The Bolivian national team is currently undergoing an extensive overhaul, with coach Julio Cesar Baldivieso – in charge since August 2015 – putting his faith in youth as part of his mission to get La Verde back to the FIFA World Cup™ for the first time since 1994. Among this crop of up-and-coming talents is goalkeeper Romel Quinonez, first-choice for Bolivian outfit Bolivar.
“My strength is coming for high balls, I go all out for them,” said the keeper, a robust performer with good reflexes and, indeed, notable ability in aerial situations. “I really like using my feet too. Every day I train with the outfield players, because nowadays a keeper has to be like an extra player, and not just stand between the sticks. I’m sure of myself with high balls and that’s something I learned from playing a lot of basketball as a child: being able to leap confidently and having safe hands.”
That composure and those qualities enabled him to rise to stardom, first at one of Bolivia’s most popular clubs and subsequently the national team. With the latter he made his senior debut in September 2013, under then coach Xabier Azkargorta, against Ecuador in Brazil 2014 qualifying, though it was at the Copa America 2015 where he shone the most for his country – in La Verde’s run to the quarter-finals.
However, then came a heavy blow for the custodian to take: a fracture of the scaphoid bone in his right wrist, which required surgical intervention. “Fortunately it all went well, but I was side-lined for around five months,” the 23-year-old told FIFA.com. “When the injury happened, it did make me wonder whether I’d be able to recover my form, to wonder why it had happened to me just when I was playing better than ever.
“Physically I got myself right again and that’s been a big help,” continued the Bolivia shot-stopper. “The ‘fear factor’ that I had about the hand, because you always have doubts after any operation, has gone. I’ve recovered the footballing sharpness I’d reached at the Copa America. I’m happy and relaxed.”
*Stuttering start and World Cup spirit
*Bolivia failed to get off to an ideal start in South American Zone qualifying for Russia 2018, currently languishing in eighth spot in the ten-team section with three points from four games, picked up in a home win over Venezuela. Quinonez, forced to sit out the qualifiers thus far due to his injury, is well aware of his team’s situation: “We know that we haven’t made a good start to qualifying, it wasn’t the one we’d hoped for.
“We’ve made mistakes, for example against Uruguay [in a 2-0 home defeat], and we all know how good a side they are. We need to make the most of home advantage, everyone knows that,” continued the No1, before praising the work of boss Baldivieso.
“The gaffer has been bringing in new faces, calling up young players from the Bolivian football scene. There’s a process going on that, in my opinion, should have been done before. For us young guys that play our football here, we’re hoping to make the very most of the opportunity we’re getting.”
Baldivieso himself was part of the legendary Bolivia squad that last graced a FIFA World Cup, back at USA 1994. “That team that played at the World Cup is always in mind. They’re footballing idols, examples to follow,” said Quinonez. “Coach Baldivieso tries to instil in us that ‘World Cup spirit’, giving us examples of what the experience was like and urging us to train hard so we can dream big. That shows us that nothing’s impossible. Reaching the World Cup is the dream of every Bolivian player. We’re going to fight for it until the very end.”
Idols, dreams and desires
Up next in Russia 2018 qualifying for La Verde are Colombia at home and Argentina away, with Quinonez in confident mood despite the size of the challenge. “It’s very clear to us that we can’t afford to drop any more points at home. We’re working to try and give ourselves, and the fans, something to celebrate.”
And, in footballing terms, how does the team propose to do that? “You’re going to see a gritty Bolivia side, one that goes on the front foot, trying to cancel out the opposition. We respect Colombia, but we’re focusing on ourselves. Then will come Argentina, where we’ve picked up important points in the past. Things haven’t gone well in the last two friendlies, but every game is different in every way.
“I’ve always enjoyed being a goalkeeper,” continued Quinonez, showing the same conviction in his discourse that he does on the pitch. “When I was a child I played with older boys and they’d stick me in goal. I learned a lot that way. My idol is Victor Valdes, I love his attitude, his personality. During the [Pep] Guardiola era, when Barcelona would come out playing from the back, he’d take risks, using his feet, and even if it didn’t come off sometimes, he’d keep doing it. He’s someone who I try to mirror, in order to achieve big things.”
And it is this same self-belief, part of which makes him such a daring goalkeeper, that enables Quinonez to dream big for his country too. “Come the end of qualifying, I see myself celebrating with the fans after sealing World Cup qualification,” he said, as the interview concluded. “We want to bring huge joy to all the Bolivian people.”