High Expectations

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.

IMG_5459.JPG

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.

IMG_5472.JPG

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!

IMG_5462.JPG

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!

Advertisements

la Pasión Boquense

This article also published on the Buenos Aires blog on inbedwithmaradona.com and can be read here.

Saturday 10th June 2017

Announcing itself in a celebration of brightly coloured buildings, the neighbourhood of La Boca boasts an identity of tradition and cultural diversity. Arriving on foot, you find yourself in the heart of the district with almost no warning or expectation. It’s early Saturday afternoon, the street markets are bustling and dancers exhibiting the famous Argentine Tango begin their matinee performances in the cafes and bars. The most striking thing to note upon first visit, is the closeness of it all. Sidling between market stalls and up stairways into crowded shops, most of the tourist orientated merchandise is packed into two or three colourful, picturesque streets.

In this sense La Boca appears a typical tourist trap. Tango dancers with a wardrobe of costume lure passers by into posing for photos, plastic effigies of Pope Francis are wheeled out on street corners and a man who looks vaguely like Diego Maradona bounces a ball in a fake Argentina strip. But it is only natural for the people of the area to monetise what has become such an identifiable corner of Buenos Aires. It has much to say for itself, but what brought me here was the stadium which peaks behind the aged rooftops, La Bombanera, the home of Boca Juniors.

Museo de la Pasión Boquense is the title of the tour and museum package sold at the stadium. This includes a guided tour around the ground and access to an exhibition of items and interactive media which tell the story of Club Atletico Boca Juniors. I came as a football fan, to get a better perspective of the club and say I’d been to visit the stadium, but the experience provided a deeper understanding of the roots of the club and the signifcance it holds for the people who surround their lives with it.

For many in Argentina, football is treated as a way of life. This holds true for Boca fans, moreso than many. It’s the reason their rivalry with city counterparts River Plate, ‘el Superclásico’ is considered one of the most intense and dangerous in the world, it’s the reason their homes, businesses and lamposts within the stadium vicinity are painted in blue and yellow club colours, and it’s the reason the team are known and revered across world football today.

image8

‘In case you forget where you are, everything is painted as a reminder’

Ticket purchased, and with half an hour until the guided stadium tour began, there was time for a quick peruse of the museum beforehand. Drawing my attention was a dome shaped room with the appearance of a football displaying 360° video inside. It documented the journey of a young local playing in the shadow of the stadium who grows up to play for the first team. All filmed within the immediate vicinity of the ground, with the viewer placed as the subject of the story, it communicates the passion and desire that the club effects on it’s community from a young age.

The other exhibit which piqued my interest, was a large model of the traditional homes which overlook the docks only a few streets away from the stadium. It was poignant that football had no visible mention or suggestion here. It stands as homage to the people, industry and diversity which led to the formation of the club. Set against a dark night sky, small video projections lend life to the windows. Within them Tango dancers, a family eating dinner, people drinking in a bar. A snapshot of life before Boca Juniors. With large influx of European immigrants the dockland area was one of many borrowed influences. Specifically it were immigrants from Genoa who set about the foundation of a football club, hence the nickname ‘Xeneizes’ (Genoese) a nod to the clubs original founders.

Time arrived for the tour to begin. In a large group numbering around 40 people we were led from the museum through a concourse and into the lowest rows of seating in the ‘flat’ stand. The most recent notable upgrade, this stand was built in 1996 and consists mainly of VIP seating. In stark contrast to the other three surrounding sides of the stadium, which are cast in concrete and form a continous wrap around the pitchside, it stands alone, a vertical tower block-like presence unique to La Bombanera. Despite it’s comparitively low profile and unorthodox structure, it’s proximity to the pitch enhances the atmosphere within the stadium. Venturing up to the top a rather nausea-inducing experience for those with a dislike for heights.

image4

‘The touchline yards away from the closest row of seats.’

As the only English-speaking couple in a group of that size, we’d resigned ourselves to picking up on odd words during the tour in broken Spanish. However during the introduction the tour guide, Sabrina, asked around for anyone who would like it conducted in a different language. For the remainder of the tour she continued following us up with a one on one English synopsis after every meeting point, of which we were hugely appreciative.

image5

The next stop was the terracing behind the goal, as the lowest tier in the stadium, these tickets are the cheapest to obtain. It is also the section in which the most devoted fans can be found on a matchday, filling the air with noise and putting on a display of streamers, flags and banners synonymous with the legendary La Bombanera atmosphere. The steps closest to the playing surface actually lie around 2-3 feet below pitch level, meaning that the view here is one of the most restricted in the stadium in terms of actually watching the football. The view is further obscured by the tall chicken-wire fence which seperates the spectators from the players, when a goal is scored a mass rush towards the fence can be expected, with an ambitious few even scaling it as if attempting escape! No doubt a rather intimidating experience for those on the pitch.

image3

The tour was rounded off with a visit to the home dressing room, press area and a celebratory room with statues of club legends, amongst them Martin Palermo, Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Maradona. Funds for these were raised by fan contributions and testament is paid to each one in the form of their name inscribed on the plinth on which the statue stands. It shows the extent to which these players inspired the fan-base, that people were willing to donate money to have them immortalised in bronze. The tour ended on exiting this room, however no pressure was applied to for us leave the stadium. The opposing end of terracing left free to reign for photo opportunities, or sit and eat lunch with a view as we decided.

On leaving La Bombanera we headed back towards the throng of markets at the dock. Fresh from the Boca experience, I couldn’t resist a replica retro shirt. The collared Nike design of season 1997/98, worn by Diego Maradona in his last season at the club, one of many on display with local vendors. On a concrete square, separated from the world by rusting blue and yellow fencing, young locals are involved in a heated kick about. Perhaps one of them may become a future Boca star…

image9

image7.JPG

 

Buenos Aires Futbol Amigos

Following on from setting out in Rio de Janiero, Eilidh and I have made our way down to Buenos Aires. A brief stop either side of the border to take in the sights of Iguazu Falls a welcome interruption. Similarly to Brazil, Argentina is famously known for it’s love of football, so naturally I saught out my fix here also. Prior to our arrival I had enquired via TripAdvisor forum post as to where best for joining in a game, and been pointed in the direction of BAFA (Buenos Aires Futbol Amigos).

BAFA is set up to bring together indivuals looking for a game of football. The process is simple, create an account with them and join arranged games at a time that suits you. I selected a ‘6 v 6’ game at 9pm on the Friday night to be played at a complex of pitches in the area of Palermo, around half an hour from where we are staying in Retiro.

Upon arrival I was greeted by a couple of the others that were waiting next to our alloted pitch. Following a quick chat I understood that the team I was sorted into included Jake and Kenny – two American students spending a semester here; Mark – a journalist from Wales who’d lived here for 10 years; Wouter – a Dutchman; and Danny – who seemed to do most of the organising. The opposing team was largely made up of Argentinians.

No one said ‘nae blasters’…

We played for little over an hour, the standard was good and the game was played in the right spirit. Having not played in around 6 weeks I thoroughly enjoyed the run out. Following the game Eilidh and I were invited to join a couple of the players, Jake and Kenny, for a drink nearby. It was great to find out a little bit more about them and why they were staying here.

Regrettably we leave Buenos Aires on the coming Tuesday, so won’t have any time to squeeze in another game, however if I’m lucky enough to return I’d definitely be joining a few BAFA matches again. It was a fantastic way to meet some new people and participate in the common language of football!

 

Fluminense x Gremio

FeaturedFxGBlogPost

 

Wednesday 31st May 2017
Estádio do Maracanã

Attendance: 21,172

When my girlfriend Eilidh and I set about planning our extended trip throughout South America, with Rio de Janiero the intended start point, one of the top of my list of ‘things to see’ was the Maracanã.

As a staunch football fan, the opportunity of visiting such a famous ground seemed almost too good to be true. Indeed at the time that appeared to be the case, as when we finalised the trip booking in early February of this year, no competitive football had been played at the Maracanã since October.

Remarkable as it seems, having undergone a £500 million refurbishment and playing host to two major sporting events in the last 3 years, the stadium had been left in a state of disrepair. Neither the Rio 2016 organising committee or Maracanã SA, the company normally in charge of running the stadium, were prepared to take responsibility for it’s state post-olympics. None of Rio’s club teams who use the ground as their home pitch, could afford the regular upkeep to fulfil fixtures, leaving it to decay over a matter of months.

Fortunately, the situation was apparently resolved to an agreeable level in March and domestic fixtures resumed, although the tour and museum remained closed.

The large, empty concourse.

img_4417-1

Not a pie, nor Bovril in sight!

 

I was delighted to find out that a fixture fell on the dates during our stay. The return leg of a Last 16 draw in the Copa do Brasil, Fluminense x Gremio. The former trailed 3-1 from the away leg, which meant it was all to play for in from of a home crowd. We were assured at a tourist information spot that we would be ok to turn up on the night and purchase tickets. This proved to be the case, although the queue at the Bilheteria (ticket office) was long and moved dreadfully slow – we queued from around 45 minutes before kick off and didn’t get in until ten minutes after the start. Disappointment at missing the first part of the game was allayed by the reasonable entrance fee, 40R$ (£9.60) per ticket.

Running out 2-0 winners on the night, most of the on pitch entertainment was provided by Gremio. I don’t know much about the form of Brazilian teams but Fluminense appear to be going through a rough patch. They lacked any chance creation in the final third and their defence was caught out with the same ball over the top for both goals, on another night Gremio could have had four or five. Some targeted jeers from the home fans suggested this isn’t the first time they’ve played so poorly.

image2.JPG

Fluminense in search of a consolation late in the second half. Triangular nets!

 

Despite this the home support generated a rousing atmosphere. The official attendance was announced at 21,172, but the comparatively small crowd was far from lost in the bowl of the Maracanã. A packed section of flag bearers and drum beaters punctuating the stuffy evening air with animated song for the best part of 90 minutes.

A section of the noisy home support.

I’m satisfied to say I’ve now attended a match at the Maracanã. Hopefully the stadium maintenance can be secured long term, as it would be a huge mark against the city of Rio if it failed to preserve this sporting landmark which so proudly serves the identity of Brazil as a footballing nation. On a positive front it has been announced, at the time of writing, that museum and tours are to open again in the coming days.

Read all about it!

I’ve been reading Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life – Updated Edition. Recommended to me by a friend before I left, it documents the way football has shaped the nation of Brazil. From the earliest introduction of the sport until the present day, it continues to impact so strongly both social and political aspects of Brazilian life. A great read for any football fan!