Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bolivia, another of the low ranking countries, made significant change in 1977: full professional league was formed. The championship formula was complicated and also changed in later time, but the general format remains. It was the end of semi-professional football and chaotic tournaments, a determined step hoping to elevate the level of the game. The only problem at the end is counting titles – championships are divided: amateur era, semi-professional era, and the new league, so it is somewhat difficult to make totals. Anyhow, the new league started with 16 clubs, most of them the 'usual suspects' from La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz. Most of the big names settled well in the new environment , but there was one casualty: Always Ready (La Paz) was fading away and although they started very well in the new league, it was also their last success.

The teams were divided in two groups, 8 in each, for the first phase. The numbers don't add – every team ended with 16 matches played, which does not make sense, not fitting into neither 2-leg round-robin group tournament, nor into 1-leg inter-group championship. The top five of each group proceeded to the second phase, carrying their records from the first stage. The team with least points was relegated – the unlucky one was 20 de Augusto (Beni). They played in Group B and won only 4 points – 1 win and 2 ties. The next weakest club was the last in Group A, Aurora (Cochabamba), finishing with 9 points. No club was head and shoulders above the rest – the top two teams in both groups finished with equal points. The pursuers were close – the team with least points entering the second stage was Municipal (La Paz) with 16. The rest were: San Jose (Oruro), Always Ready (La Paz), Oriente Petrolero (Santa Cruz), The Strongest (La Paz), and Oriente Petrolero (Cochabamba) from Group A, and Bolivar (La Paz), Jorge Wilstermann (Cochabamba), Bata (Cochabamba), Blooming (Santa Cruz), and already mentioned Municipal. Perhaps with the exception of Bata – the traditional cream of Bolivian football, with increasingly strong Oriente Petrolero and Jorge Wilstermann.

The second phase was standard 2-led round-robin tournament, with the added records from the first phase, of course. The best two of the groups moved to the third stage. Jorge Wilstermann was almost unchalanged in Group B – they finished first with 33 points, 4 points ahead of Oriente Petrolero. Municipal was just happy to appear at this stage – they finished last with the least points among all – 20. Group A was tougher – three teams hardly played a role, but the battle between Bolivar and Always Ready lasted to the end. Bolivar clinched the top spot by a point, but the third finisher – Bata – ended 7 points behind Always Ready.

One more mini-league for the third phase: 2-leg round-robin tournament, previous records not counted. Beginning from scratch, yet, strong performance during the season distinguished the favourites – Bolivar and Jorge Wilstermann. Always Ready collapsed, however – they finished 4th, with measly 3 points. Oriente Petrolero was not much better – 5 points. The top two finished with equal points – 8 – and the final table depended on goal-difference, so Bolivar finished first by a goal.

Yet, the championship was finished: the top two had to play a final on neutral ground: Bolivar and Jorge Wilstermann met in Santa Cruz and Bolivar clinched a 1-0 victory – and the title.

One more note about the championship – high goalscoring. By 1978 scoring was getting lower, especially in Europe. The Bolivians achieved impressive 3.48 goals per match. Well, weaker leagues tend to have high records, but still – impressive.

Jorge Wilstermann finished second.
The club historians proudly speak of the second 'golden era' during the 1970s: the boys won two titles – 1972 and 1973 – and were steadily among the best. So silver was not bad, especially for a club founded as late as 1949. The Cochabamba club fougth to the end and lost by a single goal. Not champions, but increasing the importance of the La Paz – Cochabamba rivalry. Perhaps making it the most important in Bolivian football.

Bolivar are traditionally successful – they already had 12 titles: 6 during the amateur era, and 6 more during the semi-professional years. Their last was in 1976. Now they were proud to win their first title in the new professional league format.

Founded in 1925, Bolivar is not the oldest club in Bolivia – not even in La Paz, but already was one the strongest and most successful. They faced relegation only once – in 1964 – which, with time, became rather amusing point, for it was never repeated again. Their original name also sounds a bit amusing: it was Atletico Bolívar Literario Musical. The high-brow parts were eventually dropped and the club became simply Club Atletico Bolivar. Popular and strong, they earned long time ago the nickname 'La Academia', although their sky-blue colours made for another equally popular nickname – 'Los Celestes'. True to their nicknames, they added one more title.

Hard to tell much of the team – most players were unknown to the world. Plenty of foreigners: 5 plus one naturalized Argentinian. One Paraguayan and 4 Argentines. Not great stars, yet, at least two were fairly known names in South America – Luis Gregorio Gallo and the defender Ricardo Troncone.

Troncone became a legend of Bolivar – an iron defender, who generally won every ball and did not let straikers pass. He was helped by another club legend – Pablo Baldivieso, already nearing the end of his career, but considered one of the best Bolivian defenders in the 1960s.

Midfield was also strong: here perhaps the biggest club legend played -

Carlos Fernando Borja Bolívar – or simply Carlos Borja. He was mearly 22-years old in his second professional season, but rapidly becoming the most influencial player of the team. Borja scored a lot as well, but his major quality was consistency. He was incrediably loyal to the club – a one-club man, for which he played 20 years! As a total, he played 532 games and scored 129 goals for Bolivar. And equally strong was he as a national team player – 88 matches and 1 goal in 16 years, reaching at the end to the 1994 World Cup finals. 1978 established Borja as a Bolivian star – and he was called to the national team the next year. A true legend, which was not known in 1978, of course – back then he was bright new star.

The attack was strong as a whole, with Viviano Lugo (naturalized Argentine, who probably unjustly was never called to the Bolivian national team) and Waldino Palacios (Argentina), but the big name was the 24-years old Jesus Reynaldo. A goal scoring machine, he was already twice the top Bolivian scorer and, so far, bigger star than Borja.

Reynaldo (on the right) provided goals to Bolivar, delighting the fans. Unlike Borja, he played for few other clubs, scoring a plenty everywhere, and ending as the all-time best Bolivian goalscorer. But this was also in the future – for the present, he simply made Bolivar's attack lethal.

Strong squad, by Bolivian standards, but well-rounded and most importantly – quite young. Only three players were 30 or older. The veterans still had a few years ahead of them, providing experience and stability. The younger talent was very promissing – and the key players were all young: Borja, Reynaldo, Fierro, Araoz, Aragones. A team with a future. As a novelty, there were two 'strange' players: Vlado Svigir and Stephan Matic, clearly of Yugoslavian descent, most likely Croatian. But they were no imports – they were Bolivians. Neither played a role in the winning team, though – aparently deep reserves.