Bolivia, a Latin American football minnow, has never really done anything noteworthy in the international football arena. However, the team has always courted controversy due to its high altitude playing fields. Debojyoti Chakraborty traces the issue here at “Goalden Times” on the eve of the 2015 Campeonato Sudamericano Copa América. You can read the other stories of the Copa America series here.
In May 2007, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) controversially announced that no international matches should be played in venues higher than 2,500 m. FIFA cited a proposal of its medical committee to back up its claim. According to the governing body of world football, playing in high altitudes is injurious to health and presents an unfair home advantage for highland teams. Some scientists had argued that matches played in extreme tropical weather call for more taxing adjustments on the human body, but the ban stood firm. Bolivia was one of the countries going to be affected severely by this decision. Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz hosts national team matches as well as being the home for eminent clubs of Bolivia (Club Bolivar, The Strongest and La Paz FC.). Situated at an altitude of 11,932 feet (3,637 m) above the sea level, it is one of the highest football stadiums in the world. La Paz, the second largest city in Bolivia after Santa Cruz, is not the official capital of Bolivia (that honor goes to Sucre). However,it is of critical national importance—being home to the seat of the government and all the main institutions of the country.
FIFA’s decision baffled the Bolivians to no end. Bolivian players generally drink coca tea before matches to offset the negative health effects of playing in high altitude. However, this consumption before matches violates the FIFA doping rules. Being a member nation of FIFA, Bolivian domestic league is played under FIFA regulations, and, consequently, the teams in Bolivia must adhere to these regulations. So, the ban on international matches was self-conflicting. On one hand, FIFA was banning only international matches due to the negative health effects of the altitude. On the other hand, for domestic matches—which were still allowed under FIFA norms—they were preventing the use of coca, a successful safeguard against those very negative health effects, used by the Bolivians for centuries.
Why was the ban implemented in the first place, especially considering that the issue has been a controversial one for ages? The two giants of Latin American football, Argentina and Brazil, have long protested against high-altitude matches as they belong to the lowland (Buenos Aires is 30 m, and Rio de Janeiro 5 m above the sea level). Traditionally, they have struggled in matches held in the Andean altitude.Each defeat has made them cry foul even louder. Things became even worse in 2007, when Peru, who used to play their international matches in Lima (90 m above sea level), decided to host its World Cup qualifiers against stronger teams in Cuzco (3400 m). That made it four out of 10 CONMEBOL members—along with Bolivia (La Paz), Ecuador (Quito, 2800 m) and Colombia (Bogota, 2600 m)—playing international matches in high altitudes above sea level. The protests gathered much more momentum and FIFA ultimately imposed the ban.
At that time, Bolivian President Evo Morales—leader of the leftist party—was going through a rough patch in his political career. He seized upon this golden opportunity to mobilize public sentiment by starting a campaign against the ban. The entire nation took up the initiative as a matter of national pride and Morales became instrumental in gathering support from outside the country. He cited that the ban was not only against Bolivia, but also against the universality of sport. He termed it as the football apartheid.
“FIFA and South American officials cannot make the historic mistake of discriminating against people who are born, live and practice sport at altitude. They cannot punish those of us who live near the mountains”, said Morales.[i]
“FIFA and South American officials cannot make the historic mistake of discriminating against people who are born, live and practice sport at altitude. They cannot punish those of us who live near the mountains”
Morales is a well-known football fan who not only attends various matches but also arranges a few for his fellow officials. While it can be attributed to his love for the beautiful game, many critics term it as his desperate attempt to portray his fitness for the rigors of his job and come across as not an isolated elite, but a down to earth person.
One might wonder why a president of a country put so much effort in reverting a decision by a sporting body, especially when Bolivia has plenty of other critical socio-economic problems at hand. The answer is—popularity of football. Average attendance at any important football match by far outnumbers that in any other important societal institutions, such as churches and theatres. Naturally, the president chose football as a perfect platform for transmitting messages to the public, and creating a popular image.
Morales became the President of Bolivia in 2006,following late Hugo Chávez. This ended a complete cycle of Latin America’s power shift to the left that started in 1998. Morales is a hard-core leftist Bolivian leader, criticized heavily for his radical anti-neo liberal models of governance. During the time of this FIFA ban, Morales was only 17 months into his regime, and was under tremendous pressure both in his own country—from conservative movements asking for autonomy of the lowland provinces—and outside, by countries whose businesses were nationalized through his hardcore left stand. So, fighting against a sporting ban gave him the right opportunity to change the tide of public opinion in his favor.
The anti-ban campaign led by Morales was successful as the ban was revoked only 13 months after its pronouncement. Bolivia was able to confederate with other affected nations, marshaling its own population and gaining sympathy in the international media with an inspired campaign. Morales’ clever use of football in this nationalist movement saw him organizing a president-and-his-staff football match in mid-June 2007 on Sajama—Bolivia’s highest mountain at 6000 m above sea level.
This unusual match evoked great interest in the campaign. Images of the President scoring the winning goal amidst snow-capped mountains flooded the national and international media. Morales played to the gallery, saying, “Wherever you can make love, you can play sports”.
However, his efforts were seemingly losing steam in early 2008. That is when he pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and, in March 2008, participated in a charity match along with Argentine football legend, Diego Maradona, in the Estadio Hernando Siles in La Paz. After the game, Maradona, an ever-controversial rebel and one of the fiercest critics of FIFA, claimed that if a 47-year-old could play there, so could any fit young professional. “All of us have to play where we were born, my brothers and sisters. Not even God can ban that…much less Blatter”, he said.
The trick worked not only for football, but for Morales himself too. In 2009, Morales was re-elected with 62% of votes (from 53% in 2005). His party achieved a majority in the Chamber of Deputies as well as in the Chamber of Senators, where the opposition had previously held a majority.
So, what is so special about the Bolivian home? Due to its high altitude, visiting teams suffer from breathing problems and are often harassed to disappointing results. A certain Diego Maradona—ironically one of the supporters of the anti-ban campaign—has probably never forgotten how the mighty Argentines were humiliated 6-1 on April Fool’s day in 2009. Many visiting teams have criticized the playing conditions, the bumpy nature of the pitch, the humidity and, above all, the high altitude. All these seemingly add up to the home team’s advantage,and visitors are forced to play in a field that is more suitable for grazing cattle.
The Bolivian Football Federation (FBF, Federación Boliviana de Fútbol) was founded in 1925 and they instantly fell in love with the continental championship, participating in it one year later. The love affair did not last long as Bolivia lost all of its seven matches in 1926 and 1927, scoring only five and conceding a mammoth 43 goals in the process. They returned in 1945, and have been more or less regular in the tournament, though they have never done anything significant away from home.
Bolivia won its first-ever match in the continental championship in 1949 when they beat Chile 3-2 in a thrilling encounter, coming from behind twice. One of the star performers in this match was Víctor Ugarte, who would go on to become one of the all time greats for Bolivian national team. He would go on to score the most important of his 45 goals in the final of 1963’s South American Championship against Brazil to help Bolivia win its maiden—and till date only—international success. Interestingly, he had gone the entire tournament goalless only to come up with a brace in his last appearance in national colours.
Bolivia again came close to repeating the success on home soil in 1997, inspired by the play maker Erwin “Platini” Sanchez. It was the only team not to concede a single goal in the group stages and went through to the final with 100% win record. It then ran into a rampant Brazilian team, but still held its own. Unfortunately, two late goals broke its heart. However, by then it had managed to reach its second-ever final—not a mean feat!
But those were the only two occasions when Bolivia made it to the podium finish (top three) of Copa America, the least number of successful outings among seven Latin America winners. In fact, Chile and Mexico (who started participation in the competition based on invitation as late as early 1990s), who have never tasted the ultimate success, have featured more often in the top three than the El Verde. Whenever Bolivia is out of its homeland, the results have been disastrous. This year too, things are not likely to change.
If we look into international matches played in Latin America between 1900 and 2004, i.e., a total of 1460 games played between 10 national teams, we can conclude that high altitude home teams have enjoyed some decisive advantages across the era. These teams scored more—one goal for every 2,000 m increase in altitude—and conceded fewer goals when playing teams from low altitude. Bolivia’s chances of a home win against the formidable Brazil is 0.825, as compared to 0.537 at sea level.[ii]
One can argue that other important socio-economic factors have been ignored while reaching such conclusions. A better approach could have been to come up with an econometric model based on the quality of the teams (FIFA team rankings), socio-economic characteristics (per capita GDP of countries), crowd effects (attendance for a match) and geographic factors (humidity, temperature and altitude of the city). May be then, it would have been clear which one of these are more important—the home team advantage or the actual quality of the teams.
Bolivia’s performance in last 5 years
In line with this, it is clear from the statistics above how Bolivia’s performance in international matches gets a spike when at home. The team last won an away match in March 2008 against Venezuela and has lost more than 60% of its away matches in last five years. In the same period, it has won six home matches. It has still not managed to avoid defeat in close to 40% of its home matches, proving that the Greens are nowhere close to a competitive team in the continental front. However, it continuously punches above its weight at home conditions.
[ii]McSharry, P. E. 2007. “Effect of Altitude on Physiological Performance: A Statistical Analysis Using Results It International Football Games.” BMJ 335: 1278–1281