Footie at 3,600 metres
At 31, I was a rather late convert to football. Up to then, it had seemed to me like a pretty pointless exercise of overpaid men kicking balls back and forth across a small bit of grass with the rare moment of a ball hitting the back of net.
But then my brother, a fanatical footie fan, took me to see a live match between Arsenal and the fantastic Wolverhampton Wanderers (which I have now come to accept as the greatest team in the world even if they haven’t quite reached their potential yet).
We headed up out of Arsenal tube station through a sea of fans filling the post-war terraced streets and then entered Highbury stadium seething with tribal colours and energy.
I was soon screaming at near misses, cursing at fluffed shots, shouting out helpful(?) advice to Wolves players and singing myself hoarse slagging off Arsenal and mostly West Bromwich Albion (Baggies) who are our arch rivals. When we got to the point of losing 4-1, we all started defiantly singing: "We are going to win five-four." We lost 5-1, but I was a convert. By the time, it came to Euro 2004, I was even hugging strangers in pubs when Rooney scored against Croatia.
Having got to La Paz, it was time for my second ever live match. The game was between Bolivia and Argentina and it was in one of the highest stadiums in the world at 3,600 metres above sea level.
The Bolivian papers had been building the suspense for days. Bolivia’s team had not been playing well and was on its third coach in less than a year. It had to win the match to have a chance to qualify for the World Cup next year in Germany.
But Bolivia’s record playing home at La Paz is very impressive – they hardly ever lose because of the sheer altitude. The last time, Argentina had played in Hernando Siles Stadium was 36 years ago and they had lost. All the interviews with the Argentinian coach focused on how his team would cope with 90 minutes in oxygen-deprived air. The omens looked good. I had visions of watching the world-class Argentinian players hobbling around the pitch like old men with lung problems.
So at 3pm, yesterday, I was again walking along tunnels and then up onto the terraces overlooking La Paz’s main stadium. The backdrop differed slightly to Highbury as beyond the sea of red, green and yellow, you could see buildings clinging to steep valley-sides below jagged rocks and snowy peaks.
I was kitted out in Bolivian football kit (slightly cheaper at two pounds a shirt than the English equivalent) and accompanied by two friends (Beth Hodson, a friend from London and her mate Jackie on a 36 hour La Paz stop-over as part of a big 3 month Latin America tour).
As an aspiring Bolivian fan, I was soon making friends with my neighbour who taught me the lyrics to the song "Long live Bolivia.".
Kick-off amazingly for Bolivia started on time, and was greeted with flares going off in the crowds and unfurling of vast Bolivian flags that rippled down the stadium terraces. It was a very tense first-half as the two teams kicked the ball back and forth with very little sign of hitting the net.
My neighbour was helpfully teaching me all the appropriate (?) football shouts in spanish: "Bastard ref", "Camouflaged gaucho" (the ref was Uruguayan) "Piece of complete shit", and "What the hell are you doing?" Occasionally for old-times sake I would sing about how rubbish the Baggies are. I have to say it didn’t really catch on with the Bolivian fans.
Second half, and suddenly it’s a GOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLL for Bolivia. We are all jumping up and down, getting slightly dizzy with the altitude and singing "Olay, olay, olay, olay, olay, olay." After three weeks in Bolivia, I feel completely Bolivian, and expect to be instantly presented citizenship on the terraces. "Viva Bolivia" echoes around the stadium.
But all too soon it’s back to the tense, edge-of-the-seat, stomach-wavering watch as the Argentinians show no sign of tiring (hidden oxygen tanks behind their shirts perhaps?) Then the inevitable happens. There are suddenly three blue and white shirts in front of goal and no Bolivians to be seen. In slow motion the goal goes in.
Five minutes later, another goal drifts past the Bolivian keeper. A small group of Argentinian friends in front of us bravely start singing victory chants. My neighbour becomes quite uncharitable and embarassingly starts singing the praises of Thatcher and asking who had lost the Malvinas (Falkland Islands). But most of the crowd goes silent as the clock ticks on. The final whistle blows.
I put my head in my hands along with 50,000 morose Bolivian fans. I file out of the stadium mournfully saying to my friends: "How could we lose? We were definitely the better team. We played so much better than the Argentinians. We were so close to winning." Around me the same sentiments are echoed in countless conversations.
I might be thousands of miles away and thousands of metres up in the air, but it felt remarkably similar to being an English football fan.
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