Bolivia’s Struggles Expected to Continue at Copa América

This century has not been kind to the Bolivian national team. La Verde have not qualified for a World Cup since their last appearance in 1994, and have registered just one match win in the last nine iterations of Copa América.

The continental championship returns this month, with the United States hosting the 2024 edition. For Bolivia, it will be yet another uphill battle to do so much as earn a point in the group stage. Ambitions are low, but hopes, as always, are high.

Bolivia and Copa América: A Love-Hate Story

For the vast majority of its history, the Bolivian national team has done poorly in CONMEBOL’s flagship tournament. Overall, they have amassed 20 wins, 26 draws and 73 losses since their first participation in 1926. Yet, for all their struggles, La Verde have had a number of shining moments in the competition. They won it as hosts in 1963, scoring late winners in 3-2 and 5-4 victories over Argentina and Brazil, respectively.

After going winless in five tournaments from 1983 to 1993, Bolivia would advance to the knockout stage in 1995, before making the final in 1997. While they would lose that final to Brazil, the signs were positive, especially considering the team’s qualification for the World Cup three years prior.

Unfortunately for La Verde, they have come nowhere near the heights they achieved in the 1990s. it has been loss after loss in the Copa América ever since that final run in 1997, with the occasional draw mixed in. The only exception was a 3-2 win over Ecuador in 2015, which, along with a goalless draw against Mexico, was enough to vault Bolivia past the group stage into the last eight. Nine years on, South America’s weakest team is on a 10-match losing streak in the tournament, one that they will be looking to break this year.

A Disappointing Start to the Summer

Manager Antônio Carlos Zago and his Bolivian side are already in the U.S. ahead of their first Copa América match on 23rd June. A squad comprised mostly of players from the Bolivian Primera División is playing a slate of three friendlies, the first of which took place last Friday. In front of 52,373 fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Zago’s men fell to a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Mexico.

At first glance, the result might appear solid, even favourable for La Verde. After all, Mexico is a North American powerhouse and a World Cup mainstay. However, the result of the match is put into perspective when considering Jaime Lozano’s decision to field almost exclusively U23 players.

The vast majority of Mexico’s 31-man preliminary squad for the Copa América has not yet joined the team. In fact, eight of El Tri‘s starters in the match against Bolivia were debuting for the senior team, while the three others had just six prior appearances amongst them. In other words, Bolivia’s senior national team failed to score against and were defeated by a youth selection.

There were certainly some positives from the match for La Verde, including the promising performance of attacking midfielder Miguel Terceros. In the post-match press conference, Zago described the 20-year-old as “one of Bolivia’s best young players,” whilst noting that “he still needs a little more experience.” Terceros looked dangerous throughout the match, dodging past the Mexican defenders with ease. He and Leonel Justiniano were undoubtedly Bolivia’s best performers in the match.

“After the goal, we improved. We saw more of the ball,” said Zago. “We kept up the intensity in the second half and with some of those chances, we were just a pass away from scoring,” claims the manager. Unfortunately, a number of chances was not enough for Bolivia to do so much as defeat a team of youngsters. The country’s finest lined up against players mostly from mid-table Liga MX clubs and came up short. Whatever way you spin it, it’s not a good sign for Bolivia.

All Eyes on Copa América

The defeat to Mexico reaffirmed what everyone knew: Bolivia is a step below most every team competing in the Copa América. One would be hard-pressed to find a pundit or analyst who sees them finishing anywhere other than last in their group. The draw has not helped La Verde either, as they have to take on the United States, Uruguay and Panama.

Zago knows the difficulty of the task at hand. “Our group is very strong,” he says. “We start off playing against the USA, it’s a hard game. Then we play Uruguay, one of the top teams in South America, with top players.” Regardless, the coach still gives off a sense of optimism. “If we can get a result against the USA, we play Panama in our last game, so we have an opportunity.”

Indeed, facing Panama could be Bolivia’s best opportunity to win a Copa América match in a while. Taking points from the United States will be a tougher ask, but the pressure of playing an important tournament game at home could get to the Stars and Stripes.

The Bolivian national team is a complete outsider at the Copa América, as always. Then again, there’s been no shortage of “cinderella” stories in this or any football tournament. There’s nothing to suggest that Bolivia will have a dark horse run this summer, but a lot could happen if they’re at their best.

La Verde may just lose all three games and make yet another unceremonious exit. But maybe, just maybe, they could turn some heads and give Bolivians something to be proud of.

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