South-American Comment: Bolivia Make History 15 Years After Their Last Great Achievement

Bolivian football looked to be a in decline that it was not about to return from any time soon, but the incredible 6-1 win against Argentina midweek has made people sit up and begin to believe again.

Memories of a sunny afternoon on June 17, 1994 still seem fresh.

The city of Chicago in the United States was the setting as Bolivia played their first game in the World Cup finals. The golden generation of the country had achieved something that many felt that they would never see. Coached by Xabier Azkargorta, the team were at the pinnacle of world football.

Nearly 15 years after that event, things have not been going well for Bolivian football with problems that did not appear to have a solution as the coach has no players to chose from who are playing in the top leagues around the world. Without any hope of even reaching a play-off spot by finishing fifth, the country's football team appeared to be in something of a crisis and with nobody able to find any answer to it all.

How did such a fiasco happen? Who is guilty? Was an appearance in the 1994 World Cup Finals purely coincidence?

On Wednesday, many felt that Bolivia would just be there to make up the numbers, but instead the unthinkable occurred as the team defied all the critics and rolled back the years to the glory days of the early 1990's to defeat Argentina in such style that it made headlines across the globe.

The Golden Era

Azkargorta took over as national team coach in 1993 with many pundits predicting that he would introduce a more European style of football instead of adapting to the South American game. In fact, the coach was instead having to change and organise his methods to suit the places where the team trained. The story about all the coaching staff having to change behind a tree are still told to this day.

Despite that, the qualifying rounds began well with the team shining in their opening two games in Group B. In their first outing, Venezuela were hammered 7-1 to secure a new record winning margin and their were more celebrations when Brazil were defeated 2-0 in the second match in La Paz to put the Bolivians on track to the finals.

The qualification method back then was different to the current one as there were two groups and the winners of each group along with the best runner-up progressed to the finals. Thanks to that, Bolivia finished behind the Brazilians and made it to the World Cup finals in the United States in 1994.

Making it into the finals was an historic milestone. The results and the magnitude of the opponents meant that, allied with the achievement of qualifying, some household names were created such as Marco Etcheverry, Erwin Sánchez, Jaime Moreno and Carlos Borja. Players that are still talked about in Bolivia to this day.

In their first game in the finals, the Bolivians were beaten 1-0 by Germany before being held to a goalless draw by South Korea. Their third match saw them lose 3-1 to Spain, thanks to a Pep Guardiola penalty and a brace from Caminero. They were eliminated in the first round, but it was not to be a sad exit as just the success of being there meant that the country was proud.

The team quickly won many admirers, and soon after the finals Jaime Moreno earned a transfer to Middlesbrough and competed in the Premier League for two years, while Erwin Sanchez gained a glamorous move to Benfica where he enjoyed a three-year stay. Etcheverry became one of the rising stars of football in the Americas, while Milton Melgar packed his boots and headed off to play for both Boca Juniors and River Plate.

Slowly but surely, though, the changes were disappearing and after a great display at the Copa America in 1997, where they finished as runners-up, the national team fell from grace.

A Slow Decline

Disciplinary and economic factors appear to be central to the demise of Bolivian football. While the sport advanced in leaps and bounds with astronomical figures being paid for players and to players, there have been very few Bolivian stars that have made it to the professional game.

The standard of living in the country has dropped very quickly and as football in the 1990's was thought of as work, is now considered to be a distraction. Or a pastime. A great many players in the youth categories divide their time between playing and their jobs and for that reason they are never fully fit and many do not make it as far as the first team at their clubs.

Also, the absence of professionalism in some clubs sees a lack of discipline instilled on the part of the players and the coaches. The anti-doping controls meant that many players were also caught out thanks to their enjoyment of the night life and the trainers were left searching for players.

Not only has this crisis affected the Bolivian national team, but also teams in the league and those playing in the Copa Libertadores as they find it tough to play at the highest level.

Many clubs also invest heavily in signing foreign players to try and strengthen the Bolivian league rather than gamble on promoting a youth team player from within because of the time and effort required.

The reality is exasperating. Before the game in midweek, the team lay in second from last place in the group, with only Peru below them, and many stating that their home was no longer a fortress.

Some outstanding names in the squad these days are Marcelo Martins, who is playing with Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, Ronald Raldes of Mexico's Cruz Azul, Ronald Garcia of Greek outfit Aris, and Juan Manuel Pena, who plies his trade with Celta Vigo in Spain's second division.

With 15 years having almost passed, there looked like there was little chance Bolivia could repeat the feat, but the win against Argentina has made people begin to believe that with a little more tinkering and some investment then things really could change for the better.

Joaquín Cavanna,