Adam Williams reports for These Football Times:
April Fools’ Day is not widely celebrated in Argentina. For most Spanish-speaking countries, 28 December – Holy Innocents’ Day – is the equivalent window for far-fetched headlines and phantom pregnancies. But after hearing the news on 1 April 2009, legions must have though Latin America had adopted Western tradition.
Uno; Moreno. Dos; Botero. Tres; da Rosa. Cuatro; Botero. Cinco; Botero. Seis; Torrico. Bolivia 6-1 Argentina. On the touchline stood the man they call “dios”, looking distinctly mortal as he watched his World Cup dream begin to disappear, quite literally, into thin air.
Sitting at between 10,650 and 13,250 feet above sea level, La Paz is the highest national capital in the world. The city was built in the canyon left behind by the Choqueyapu River, though a population boom over the last 50 years has caused its matchbox houses to crawl up the dusty slopes and spill out over the edges of its shadowy basin.
In Miraflores, one the city’s more affluent boroughs, stands Estadio Hernando Siles. In this 41,000-capacity concrete bowl, every ball feels like a Jabulani – the rarefied air causing it to fly quicker and more unpredictably through the West Bolivian heat. More pressing to a visiting team than the trajectory of their shots, however, is their inability to draw breath. The debilitating effects – both physiological and psychological – of the extreme altitude in La Paz transform its dry grass into remarkably fertile ground for an underdog victory.
Twice, Bolivia have reached the final of the Copa America – both times on home soil. In 1963 they were victorious, beating Brazil 5-4 on the final matchday of the round-robin to claim the title. In those days, the Copa América – or the South American Championship as it was then branded – was not a particularly prestigious competition. Few teams came with full-strength squads; in fact, the Brazil team which Bolivia overcame that day contained not a single one of the illustrious names that won the World Cup in Chile nine months earlier.
Thirty-four years later, the Estadio Hernando Siles was the stage for an altogether more impressive achievement as Bolivia reached the final, again against Brazil. This time they lost, but there was glory in defeat. Goals from Denilson, Ronaldo and Zé Roberto saw that the hosts were unable to complete one of the biggest upsets in South American football history.
O Fenômeno lived up to his billing that night, but while his thrusting brilliance formed the most evocative narrative, it didn’t tell the whole story. Brazil’s opener was three feet offside and, somehow, they managed to avoid being reduced to ten men after Edmundo punched Luis Cristaldo square in the jaw with the score still at 1-1.
There had been a few one-offs since – a 4-0 victory over Colombia in 2003 and a 3-1 reversal of the 1997 final against Brazil in 2001 – but until 2009 the silver medal on home soil was indisputably Bolivia’s greatest achievement in football. A Bolivian legend, Erwin Sánchez, scored Bolivia’s only goal that evening, and it was he that would oversee a single, ultimately inconsequential match that would rival any of the grand occasions that came before it.
Enter Diego Maradona. In Santiago, on 15 October 2008, a masterclass from former boss Marcelo Bielsa earned his Chile side a 1-0 victory over Argentina on matchday 10 of the World Cup qualifying campaign. The response, as is so often the case in South America, was quasi-apocalyptic. After some soul-searching, Alfio Basile resigned his post as national team manager – although the speculation in the media was that the two-time Copa América winner jumped before he was pushed.
La Albiceleste sat in third place in a qualifying table from which four teams progress automatically and a fifth enters an inter-confederation playoff. Perhaps a little critical distance might have shown the Argentine FA that, with seven games left, now was not the time to chop and change. But chop they did, and the change turned out to be the starting gun for one of the most unforgettable periods in Argentina’s football history – and, in turn, one the most joyous nights in Bolivia’s.
With the managerial hot-seat vacant, there was no shortage of candidates looking to take the throne. Carlos Bianchi, whose most recent position was with Atlético Madrid, was touted. So too was Diego Simeone, then of River Plate. But despite his squat frame, Maradona’s casts a long shadow in Argentina; when he threw his hat into the ring, there was only ever going to be one outcome. El Diego was appointed on 29 October 2008.
He enjoyed a perfect start in what was predictably advertised as his second coming. A 1-0 victory over Scotland in his first match was followed by a convincing 2-0 win in France – both in friendlies. In his first competitive match, Argentina annihilated Venezuela 4-0. With Javier Mascherano, Gabriel Heinze, Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso, Fernando Gago and a seemingly bottomless well of attacking talent to draw from, the squad that Maradona inherited didn’t suffer from the same imbalance as more recent incarnations.
But to say that no one foresaw what came next is not the whole truth. Before the 6-1 in La Paz, Bolivia sat second-bottom while Argentina were second-top. The hosts had won just two of their opening 11 matches. But the Bolivian national team exists almost solely for these big occasions, the home matches against the continental big-wigs.
They have qualified for just one World Cup, in 1994, when the CONMEBOL process was arguably easier to navigate by virtue of its being split into two groups. And yet, in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup they’d beaten Colombia 4-0, taken draws against Brazil and Uruguay, and were only narrowly defeated by Argentina at home. The altitude makes the stadium a utilitarian monument to home advantage. But while logistics and geography meant that defeat in the shadow of the Andes was not out of the question for Argentina, a 6-1 walloping certainly was.
Seven months before taking the Argentina job, Maradona had taken part in a charity match at the Hernando Siles in protest against FIFA’s controversial ban on international matches taking place above 8,200 feet above sea level. “You have the right to play where you were born. That cannot be decided neither by God nor much less by Blatter,” said Maradona at half time, before charging the then-FIFA president with “playing with the passions of the Bolivian people.”
He scored a hat-trick in a 7-4 Argentina Legends XI win. The message, if a touch misguided, was clear: if I, a 48-year-old former drug addict, can play here, so too can professionals at the height of their game. The ban was overturned not long after.
He made no reference to altitude after the defeat in La Paz. “I suffered with them,” he said instead. “Every Bolivian goal was like a dagger in my heart.” But this was less the assignation of Julius Ceaser and more a prison yard shanking; Bolivia used their environment, their oxygen-bearing red blood cells, and every trick in the book to close the yawning talent gap.
Even before they scored four between them in the historic victory on 1 April, Joaquín Botero and Marcelo Moreno were the top-scorers in the qualifying campaign. And yet, the pair didn’t even travel to Bogotá to face Colombia four days earlier. Erwin Sánchez’s intentions were clear: keep his best knives sharp for the big occasion.
At the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, Argentina lost to 6-1 to Czechoslovakia. For 61 years, that result was out on its own as the worst in La Albiceleste’s history. But when Didí Torrico – a 21-year-old midfielder without a Wikipedia page – smashed in the sixth from 25 yards with five minutes to go, the calamity in Helsingborg had a new rival. “Histórico, histórico, histórico, histórico,” shrilled the Bolivian television commentator.
It was Botero’s backheel that set up the sixth. Half an hour earlier, he had completed an unforgettable hat-trick. With fresh legs after not featuring in the defeat to Colombia the previous Saturday, his off-the-shoulder run dissected the lumbering Heinze and Mascherano and caught the attention of Álex da Rosa. Botero received his through-ball and bundled home.
Argentina had been pissing in the wind up until the 66th minute when, after Ángel Di María was sent off, they seemed to give up pissing altogether. For the six minutes he was on the pitch, the Benfica winger was their best player, in no small part because his lungs weren’t burning after over an hour’s hard graft in the rarefied air. But his violent swipe to the back of Ronald García’s lower leg gave the referee no choice but to dismiss him. He looked like he was walking to the gallows as he slumped off. With him went any fanciful hopes of an Argentina revival.
By this point, their manager was squirming visibly on the touchline, looking less like a god and more like a timid boy asking for his ball back. For all the romance in its sweeping vistas and colourful backstreets, La Paz, it transpired, was no place for a honeymoon.
His strategy on 1 April was certainly sacrilegious. Fielding nine of the same tired players that featured in the 4-0 win over Venezuela four days earlier, Maradona decided that Argentina would simply try and play their expansive natural game – a kamikaze mission in such extreme conditions. In a frenetic match, Juan Román Riquelme’s slowdown was sorely missed. “We are not on the same wavelength. We don’t agree much. My codes are not his and it is clear that we cannot work together,” Riquelme said of Maradona after his appointment.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Tim Vickery wrote about the ideal game plan for teams visiting La Paz: “The idea is to run as little as possible, so the team must stay compact, giving the man on the ball plenty of options for a pass. They must not defend too deep – it stretches out the team and makes it easy for the home side to shoot from range – very dangerous at altitude.” Tactical naivety would be a hallmark of Maradona’s reign, making for rapturously compelling viewing.
The warning signs presented themselves almost instantly. Bolivia had a number of openings in the first ten minutes before García zapped past Gago and quite literally tackled the ball forward through to Reyes. He teed up Moreno who scored the opener with his sixth goal of qualifying.
Argentina equalised, but less than ten minutes later, Zanetti’s uncharacteristically cloddish tackle brought Da Rosa to the floor ten yards from goal. Botero dispatched form the spot and moved two clear as Bolivia’s all-time leading goalscorer. It wasn’t quite a Panenka, but it wasn’t far off.
With seconds to go until half-time, Lionel Messi’s 35-yard free-kick was caught by goalkeeper Carlos Arias, whose lacerating blast upfield found the feet of the main man, Botero. He took the ball to the byline and feathered in a far-post cross that splattered off the hair gel of Da Rosa, bounced into the arid turf and found the back of the net.
It was a hot day in La Paz, but Argentina creaked around the pitch at glacial speed. Bolivia, by contrast, were zipping and zapping about as though their pre-match ritual involved the locally grown coca leaf. Nowhere was the disparity more evident than the fourth goal. Zanetti stepped up at exactly the wrong time; Torrico stormed up the pitch and lofted a long-ball over his head. It fell perfectly at the flashing lime green boots of Moreno on the right-wing. Botero was waiting in the middle for the cross. He twisted, stooped and headed in the fourth.
Those were the goals, the weapons of the regicide inflicted on Maradona that day. It was home advantage taken to the nth degree. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Bolivia finished second bottom of the table and Argentina qualified for the World Cup, though they needed astonishing last-gasp victories over Peru and Uruguay to get them over the line. Bolivia won just one of their next 23 games – but that one came against Brazil, a 2-1 victory in October later that year. Funny old game.
Diego Maradona’s star-crossed term as Argentina manager ended after his side was beaten 4-0 by Germany at the World Cup in South Africa. Argentina have met Bolivia twice at tge Estadio Hernando Siles in the 11 years since. They won neither, drawing 1-1 in 2013 – Mascherano and Di Maria both needed oxygen masks and Messi was sick on the pitch – and losing 2-0 in the most recent meeting in 2017.
Bolivia continue to have the worst reputation in South American football, but their home in La Paz remains a church of upsets. Talk about turning up the heat, the Estadio Hernando Siles is Mustafar.
By Adam Williams