and named after one of the originators. They are one of three clubs to have major success in the Bolivian top flight, winning the competition 14 times and being the first team to reach the Copa Libertadores semi-finals. The current title holders are San Jose who has won the championship a more modest four times.
The biggest rivalry to grace the Bolivian football community is the derby between Bolivar and The Strongest. The rivalry has been played out more than 200 times with Bolivar boasting the better head-to-head record since their first encounter in 1927.