Bolivia are licking their wounds after Friday’s 5-0 defeat at the hands of Colombia in Barranquilla, a result that has checked the momentum they had built up following the arrival of Xabier Azkargorta as coach in the middle of last year. Yet with group leaders Argentina coming to town on Tuesday in the next round of qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the Bolivians have no time to feel sorry themselves.
Though the immediate outlook for the team and their loyal fans is not bright, they do have grounds for optimism, namely a three-match unbeaten run against their upcoming opponents, a record that no other South American side can match.
The sequence began in April 2009, in the qualifying competition for South Africa, when Bolivia, then coached by Erwin Sanchez, inflicted a historic 6-1 win on the visiting Argentinians, who were under the tutelage of Diego Maradona at the time. With Gustavo Quinteros then at the helm, the Bolivians thwarted La Albiceleste in the opening game of the 2011 Copa America with a 1-1 draw in La Plata in June of that year, a result that the underdogs repeated five months later, this time in Buenos Aires, in the first meeting between the sides in the qualifiers for Brazil 2014.
That three-game run begs an obvious question: can Bolivia be regarded as Argentina’s bogey team? “No,” was the emphatic response from national team captain Ronald Raldes, in conversation with FIFA.com. Elaborating on that answer, the 31-year-old, who has held the post on and off since 2005 and who missed the Colombia defeat through suspension, said: “There’s a story to every one of those games, and while it’s true that we’ve held the upper hand lately, I remember them coming to La Paz with Jose Pekerman in the dugout and beating us not so long ago (a 2-1 win in 2005). Make no mistake, this next game will be different to the rest.”
A wise head
A veteran of no fewer than 38 FIFA World Cup qualifiers since 2001, the central defender is the most experienced player in Azkargorta’s squad and also knows a thing or two about Argentinian football, having run out for Rosario Central between 2004 and 2008 and played for the last three years for Colon. In that time he played alongside a young Angel Di Maria and faced the likes of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi, to name but a few members of the current Argentina side.
“That’s true, but the thing is, they’re even better now than they were then,” he smiled, before going on to explain how that experience will stand him in good stead for Tuesday’s daunting test. “In Argentina the game’s played at a different pace, and the dynamics and physical side of things are different, which I think gives me a little bit of an advantage when it comes to playing them. But if I’m unable to bring that to the team and allow everyone to draw on my experience, then it counts for nothing.”
Raldes is also aware that Argentina are a different side to the one that has failed to beat the Bolivians in their last three meetings: “They’re making the most of their individual strengths and they’ve matured as a team, as you can see from the results they’ve been getting. Putting Barranquilla to one side, we’re not the same team we were in the first half of the qualifying competition, and I honestly don’t think they’ll come out on the attack. I can see them taking precautions too because there’s a lot of mutual respect there.”
Raldes was equally frank when asked to explain the gameplan Bolivia might pursue on Tuesday: “Up to now we’ve taken the game to everyone we’ve played, home and away, and we’ve put in some good performances. In La Paz it’s usually visiting sides who sit back and deny us space. The key is to stay patient because the fans really get behind us sometimes and that can work against us. We have to remember that we’ve got 90 minutes to win the game.”
Though Friday’s defeat in Colombia proved a setback, results elsewhere meant it was not such a disastrous day for the Bolivians. Though they remain one place off the bottom of the table with eight points, they are only four points adrift of Venezuela, who currently occupy the play-off spot.
“We still believe,” said Raldes, ending the conversation on a positive note. “We’re also very much aware that it’s still in our hands. If we fail to pick up at least a point, we’ll be a long way off the pace and virtually out of the World Cup. That’s why we’re aiming to win and to keep on making progress. All of us would love to go to Brazil and to go down in Bolivian football history.”