Since the creation of Bolivia’s professional division in 1950, two clubs have had a duopoly over the nation’s silverware: Bolivar and The Strongest, the country’s most successful clubs, have 28 and 15 titles respectively.
As the 2018 season kicks off with a new name and a new format, the familiar faces look ready to add to their increasing tally, writes Frederick Clayton.
Both clubs play their home games in Bolivia’s breath-taking capital. At 3,640m above sea level, La Paz sits in the zone in which severe altitude sickness most commonly occurs, with the added risk of pulmonary oedema.
Visiting clubs and countries have tried any number of ways to overcome it — serial altitude losers Argentina have tried arriving just two hours before matches, arriving two weeks before matches, and have even taken Viagra before matches to help negate the effects. Yes, really.
No workaround consistently works, and so the Bolivian national team and the capital’s domestic clubs have continued to enjoy their atmospheric advantage, which has acted as an unpredictable banana skin for travelling sides. As a result, The Strongest and Bolivar have also enjoyed relative success in the Copa Libertadores — relative to how bad they are when playing the continent’s best teams at sea-level.
Domestically, the two sides are also fierce rivals. The Clásico Paceño is the country’s oldest and most famous derby. Fans adorn themselves with either the yellow and black stripes of The Strongest, complete with angry tiger head, or the subtler sky blue of Bolivar.
Last season, as the Bolivian league reformatted to play its football from January to December, Bolivar won two of the three trophies on offer, with the Strongest taking the other.
Their success in Bolivia’s top division provides consistency where the league format does not. This season, the Bolivian league restructured for the fifth time in 50 years.
It wouldn’t quite be South American football if the league could be understood, and the latest iteration of its top division is no simpler than the last. But it doesn’t matter whether the league is governed by the LPFB, LPFA, the FPB or the AFLP, whether it starts in January or August, or even the number of champions at the end of the year: the comforting certainty is that Bolivar or The Strongest will be its main contenders.
Three games into the 2018 season and little has changed. Fellow altitude addicts Jorge Wilstermann, quarter-finalists in last year’s Copa Libertadores, were tossed aside by a Bolivar team that ran out 5-1 winners.
Bolivar have since claimed maximum points, including another 5-1 win over Real Potosi. The Strongest, kept apart from their main rivals for the first half of this season’s Apertura, suffered a shock 2-0 loss on the opening day, but have bounced back with a win and a draw. Both are firm favourites to top their groups.
The league has thrown up surprises in recent years. Just two years ago, Sport Boys and Wilstermann shared the honours, whilst San José and Universitario have also enjoyed fleeting spells of success in the past decade. But each time, Bolivar and The Strongest bounce back with a longevity that is unrivalled in Bolivian football.
Like Barcelona and Real Madrid, the two Bolivian clubs do not tolerate the success of others for long. They have been able to construct a legacy off the back of their success, and have the financial power to ensure their continued domination. On the rare occasion that Bolivia produces top talent, they are drawn to the capital and the country’s most famous sides, and the higher salaries they can offer.
Bolivar and The Strongest look set for another season of success, interrupted occasionally by the harsh realities of the Copa Libertadores. Despite their domestic supremacy, fans are unlikely to see their sides achieve any success outside of Bolivia. However, as they play in a city that treats its unadjusted visitors so mercilessly, who knows?