The New York Times wrote bout our national sport:
Bolivian Clubs Are at Home in Thin Air
By EWAN MacKENNAMARCH 10, 2015
Tucked tightly among the high-rises of the Miraflores district of La Paz, Bolivia, the Hernando Siles stadium is one of those great South American dust bowls drenched in character. Yet few stadiums anywhere can match its home-field advantage: Nestled in the Andes at a lung-tightening 11,932 feet, it brings soccer to the very roof of the Americas.
Last month, it was where the Brazilian club Internacional arrived only hours before kicking off this season’s Copa Libertadores, the South American championship. Internacional had planned to spend only 12 hours in La Paz to minimize the effects of the city’s altitude, but even that was plenty for the environment to take its claustrophobic toll.
Just 36 minutes into the game, Internacional’s star midfielder, Anderson — a signing from Manchester United on which the club has mortgaged a chunk of its future — was substituted so that he could stumble to the bench and put on an oxygen mask. Slowly, at least a half dozen of his teammates drained as well, and eventually Internacional lost, 3-1, to its Bolivian host, the Strongest. [I remember that between the 60s and mid 80s… most team visitors came to La Paz and beat our local and national teams abundantly, at that time they never talked about the altitude excuse… ever since we went to the US World Cup and were the country who beat the Brazilian team for the first time in 40 years, these teams and players started “complaining”… football or soccer is not my sport for many reasons, however, I witnessed what I just wrote so I think it is just part of the show, like the Venezuelans who schedule their games around noon when temperature is at its highest, 40+C or over 100 F… just excuses!]
Watching that night in Buenos Aires and Belo Horizonte, a shudder must have run through the Argentine champions River Plate and the Brazilian titlists Cruzeiro. They were next up on a Bolivian pedestal.
In many ways, altitude has long been the most worrisome opponent for teams traveling to Bolivia to play soccer, enough of a factor that in 2007 FIFA briefly banned most matches there. The ban was later lifted, but Bolivia’s dizzying heights still force visitors to adjust travel schedules, training regimens and tactics. [that “sanction” came as a result that the most favorite teams lost here and/or were in a position to not go to the next World Cup]
They are also affecting this year’s Copa Libertadores, in which the three Bolivian entries — the Strongest, San José and Universitario — were unbeaten at home heading into this week’s matches. Universitario, the only Bolivian team to win away from home in this year’s competition, was leading its group entering Tuesday’s visit from Argentina’s Huracán, and San José has the chance to take over first place from Tigres of Mexico on Wednesday when the teams meet in Oruro, a mining town.
“This is one of the hardest matches we’re going to have,” River Plate’s coach, Marcelo Gallardo, said ahead of his club’s trip to Oruro in February. Little wonder, as the city looks down on La Paz from its perch at 12,168 feet.
In anticipation of the conditions, the River Plate medical staff resorted to doses of Viagra, which they contended would “stimulate circulation of oxygen.” It was not enough; River faded in the last 10 minutes, surrendering two late goals and becoming the latest in a series of big-name clubs slain by Bolivian opponents with a fraction of their budget and talent. (Cruzeiro fared better, earning a scoreless draw with Universitario at 9,200 feet in Sucre that surely produced a sigh of relief as they descended.)
“For those coming here, the biggest effect will be the head,” Jaime Sanchez of the University of San Andrés in La Paz said of visitors to Bolivia’s heights. “There’ll be headaches, spinning, confusion.”
What many do first, Sanchez said, is go at least a day before to Santa Cruz de la Sierra — which is halfway in terms of staggering altitude — to start acclimatizing.
“There are also remedies like tea from coca leaves, but much depends on individual metabolism,” he said. “As for us, obviously it’s normal. Over time, our bodies adjust.”
For others it can be beyond abnormal. The Hernando Siles, which also serves as Bolivia’s national stadium, is where, in 1993, Brazil lost a World Cup qualifier for the first time, and where, in 2009, Argentina endured a 6-1 thrashing that matched its worst defeat.
In the 2007 Copa Libertadores, the Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo left its beachside neighborhood and headed higher than any of those teams — nearly three miles up, to face Real Potosí. That they emerged with a point seemed insignificant after their players repeatedly went to the sideline for oxygen in the match’s closing stages. Flamengo officials called the conditions “unsporting and inhumane,” and as a result FIFA tried to prohibit matches above 8,200 feet.
The rule effectively banned games in most major cities in Bolivia, but also in the capitals of Colombia (Bogotá) and Ecuador (Quito), and prompted howls of protest from the affected nations. The charismatic and the controversial came out swinging: At 47, a well-rounded Diego Maradona played an exhibition game in the Hernando Siles, while the outspoken Bolivian president Evo Morales, who described the ruling as “football apartheid,” took part in a match at 17,300 feet.
Eventually the limit was modified enough to permit most international matches in the Andes, but even modest altitude limits do not apply in the Copa Libertadores, which can give Bolivian teams a distinct advantage.
“Mostly the problem is dehydration, because the body needs more oxygen to the cells,” the Cruzeiro physician Eduardo Pimenta said. “You struggle to breathe. Muscles burn. There’s fire in your throat and lungs.”
Ideally, Pimenta said, teams should arrive a month before, but that is impossible with clubs’ crowded schedules.
“Some clubs use oxygen chambers, but it’s so expensive and not so effective,” Pimenta said. “The best is to arrive a few hours before and be tactically clever. Tell players to slow the game, hold the ball, run less.
“When we drew there recently, one of our players touched the ball 27 times on the touchline. He didn’t do as told, suffered with the altitude and hurt the team. So you need to respect your limits.”
Most opponents concede that allowing Bolivian teams to play at altitude is fair, but it is not a level field. Over the previous 10 seasons of the Copa Libertadores, in 65 home games, Bolivian clubs have a 31-19 record, with 15 ties; in the same number of away games, that record drops to 3-53 with nine draws.
Indeed, after the Strongest, San José and Universitario started this year’s Libertadores nearly perfect, they have been a combined 1-3. But over the next week, all three of Bolivia’s representatives will return to their comfort zone, dragging the continent’s best out of theirs. At home near the top of the world, they can be mighty beyond their means for a day.
The whining continues as Bolivian teams rise their competitiveness. Before the USA World Cup, football/soccer teams would come to Bolivia and beat us mercilessly and then… for many, many years, almost since this sport became known in LAC, they never complained?!