La Verde turn the corner
© AFP

The headlines in the year 1994 were dominated by a number of dramatic events, including Ayrton Senna's tragic death at the Italian Grand Prix in Imola and Nelson Mandela's historic election as President of South Africa. For football fans in Bolivia, however, that year will be remembered as the last time their national team graced a FIFA World Cup™ finals.

Though they exited USA 1994 after the first round, followers of La Verde still cherish their country's first and only goal scored at the elite event. That landmark effort in the 3-1 group defeat by Spain was struck by none other than Erwin Sanchez, the very man charged with guiding Bolivia to South Africa 2010 as national team coach. "Qualifying is no easy feat, but the hope and expectation with which we started this journey remains intact," says Sanchez, whose team have nine points from their ten games so far. "We intend to keep battling right to the very end."

"One of Bolivian footballers' biggest problems is a lack of self-confidence," says Sanchez, who has brought in Portuguese psychologist and behavioural specialist Ricardo Silva, whom he met during his time at Boavista. "The players need to convince themselves that they can compete with anybody."

The work of Sanchez and Silva in repairing the Bolivian players' damaged morale appears to be working, with La Verde inflicting leaders Paraguay's only qualifying defeat so far in a 4-2 home success in June. "Mental toughness is a key part of winning games," said Sanchez after the match. "If we can instil that in the players we'll have taken a huge step forward. It's vital we understand we can go toe-to-toe with any opponents." Though Bolivia lost their next game 3-1 away to Ecuador in Quito, they subsequently picked up a historic 0-0 draw in Brazil's Estadio Maracana ahead of a convincing 3-0 home win over Peru.

One of Bolivian footballers' biggest problems is a lack of self-confidence. The players need to convince themselves that they can compete with anybody.
Erwin Sanchez on changing the Bolivian mentality.

Bolivia currently sit way back in ninth place in the ten-team South American Zone, although just four points separate them from Uruguay in fifth - a position that offers a play-off against the fourth-placed team from CONCACAF qualifying. Indeed, the gap would have been even closer had Sanchez's charges not thrown away a two-goal lead in their last game and allowed La Celeste to rescue a 2-2 draw from La Paz.

"Everything was in place for us to win that game but we didn't take our chances and they levelled the match right at the end," said the coach. "That's always been one of the problems with Bolivian football, but we're not going to give up now."

With eight qualifiers still to play, Bolivia are set to welcome Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil to La Paz and travel to Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru. In order to hit the 25-point mark that earned Uruguay a play-off spot ahead of Germany 2006, Bolivia's best chance lies in taking all 12 points available at home, allied to a four-point haul from their remaining away matches.

"We never have it easy, but while we're still in with a mathematical chance we're going to give everything we've got to make it happen," vowed Sanchez. "The Bolivian people need this. Joyous moments like these can help mask internal strife and contribute to promoting peace. We dedicate each win to the people of Bolivia."

Aiding him in his mission are a core of solid, international-class individuals including keeper Carlos Arias, captain Ronald Raldes and lethal front pairing Marcelo Martins and Joaquin "El Camello" Botero, the latter recently becoming the all-time top scorer in national team history.

Botero and Co pick up the FIFA World Cup trail once more in late March 2009, first with a trip to Colombia followed by the visit of Diego Maradona's Argentina to La Paz. Can Erwin 'Platini' Sanchez continue to imbue his side with the confidence to keep their recent positive run going? And will that be enough to earn them a place at South Africa 2010?