Bolívar 2 (Cardozo 9′, Ferreira 50′) beat The Strongest 0 at Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz, crowd ~25,000, Copa Cine Center, 21 July 2013.
Bolivia. The poorest country in South America, squeezed into the middle of the continent, home to the world’s largest salt desert, the peculiarly named Lake Titicaca, old women with plaited hair wearing Heisenberg-stlye pork pie hats, llamas (and lots of them), its world famous marching powder, and the Clásico Paceño – the La Paz Derby – contested between Bolívar and The Strongest.
Having become well acquainted with the wheel of the porcelain bus following a date with a suspect fondu in Copacabana (no, not the nice Brazilian version, the scruffy Bolivian incarnation), I gingerly made my way to La Paz to be greeted by the pleasant news that I was in town for the derby. The capital’s two strongest teams had qualified for the final of the Copa Cine Center, Bolivia’s answer to the AFL’s Nab Cup, a Mickey Mouse preseason tournament that challenges the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy as the most pointless title in world football. And Sunday was only the ida leg: I wouldn’t even see anyone lift the trophy, as modest a prize as it is. That being said, a clásico is a clásico.
Bolívar and The Strongest don’t quite enjoy a Barcelona/Real Madrid level of dominance over their domestic league but since the Bolivian game turned professional in 1977, La Paz’s big two have collected the vast majority of trophies, cups, pots and pans. Los Celestes – named after iconic Venezeualan libertador Simón Bolívar – have traditionally made a misnomer of their rivals in derby meetings, having been stronger than The Strongest in the majority of their clashes. The black-and-golds – who began life as ‘The Strong Football Club’ before deciding that label wasn’t quite boastful enough – are one of many South American clubs with clumsy Anglophone names, alongside Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys and All Boys, a Liverpool from Uruguay and an Everton from Chile, Wanderers in both Montevideo and Santiago, and an Arsenal located south of Buenos Aires that wins about as many trophies as their North London namesake (i.e. none). It’s a great relief for journos tired of working the awkward ‘The Strongest’ label into sentences that they’re nicknamed Tigre, a product of a classic colour scheme also found at Punt Road and Leichhardt.
I arrived at the Estadio Hernando Siles early Sunday morning to purchase my ticket; so early, in fact, the ticket office was still closed (sleepy weekend daybreaks aren’t confined to Buenos Aires, evidently). Luckily, it wasn’t too early for the scalpers selling entradas at barely more than face value. When I asked for one ticket in the platea neutral, the scalper – a dead ringer for an elderly, Bolivian Ronnie Corbett – furrowed his bushy eyebrows behind his Coke bottle glasses and stared at me like I had two heads. The little tout went on to explain why it was a stupid question for two reasons: firstly, because ‘platea’ is what an Argentine would call what a Bolivian dubs the ‘butacas’, i.e. the expensive reserved seats on the halfway line, and secondly, because no neutral section exists since the fans aren’t segregated. Huh? BA’s Superclásico was protected by more firearms than an NRA convention and police transported visiting River fans like it was a UN peacekeeping mission. But La Paz’s great rivals would be allowed to rub shoulders?
Remarkably, Bolívar and Tigre fans were capable of doing precisely that, without incident. The short walk from the city centre to the estadio took on a festive, tailgate atmosphere on a bright winter’s afternoon. Scores of cholitas – portly indigenous ladies who seem to have traditional technicolour blankets stuffed with knick knacks permanently welded to their backs – set up stalls with almost anything you could imagine; had you brought your shopping list, you could have purchased a week’s groceries outside the ground. And if you hadn’t already fallen victim to Bolivian cuisine (I was still wedded to a diet of salted biscuits and water), you could have sampled an array of fried food so expansive it defies description.
Languid police chatted with guns slouched at their sides, overlooking merchandise vendors and clowns on stilts and families sharing buckets of fried chicken around the Plaza Tejada Sorzano, a homage to Bolivia’s Pre-Hispanic culture which has received a revival under the country’s first indigenous president Evo Morales, a wildly popular, stridently anti-US trade unionist whose ubiquitous political adverts carpet the city.
The stadium – a 42,000-seater bordered by a running track – is nondescript, save for its postcard location at the foot of the Andes, amidst a city spectacularly built in a deep canyon. The cancha also grabbed headlines in 2007 when FIFA banned Bolivia from hosting World Cup qualifiers there due to altitude, only for Morales to throw his political weight behind the quick reversal of the decision. Pre-game, the Bolívar players are either cognisant of the taxing conditions or just incredibly lazy, as their warm-up consists of little more than a slothful kick-about and a few long range pings at goal.
After a steward scratched the back of my ticket to ensure its authenticity – like the covering on a $2 scratchie, a surprisingly advanced piece of technology in such a ‘rustic’ country – I plonked myself in the very back row, right on half way, intent on enjoying an unimpeded, video-game style view of the pitch. A little girl the row in front had other plans, shredding her foam seat (the cholitas peddling those little numbers did a roaring trade) and throwing it into the air, which provided her with far more entertainment than the football itself. While his daughter was captivated by styrofoam, her father – sporting the celeste of Bolívar – was engrossed by the game at hand. I’m not sure what the clearly irritated Tigre-supporting father and son duo on my right found more annoying, the daughter’s endless shower of confetti or the father’s vocal sky blue allegiance.
The mood of the black-and-gold father and son soured further within 10 minutes, when Tigre goalkeeper Daniel Vaca parried a shot into the path of gun Bolívar No.10 Rudy Cardozo – a slick midfielder who wears industrial quantities of grease in his hair – to shoot home from distance. The sky blue outfit controlled the first half, forcing The Strongest to rely on set pieces to manufacture their meaningful attacking raids. Tigre looked to have squared the match when Gastón Mealla netted what appeared a legitimate goal, only for referee José Jordan to intervene, as the whistleblower’s blustery style of officiating again thrust the officials into the limelight for the umpteenth time in the half. Aside from Jordan’s interference, the game was a cheery affair played at an extremely high tempo, given the altitude. As the players (and spotlight-fond officials) shuffled off for a half-time Powerade, a fleet of promo girls danced to a remix of the ‘Star Wars’ theme, just in case this strange country couldn’t get any stranger.
After the break, Bolívar emerged with Scrabble player’s nightmare Romel Quiñonez between the sticks, after Argentine stopper Marcos Argüello spent the majority of the first half writhing in agony, either in genuine pain or a transparent bid to waste time. Despite the largest technical area in world football – traversing a large dugout and eight lanes of running track – the two managers were still intent on encroaching on the green stuff to bark instructions. Bolívar’s dapper Spanish boss Miguel Ángel Portugal was the happier of the pair when his bullish striker William Ferreira shrugged off his opponent to score from a tight angle just after the resumption, giving Los Celestes a two-goal buffer.
Despite the margin, and slightly more sky blue than black-and-gold filling the terraces, the Tigre fans continued to make the lion’s share of the noise, including a handful of hinchas watching the game from the windows of nearby apartment blocks. Their backing helped swing momentum in favour of The Strongest, who were irresistible in the closing stages until they ran into a brick wall named Quiñonez at the back. Refusing to catch and preferring to punch, the shot stopper – no more than six foot, but positively giant compared to the minuscule outfield players – was like the flippers protecting the drain at the bottom of a pinball machine, the ball spewing off into every corner of the field except the back of the net. In fading light that would have scuppered play if Marais Erasmus and Tony Hill had anything to do about it, Tigre pressed and pressed, Quiñonez parried and parried, and Bolívar held on to their 2-nil advantage.
As referee Jordon blew time – reluctantly forfeiting his role in the limelight – the entire crowd channelled that little girl by frisbeeing their foam seats into the sky. There was an minor post-game scuffle on the cramped walk out of the ground – inevitable when you don’t segregate supporters, and Tigre fans are forced to face gloating Bolívar supporters having just watched superb goalkeeping thwart a raft of gilt-edged chances. Overall, though, the large crowd was very well behaved; a pleasant change of pace from the venom of Argentine football, where away supporters aren’t even allowed in, let alone to mix freely with their hosts like a Saturday afternoon of subbies rugby.
For what it’s worth – I’m sure you’re on the edge of your seat wondering about the return leg – Cardozo orchestrated another Bolívar victory in Wednesday’s vuelta tie, 3-2, to claim the coveted Copa Cine Center 5-2 on aggregate. I’m still waiting to see if they’ll take on reigning JPT champs Crewe Alexandra to determine once and for all the most trivial title in world football.