“Don’t walk the streets; they’ll stab you… with knives”
The not overly assuring words our tour guide for the day left us with after we told her that we would be going to the Bolivar versus The Strongest game the following day. This is the biggest game in the Bolivian football calendar featuring two of the most popular clubs in La Paz and the nation as a whole. For fans of both sides, this match is about more than just the three points on offer, this match is war. Or certainly so we were led to believe. Our Bolivar supporting tour guide advised that her team was the best, naturally, and that The Strongest were animals, naturally. It’s funny how no football fan anywhere in the world has a nice thing to say about their rivals. Our guide also advised that we don’t walk to or from the ground. They’ll spot that you’re not local and those Strongest fans “they’ll stab you… with knives. But go and enjoy the game.” She added, with a smile, after putting the fear of God into us both; quite ironic since our previous tour guide of the last three weeks was a chap called Jesus.
It’s nearly five years to the day since, when travelling round South America with a friend, we decided that we would be foolish not to take in a football match while we were there. The majority of our trip was organised for us, leaving us with very little free time to go off on our own adventures. Now, towards the end of our travels we were free to do as we chose; naturally for us, that would include making the most of our first and only opportunity to take in a game. Lucky for us that game just so happened to be the Bolivian clasico. Looking through some old photographs recently, I came across some pictures of that day and the memories of a rather unusual game of football came flooding back.
Having been warned less than 24-hours previously not to walk to the stadium, we decided to set off from our hotel, situated behind the wonderfully named Witches Market, on foot armed with a bottle of water each, a map, and shit sense of direction. How could we fail? Bearing our notoriously awful navigational skills in mind, we left to make the half hour walk to the stadium around four hours before kick-off; there was no way we were going to miss this game, plus we wanted to take a detour past the infamous San Pedro prison. Touristy bit done, it was time to traverse our way through a myriad of unknown streets guided by a sense of fear and intense satisfaction at finding a street name that was on our map. Once we made it on to Avenida Camacho we knew we were headed in the right direction, and the throng of colourful and chanting Bolivians who met us on Avenida Simon Bolivar further convinced us. It was also the first time on the walk that I began to shit myself, just a bit, as I was reminded of our tour guides comments from the previous day. However, and thankfully, those feelings did not last long.
Both Keira and I had experienced derbies in Scotland, the Edinburgh derby for Keira and the ‘Old Firm’ derby in Glasgow for me, but unlike the intense, vitriolic, and down-right hate filled rivalry that is often associate with those games, the Bolivian clasico is an entirely different beast altogether. Instead of two sets of rival fans having a go at each other, and us being stabbed ‘with knives’ as promised, we had entered a joyous carnival. Fans of both sides mixed in the streets around the Estadio Olimpico Hernando Siles with no hint of segregation. They chanted songs back and forth, with no sign of aggression. Heaven forbid, for a Scotsman at least, they shared beer together in the street. I can’t see that one catching on in the streets of Gorgie and Leith, Parkhead or Govan. The momentary fear had gone but was quickly subsumed by the knowledge that we didn’t actually have tickets for the game yet. Fortunately we found a vendor selling tickets and, feeling brave, opted for the 35Bolivianos tickets (roughly £5) and, unbeknown to us at the time, purchased the best seats in the house, slap bang in the middle of the main stand. Sensing the party vibe and us visibly being about the only two souls not clad in either a Bolivar or The Strongest strip, we set about rectifying that particular anomaly by purchasing two Bolivar tops. Our glass half empty tour guide had been a Bolivar fan, so we thought we’d support them in her honour. With tickets and strips bought it was only right to properly join the party and enjoy a pre-match beer in the sunshine.
About two hours before kick-off the noisy streets began to quiet as the crowd made its way into the stadium. Being obliging foreigners and not wanting to look too out of place, we followed the crowd inside and watched the youth teams of both sides play out a game of unequal ‘halves’, both time wise and by parameter of the pitch dimensions; training goals had put up on one of the 18-yard boxes and not the other, but yet the game still kicked off from the centre spot. The first oddity of the Bolivian match day experience. The ‘game’ also ended quite abruptly when, for no particular reason, the players decided to leave the pitch one by one every few minutes, until the remaining players marched off en masse. Very strange. I’m still not sure what the point of the ‘game’ was, but it did pass the time before the main event, which immediately produced one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed at a football match; the players from both sides running on to the pitch out of, wait for it, inflatable Coca-Cola bottle tunnel. I shit you not, that really happened; personally I think that should be the mandatory entrance at all games.
Before they got around to kick-off, which was still a further 15 minutes after the players had fizzed on to the pitch from their cola bottles, I took the time to savour the rising atmosphere. The stadium was, by now, pretty much full and the noise levels had been cranked up a notch or two, but still it all seemed a little too friendly. The stadium had a fairly even segregation policy, one stand behind the goals was ours (Bolivar), the other stand was theirs. But the main stand and the stand opposite had no segregation with blue shirts mingling with black and yellow striped shirts. Surely it would all kick off. I remembered our tour guide again, ‘they’ll stab you…with knives.’ Assessing both sets of fans I was beginning to regret our choice of team to support. Bolivar wear blue, I am a Celtic fan. The Strongest have a Che Guevara flag in their stand, he is one of my ideological heroes. The Strongest also engage in a pre-match ‘Huddle’, just like Celtic. I’ve definitely backed the wrong horse here. However, just as all appeared to be lost, I spot a flag in the Bolivar end that simply read ‘Kevin’, my faith was restored. “C’mon Bolivar, intae this shower ae shite!!!”, you can take the man out of Scotland….
The game itself was decent but largely uneventful, probably on a par with Motherwell Vs. Inverness Caley Thistle in terms of quality. But that didn’t matter, being there and experiencing a game on a different continent was what mattered. Incidentally, ‘We’ won 1-0 thanks to a goal that was so great that I cannot for the life of me remember anything about it. What I do remember is going absolutely mental when ‘we’ scored. Going on the ‘When in Rome’ principle I thought it was safe to presume that South American’s go wild when their team scores. Not so, at least not in the main stand where we were sitting. Here the prawn sandwich brigade is as uptight as it is back home. So, while I was going mental, Keira had noticed that everyone else was merely applauding politely and had curtailed her celebrations, leaving me as the lone twat jumping around like a raving lunatic. Meh, at least I know how to have fun.
As for the trouble and the stabbings we were warned of, they thankfully never happened. At the end of the game there were handshakes and hugs all around between opposition fans and players. Again, I can’t see that catching on after an Edinburgh or Glasgow derby. If nothing else, it’s a bit disconcerting to see ‘your’ players embrace the ‘enemy’. Call me old fashioned. In fact, the worst insult we heard being hurled during the entire day was ‘Mucho Pollo’ (much chicken??? edit: I’ve since been told the translation is more likely to be cocksucker, which makes so much more sense; but isn’t quite as amusing), which the Bolivar fans chanted every time a certain The Strongest player had the ball.
We left the ground at the end of the game and made our way through the streets and back to our hotel chatting about the game, no longer scared of the knives. The game had been built up as the derby of La Paz and of Bolivia as a whole, with a fierce and intense rivalry. Instead it delivered a strange game of colour, inflatable Coca-Cola tunnels, and a rivalry seemingly built on who could be nicer to the opposition. Part of me wishes we could integrate some of that into our game, but part of me also loves the blood and guts rivalries that we are used to in this country. I don’t know which part of me is right, but I do know that I enjoyed that game immensely.
I’d love to here from others who have been to games in South America or other continents, and to share your experiences.