When the draw for the group phase of July’s Copa America was made back in November 2010, many Bolivian fans were left shaking their heads when their national side was drawn against hosts and title contenders Argentina in the competition’s opening game. Hardly surprising when you consider La Verde currently occupy 93rd spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings, compared to the tenth position held by La Albiceleste.
However, Bolivia’s centre-back and captain Ronald Raldes fully expected his side to come up against Lionel Messi and Co. “I didn’t watch the draw, but I just knew we were going to get Argentina,” Raldes told FIFA.com with a wry smile. “I could sense it; I even said so to some friends a few days beforehand. And that’s exactly what happened!”
Friday 1 July’s opening match will kick off the 30-year-old defender’s fourth Copa America campaign, and with such ample experience comes a determination to savour the big occasion: “It’ll be a really nice game to play in, a challenge to be enjoyed. And not just because of the game itself, but because of the special way they live and breathe football in this country.”
Raldes certainly knows what he is talking about, having spent six seasons in Argentinian club football, spanning spells with Rosario Central and current club Colon, whom he joined in May 2010. “It’ll be a really wonderful challenge,” continued the player, on the opening match set to be played in front of a packed house in La Plata.
“Argentina are one of the best national sides in South America and the world. We know it’ll be hard and that we’ve not played many games together, but we’re hoping to make the most of this opportunity to take on board what the coach (Gustavo Quinteros) wants and put it into practice on the pitch.”
The perfect man to ask given his role at the heart of the Bolivian backline, does Raldes feel La Verde can stop Barcelona superstar Messi? “It’ll be tough! He’s an unpredictable player who you can’t afford to give any space. We’ll have to stick close to him,” he said, before going on to outline the differences in defensive tactics between Europe and South America.
“There’s more man-marking and physical contact here than in the European game, but I don’t think that’ll affect Messi’s performance. Wherever it is you face him, if you give him space he’ll take you apart with ease. But we can’t make the mistake of thinking we only have to watch out for Messi, they’re all dangerous,” added Raldes, on an Argentina squad also including the likes of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain.
That may be the case, but recent history has shown that Bolivia can beat the two-time FIFA World Cup™ winners. Indeed, back in April 2009 La Verde thrashed the Argentinians 6-1 in La Paz in a South Africa 2010 qualifier, though Raldes, an unused substitute that day, does not feel it will have a bearing on Friday’s Group A meeting: “That was a spectacular win but it’s just another statistic now. It must have been a very painful blow for them but they’ll want to beat us this time to pick up three points, not because of what happened that day. Let’s hope we’re up to the task.”
As the conversation drew to a close, the well-travelled central defender chose to underline that Bolivia’s Copa bid does not begin and end with the Argentina match. “We’ve got group matches against Costa Rica and Colombia too, and I think we’ve got a great chance against them,” he said. “Our aim is to make it through to the next round and also to prepare for (2014 FIFA) World Cup qualifying, as with Brazil out of the equation it’ll throw the door wide open for every other team.”