“They’ve got five little dwarves up front and they’re tearing our defence to pieces.” – Luiz Felipe Scolari, Bolivia 3-1 Brazil, November 2001.
On April 1st 2009, I received this message on my phone in Australia: Que crees? Bolivia gano a Argentina 6 a 1 en el futbol! Toda Bolivia está de fiesta! (Can you believe it? Bolivia beat Argentina 6-1 in football. All of Bolivia is celebrating!) Without verifying the news relayed the info to another friend, whose classic reply via message regarding new Argentina manager Diego Maradona was “If you put a clown in charge you get a circus.” It was only then that I wondered if I’d spread the word too soon and had been a victim of an April Fool’s Day lark.
How to explain the sheer impossibility of the 6-1 to anyone not acquainted with Bolivia? That Argentina’s worst-ever defeat was against a country that they usually use as a snot rag? That it was against a country that doesn’t even know what winning is, let alone against such a powerful neighbour, let alone by a five-goal margin? When this match approached, the main interest for the locals in the equally impossible, curvy Bolivian capital La Paz had been in going to see the Argentine players. Messi in the flesh! Tevez! Mascherano! Zanetti! Maxi Rodriguez! Even Di María made his national debut, short-lived. Maradona, believe it or not, had made a promising start as manager. Bolivia, meanwhile, had only played a few serviceable matches in twelve years.
It was a freak result, but it was our freak result. That Argentina should lose to anyone by more than a goal defies soccer logic, that they should fall so heavily, so historically, and that the team that inflicted that momentous event was able to be us, just too unbelievable for words. The anonymous green shirts played a perfect game, every single move they made channelled to succeed, each of the ten outfielders producing the performance of their lives on precisely the same day. For Joaquín Botero it was the last performance of his life, perversely retiring from national duty on the spot after scoring three goals and leading the South American qualifying tables with eight goals (eternally), leaving the team in the lurch when there was finally some promise to believe in. How Bolivian.
Messi missed a few chances when the match was alive and then mentioned the altitude after it, and I only forgave him several years later when his slow-roller hit at a perfect angle humiliated Iker Casillas once again. Maradona, however, that investor in Paraguayan polka-halls, showed his un-Argentinian affinity with South America, congratulating Bolivia and blaming no one. I remember his comment on first moving to Europe in the 1980s: for all the skill that one has, they will never let you forget that you’re South American and a spot on the face of humanity.
The Bolivian nation always loses. They were conquered by Spain and saw their silver exported away, the glory of one nation’s shiny altars, empires and façades substituting for the other’s ruin. They lost the sea to Chile, Acre to Brazil and the Chaco to Paraguay. Their coastal province (Chilean since the 1880s) still represents a star on the Bolivian flag as one of their ‘ten’ departments, and their presidents mention the sea issue at least once a week.
A nation that is two-thirds indigenous and where virtually everyone has some indigenous blood lost their Republic to 200 years of white-blooded presidents who retired to the United States with the proceeds, and when one of their own finally took charge he just made things worse.
And then there is the soccer. They are arguably physically too small to succeed in international soccer. They seldom have any stars. Their self-confidence is non-existent – they blow many matches in the last minutes. The reserve and detachment of their people do not lend to aggressive soccer. There are less than 10 million Bolivians, so they probably don’t have the population to compete, and definitely don’t have the money to – but Paraguay and Uruguay do? (How does a country full of gas, lithium and oil fail to strike it rich? Is it exploitation’s fault, or theirs?)
A wonderful generation finally came through in the 1990s, and they qualified for USA 1994. Their main man, Marco Etcheverry, lasted three minutes at that World Cup before receiving a questionable red card against Germany, which prompted Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano to write that they then wondered what gods from the past had cursed their nation to always lose.
Then the dying embers of that team won five unexpected consecutive matches at the 1997 Copa America in Bolivia, ready to take on Ronaldo, Romario and the rest of the World Champion circus in the La Paz final. Then, right before the match, metronome midfielder Ramiro Castillo’s seven year-old son was hospitalised and soon died, leaving Castillo out of the final. In this final Brazil succeeded in scoring an offside goal, elbowing a Bolivian in the face without consequences (Edmundo on Luis Cristaldo) and watching the Bolivians hit the goal frame three times in five minutes at 1-1 in the second half, before Ronaldo bailed them out of a veritable siege. For Brazil there were three other Copa America titles after this one, but Bolivia hasn’t won a game at the tournament since. Much sadder, Ramiro Castillo never overcame his son’s death and committed suicide by hanging himself a few months later.
Bolivia vs. Argentina 2009. Many Bolivians and Paraguayans have rolled the dice over the years and crossed into Argentina for work. (The military junta had also sent them back by the truckload in the lead-up to the 1978 World Cup.) This has created issues in Paraguay’s national team, in which some of their successful 2010 team were semi-integrated Argentines with Paraguayan mothers or fathers, such as Lucas Barrios.
The Bolivians themselves have a mixed time of it in Argentina, among a people who seldom consider themselves anything but accidentally misplaced Europeans who have nothing to do with the South American continent. And yet every four years, despite themselves, their Messis, their Verons, their Crespos and their Di Marías have to make a trip to Asunción, a trip to Quito, a trip to the heart of Brazil and a trip to the perennially obtuse-angled city of La Paz.
When Lucho Gonzalez’s tame shot entered the net it looked like one of those days, or simply, Wednesday in Bolivia. Instead it became the most unique day of them all. A barrage of long shots saved by their keeper. Martins trips and scores in the same motion. Backheel leads to a penalty. Streaking header scored on halftime. Botero twists to improbably send a header in the opposite direction of his body and gently into the net, sealing the game. (Most teams are safe at a two-goal margin; Bolivia needs a third.) Botero touches one gently past the keeper and all of a sudden it’s 5-1, with goals coming every ten minutes. Backheel leads to a precise long shot along the ground. 6-1, a number that will need no clarification and yet precise clarification. Superlative players Alex da Rosa and Didi Torrico would never be heard from again.
Bolivia’s next match was again in La Paz against Venezuela, who they had routinely beaten by such as 5-0 and 3-1 in previous, worse World Cup campaigns. What would the 6-1 conquerors of Argentina produce this time? This: Martins missed a penalty, Venezuela scored on a Bolivian own goal and sweated their way to an improbable victory.
This first appeared on the website In Bed with Maradona on July 1, 2011.