Buenos Aires may have the fiercest derby in the world, Glasgow the most bitter and Milan the most glamorous, but Bolivia’s own El Clásico is unquestionably the highest. On April 20, city rivals The Strongest and Club Bolívar meet at the national Estadio Hernando Siles in their native La Paz. Will Fulford-Jones scaled the Andes to take in a game at the top of the world.
Five minutes after you’ve taken your seat, you’ll have forgotten what an effort it was to reach it. The players run out, warm up and kick off, and you soon lose yourself in the action. Only when you walk back towards the centre of town after the match, lungs straining at the slightest slope, will you remember that you’re at an altitude of 3,600m, a dizzying two-and-a-quarter miles above sea level – and that what you’ve been watching is the highest derby in the world.
One of South America’s smallest and poorest countries, Bolivia has never excelled on the international football stage. Despite a distinct home advantage, the national team has made the World Cup Finals only once since 1950, and won just two of 16 qualifying games for the 2014 tournament. Still, the game draws a passionate following throughout the country – and perhaps never more so than when the two biggest teams in La Paz, The Strongest www.club-thestrongest.com/site and Club Bolívar www.clubbolivar.com, meet in one of the regular clásicos that enliven the league season.
Paceños are a good-natured bunch, and the rivalry between their city’s two sides lacks the violent passion that defines the derby in Rio or Buenos Aires. The Strongest v Bolívar is not a geographic argument, and nor is it born of social division. Both teams seem to enjoy roughly the same level of popularity, and there’s no real reason why paceños choose one over the other; according to three separate cab drivers, it’s simply down to which shirt or nickname you prefer. If that’s true, it’s a wonder Bolívar – shirt a dreary blue, no nickname worth mentioning – have any fans at all. The Strongest wear yellow and black stripes and are inevitably known as ‘Tigre’. At least any visiting fa of Hull City won’t have to think twice when taking sides.
Each team has its own stadium but plays most home games at the 38,000-capacity Estadio Hernando Siles. A cab from downtown will take ten minutes and cost no more than 20 bolivianos (€2); all cabs are unmetered, so agree the fare when you get in. A colectivo – an undisciplined minibus, more or less, with a sign in the front window listing its destinations – will take longer and cost less. Now in its ninth decade, named after a Bolivian president in power when it opened in 1930, the Hernando Siles a basic bowl with a running track, distinguished solely by the views of the surrounding neighbourhoods it affords. And, of course, by the thinness of its air, which affects visiting teams so much that FIFA tried to ban competitive internationals at altitudes above 2,500m. After an outcry across South America, the ban was repealed soon afterwards.
There’ll be little doubt as to the allegiances of the supporters on the day, especially for the clásicos, but the atmosphere is usually mellow and free of aggression. The singing will come from the cheap seats behind the goals, while the more genteel fans – including a larger-than-normal number of families – favour the flanks. Food and drink is of the junk variety, delivered to your seats by an array of roaming vendors. There’s no shop at the frill-free stadium, but you can pick up shirts and scarfs – official and otherwise – from one of the several dozen street-side sellers who line the surrounding roads for each match.
Because both teams use the Estadio Hernando Siles, there are games nearly every weekend during the season. For a run-of-the-mill league match, tickets will probably run to 20 bolivianos (€2) for the raucous curva behind the goals and 50 bolivianos (€5) for the flanks. Your ticket will be for a general area; particular seats within these areas are unreserved. There’s no need to buy in advance.
For Copa Libertadores matches and clásicos, tickets are more expensive, and are sold in advance. Bolívar tickets are available from their club shop in the scruffy Galería Litoral mall, on the corner of Avenida Mariscal Santa Cruz and Calle Colón an easy walk from downtown. Tigre fans buy theirs from the windows at the stadium, 50-100 bolivianos (€5-€10) in the curvas, to pricier places in the general, preferencia and most expensive butacas.