The Bolivian national team has seldom tasted success in international tournaments. Having made an appearance in the World Cup just once (1994) in the last 70 years, La Verde’s history has a shortage of tales of glory. However, current ATK boss Antonio Habas nearly provided them with one in 1997.
After winning the 1963 Copa America at home, Bolivia failed to make a mark in any of the subsequent tournaments until 1997. In fact, they never finished above sixth during this period. But Habas led them to a silver medal in the 1997 edition with Brazil clinching the gold.
The high altitude of the La Paz stadium (3637m) provides the home side with a massive advantage. While there is definitely some correlation between this and Bolivia enjoying a good record at home, other factors came into play for La Verde during that era.
Bolivia had qualified for the 1994 World Cup in the USA but were unfortunate to be grouped alongside heavyweights Germany and Spain. However, they managed to put on a fight and lost with respectable scorelines against these oppositions. In fact, Habas was the assistant coach in that team.
Next year, they made it to the quarter-final of the Copa America in Uruguay and this was the first time they achieved the feat since 1963. Habas was the head coach during this tournament.
Habas’ men hence marched on to the 1997 Copa America with some optimism to go with the home advantage. They performed admirably in the tournament and made it to the finals after conceding no goals in the group stage and just one each in the subsequent knockout rounds against Colombia and Mexico.
Habas ran back the clock when he spoke to Goal about the historic tournament.
“With this team, we had qualified for the US World Cup ‘94, we played the opening game at Soldier Field in Chicago against Germany and lost 1-0 to (Jurgen) Klinsmann's 85th-minute winner.
“The team had a very good Copa of America; we won against rivals like Peru, Venezuela, Uruguay, Colombia and Mexico. We only lost in the final against Brazil, with goals of Denilson, Ze Roberto and Ronaldo,” he said.
Bolivia made it out of a group that also had Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. They then defeated Colombia in the quarters and Mexico in the semi-final to make the final without losing or drawing a single game.
On the other side of the bracket, Brazil had achieved the same feat but in a more glamorous fashion. They concluded the group stages with nine points and a goal difference of +8. Mario Zagallo’s men beat Paraguay 2-0 and destroyed Peru 7-0 in the subsequent rounds to storm their way into the final.
It could have been a David vs Goliath story and Bolivia put on a good fight in the first half. But Brazil’s quality took them over the line eventually.
“Brazil had a fantastic team, with world-class players such as (Claudio) Tafarell, Cafú, Roberto Carlos, Dunga, Edmundo (Neto) and Ronaldo.
‘Bolivia put up a big fight by drawing the match 1-1 on half-time and making four shots to Tafarell's goalposts, but Ronaldo tilted the match in the end for Brazil,” the Spaniard recalled.
23 years and eight Copa America tournaments have gone by and Bolivia are yet to win a knockout game in the tournament.