Bolivar, the finest academy in Bolivia

Damián Lizio of Bolívar celebrates a goal during a classic match as part of the Copa Cine Center at Hernando Siles Stadium, on June 30, 2012
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To make a mark on the game of football, clubs do not necessarily need to have 100 years of history behind them. Proof of that is provided by Club Bolivar of Bolivia, who throughout their relatively short existence of 87 years have stuck to the same cultured philosophy, one that has led to them being dubbed La Academia. Given that nickname, it is no surprise that some of the country’s finest players have pulled on the club’s sky blue jersey, helping to make El Celeste the best supported and most successful side in Bolivia. charts their history. 

Birth of an institutionWhen a group of friends from La Paz’s middle classes came together in 1925 to found a football club, they had one thing very clear in their minds: to break with the fashion of the times, and give their new outfit a Spanish rather than English name.

That year was the centenary of the country’s independence, and a proposal to name the club Bolivar, in honour of Simon Bolivar – the liberator of South America and the first president of the Bolivian Republic – was quickly accepted.

Also anxious to express the link between sport and culture, its founders suggested calling the new club Atletico Bolivar-Literario Musical, a name that was nevertheless shortened to Club Atletico Bolivar for practical purposes.

Adopting sky blue as the colour of its kit, a choice unheard of at the time, Bolivar came into being on 12 April 1925.

*The making of a legend *The La Paz side joined the capital city’s football association two years later, ending that inaugural season as runners-up. Emboldened by their start, La Academia would spend the remainder of the amateur era forging their legend as a big club, winning six regional league titles between 1932 and 1949 and finishing runners-up on five other occasions in that period.

The legendary Victor Ugarte, widely regarded as one of the greatest Bolivian players of all time, was already an established figure at the club when the game turned semi-professional.

With El Maestro in their ranks, Bolivar won three more championships in the 1950s, the last of them in 1956, a year in which the Bolivian outfit earned the admiration of the whole of South America in a series of international friendlies. The outstanding highlight of those games was the 7-2 thrashing they dished out to River Plate in the Bolivian capital, a game in which Ugarte scored a hat-trick against a side that would win the Argentinian title for the third time running the following year.

While relegation to the second division of the La Paz league in 1964 marked the lowest point in the club’s history, an immediate return to the top flight triggered a golden period for La Academia, one in which they lifted the 1966 Copa Simon Bolivar, as the national league was known at the time.  

Bolivar’s rivalry with The Strongest, La Paz’s other big team, grew during those years. With the advent of the Professional Football League in 1977 the importance of the fixture, known as the superclásico, extended beyond the boundaries of the capital.

Spurred on by the forward thinking of Mario Mercado, the most influential president in El Celeste’s history, Bolivar figured among the leading sides in the newly founded national league, winning the competition in 1978. Inspired by great names such as Carlos Aragones and later Carlos Borja, they would win four more league championships in the decade that followed.

Also starring in those sides were Erwin Romero, Argentinian import Carlos Lopez and the home-grown Vladimir Soria, one of Bolivar’s all-time idols. “After pulling on that shirt, how could I go and wear a different one?” said the one-club hero after he had retired.

It was that crop of players who transformed Bolivar into a specialist cup team, one that qualified for the Copa Libertadores five times during the 80s, and went 24 home games unbeaten in the competition between 1983 and 1994. La Academia’s finest Libertadores performance came in 1986, when they reached the second and final group phase only to come up against Paraguay’s Olimpia and America de Cali of Colombia, who would go on to contest the second of their three consecutive finals.

Bolivar’s fame spread even further in the 90s, thanks to their domination of the Bolivian scene and their seven Libertadores appearances during the decade, though they failed to progress farther than the quarter-finals in that time. Distinguished members of Bolivia’s so-called golden generation, Milton Melgar, Marco Antonio Sandy, Marco Etcheverry and Julio Valdivieso all formed part of La Academia in those years, the four of them representing their country at USA 1994.

The presentSandy was the man entrusted with infusing the crop that followed, which included Oscar Sanchez and Limberg Gutierrez, with the same will to win. Coached by Soria, they came close to international success in the 2004 Copa Sudamericana, losing to Boca Juniors in the final. And when Bolivar became a limited company in 2008 their popularity remained undimmed, with surveys estimating that some 35 per cent of Bolivian people supported the team. Success has continued on the pitch too. The 2011 championship triumph was La Academia’s 17th since 1977, nearly double the nine won by arch rivals The Strongest over the same period.

2012 has nevertheless proved a bittersweet year for Bolivar. After becoming the first Bolivian side to reach the Libertadores last 16 since 2000 – when they themselves advanced to the quarter-finals – they fell to an 8-0 defeat to Santos in the return leg, one of the heaviest losses ever recorded in the competition. Despite that setback, Bolivar can still proudly lay claim to being the only Bolivian side to have qualified for the Copa Libertadores on 28 occasions and to feature among the top ten point scorers in the history of the tournament.

The stadiumOpened in 1976, the Estadio Libertador Simon Bolivar initially held 30,000 fans, though that figure has been reduced by half due to structural issues. As a result, La Academia now play their home games at the Estadio Hernando Siles de La Paz, the biggest stadium in the country. Boasting a capacity of 42,000, it was opened in 1931 and has hosted matches at three Copa Americas, in addition to a number of FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers and a variety of concerts and shows.

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