High Expectations: A Visit to Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz

Club Bolivar vs LDU Quito
Copa Sudamericana, Second Round, 1st Leg.
Estadio Hernando Siles, La Paz.
12.07.17

A visit to one of the highest football stadiums ever constructed was not something I had actually considered prior to my initial enquiry into football fixtures in La Paz. However with a six day stay booked in the city perched at one of the greatest altitudes of any in the world, I thought it best to try and seek out a match in the stadium previously seated in the midst of a FIFA debate due to it's elevation above sea level. A quick google detailed an upcoming encounter between Club Bolivar – Bolivia's most successful club of all time – and LDU Quito, travelling from Ecuador for the first leg of a Second Round tie in the Copa Sudamericana, South America's secondary club cup competition.

The infamous Estadio Hernando Siles and the Bolivian National Team had previously come under fire after being reportedly priviliged by an 'unfair advantage' when hosting international home games at the ground. To put into context just how considerable this advantage might be, a notable World Cup Qualifier with Argentina in 2009 conjured up a surprising 6-1 victory in favour of the Bolivians. More recently in 2013, in a 1-1 draw against the same opposition, Lionel Messi had appeared to throw up on the pitch at half-time whilst team-mates Javier Mascherano and Angel di Maria required the administration of additional oxygen from the medical team.

Constructed in 1931 at an altitude of 3,637 metres, Estadio Hernandes Siles has a spectator capacity of 41,143 making it the largest in Bolivia. Alongside the fact that it is nestled in the heart of the country's capital city, it makes an obvious home for the Bolivian national side. However in 2007, following numerous complaints from competing teams, FIFA introduced a ban on World Cup Qualifying matches being played above an elevation of 2,500 metres. Following strong protest from affected countries the ruling was revised to 3,000 metres, with special dispensation granted for Estadio Hernandes Siles. Since then Bolivian home ties have continued to be played at the venue.

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With such a storied history it was exciting to be attending a game at the stadium on a cold Wednesday evening in the middle of the Bolivian winter. True to their record as the most successful club in the country, Club Bolivar had secured the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano top spot for the 27th time in their history at the end of last season. Their opponents Liga de Quito finished in a less fortunate tenth position after the first phase of their season in the Ecuadorian domestic league Primera A. The instance of meeting is the Copa Sudamericana, a secondary intercontinental knock out competition underneath the Copa Libertadores. Any effect of altitude won't hold up as an excuse for tonight's visitors with their home city of Quito also located in the Andean region at a height of 3000 metres.

With this in mind a competitive game of football was to be expected. In the vicinity of the ground a myriad of street vendors were peddling everything from pre-match snacks to apparently popular thin polystyrene sheets, which it later transpired were for additional comfort against the moulded plastic seats fixed loosely to the cold concrete structure. After aquiring a ticket acquired for 60Bs. (approximately £6.60) in the area behind the goals (Curva Sur), I headed inside between an unnerving number of armed police.

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Although no details were made available as to the final attendance, the match drew a passionate crowd with almost 3 sides largely full. Unallocated seating afforded the luxury of choice and I elected to sit near the back end of the lower tier, elevated above the fence and running track which isolates the playing surface. Curva Norte opposite held the heartiest assemblage of fans, identified by a display of large blue flags, banners and somewhere underneath a brass band, these are the most loyal Bolivar afficionados. Food and drink were in plentiful supply as ushers hurried about the terrace offering jelly and ice cream, freshly made sandwiches and hot coffee – better than queueing for 20 minutes over half-time for a pie and bovril!

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Football in Bolivia is as popular as elsewhere in South America, despite perhaps not being widely publicised as such, and the amount of families that appeared to be in attendance was pleasantly surprising. In a corner of the footballing globe yet to fall foul of astronomical ticket pricing and commercialisation it is great to see midweek entertainment available at a affordable price for all, hopefully it manages to continue that way for the forseeable future.

The on-pitch spectacle was a largely uneventful affair although at the same time an entertaining match. The style of play from both sides was very wide open and the match was almost played at the pace of a friendly, something which can probably be attributed to the size of the Hernando Siles pitch. Neither side dominated the early exchanges with a host of opportunities passed up, the best of which fell to Quito striker Hernán Barcos who couldn't quite take advantage of a free header to convert a well-placed delivery. Bolivar eventually took the initiative early in the second half and scored with a well-struck free kick from an unlikely angle, cue pandemonium in the stands. This settled the nerves of the home side and they managed to see out the remainder of the ninety minutes without too much trouble. Indeed they might even have doubled their advantage had wing-back Edemir Rodríguez managed to maintain composure after a rebound fell at his feet 8 yards from goal, his attempt scuffed wide of the mark with a near open goal gaping.

Interestingly it was more difficult than I'd imagined to accurately assess the standard in comparison to European football. There were a few flair players that caught the eye and this led to some clever and well-worked passages of play. The stand out performance was that of Bolivar's No.7, Gastón Sirino. Short in stature and with a low centre of gravity he showed a great turn of pace to lose defenders on more than one occasion prompting rousing excitement from the crowd. A mention also for his team-mate and fellow winger Juan Arce, scorer of the free kick and one of the most competent and experienced players on the ball, between the two of them they made the difference for Bolivar.

With the home victory wrapped up the hoards of satisfied fans spilled out of the Hernando Siles into the unpredictably steep and winding streets of the Miraflores neighborhood. The area was as lively as it had been before kick-off, if not more so. A quick stop at a kebab shop rounded off the matchday experience before descent through Parque Urbano Central where the midweek entertainment continues in the form of group dance and five a-side football, an extension of the main event showing a cultural enthusiasm truly unique to South America.

The return leg of the tie follows on the 2nd August, one which I'll definitely be keeping an eye on with hope of a Club Bolivar progression to the next round!

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