By Chris Ledger
When reminiscing about past football tournaments, few people will remember the 1997 Copa America fondly. After all, most of the competing teams had the 1998 World Cup in mind and rested several key players. Only five players from Argentina’s 22-men squad in 1997, for example, were in the squad for France ’98 – as the likes of Roberto Sensini, Diego Simeone and Gabriel Batistuta were all omitted.
Competitions should never be based on the players involved, though, as its eccentricities and character will always be king. And the 1997 Copa America had that in abundance. If anything, it could be compared to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’. It had shocks – as shown by Peru’s run to the semi-final and Ecuador topping Group A, ahead of Argentina and Paraguay – and irregular disregard for discipline, as Argentina had three men sent off in their 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Peru. But it was Bolivia, the hosts of the tournament, who took on the role of Dick Dastardly and became the most entertaining team – if only for their off-the-field exploits.
Although Bolivia have never been considered as a major force in the modern-day history of the Copa America – as their quarter-final defeat to Uruguay in 1995, for instance, was their first appearance in the knock-out stages since 1967 – they were one of the pre-tournament favourites. Not only were they drawn in the relatively weak Group B – alongside Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela – but all of their matches were played in La Paz, which is 3,650 meters above sea level.
And to make things even more difficult for the three other teams, as stated in August 1997’s edition of ‘World Soccer’, they had to travel between La Paz and Sucreto play against Bolivia, with Sucre’s altitude being 1,000 meters lower than La Paz’s height. It seemed to be a case of trickery rather than coincidence, though, as Bolivia is a place where airlines lower oxygen masks before landing and visitors are also advised to avoid heavy food, cigarettes and alcohol.
The organisation of the tournament became even more odd when Bolivia’s opponents were not allowed to drink coca tea, which is the legal and local remedy for acute mountain sickness. Competitors were given ten days to adapt to the conditions, which was 11 days shorter than the time required for complete adaptation, and Issue 126 of ‘When Saturday Comes’ stated that “nobody had expected that Bolivia could be beaten, thanks to their innovative tactic of stopping their opponents from breathing”.
It was, therefore, no surprise when Bolivia won all of their group matches. Their first match ended with a 1-0 victory over plucky underdogs Venezuela, who were one of the few countries to have taken a full-strength side to the championship. Milton Coimbra’s clever back-heel sealed the victory in the 60th minute, only a minute after former Real Valladolid defender Juan Pena was sent-off, and Venezuelan goalkeeper Rafael Dudamel was forced to make several fine saves. They managed to seal a quarter-final place with a 2-0 win over Peru in their next game, after goals from former DC United midfielder Marco Etcheverry and Julio Baldivieso, and they also impressed in a comfortable 1-0 victory over Uruguay.
Bolivia then progressed into the semi-finals after defeating under-strength Colombia 2-1, with goals from Etcheverry and ex-Boavista midfielder Erwin Sanchez. It was the semi-final against Mexico that was one of Bolivia’s most controversial moments, though, due to some suspect refereeing.
The match started well for Mexico when Nicolas Ramirez scored an early goal but they protested for ten minutes, after it was felt that Sanchez’s equaliser did not cross the line. Things then went bad to worse for Mexico, who were also denied a penalty in the first-half, when Ramiro Castillo’s free-kick and former Middlesbrough striker Jaime Moreno’s chip secured Bolivia’s place in the final.
The result of the final, though, was always going to be less clear-cut – even when accounting for Bolivia’s low handicap. This was because Brazil, their opponents, fielded a strong team that included the likes of Leonardo and Cafu. Although Bolivia competed well, after Sanchez’s goal cancelled out Edmundo’s opener, late goals from Ronaldo and Ze Roberto sealed a 3-1 win for Brazil and their fifth Copa America title.
Although the 1997 Copa America is still widely seen as a disappointing and mediocre championship, it had a pleasant outcome: the best team won. Those who wanted a surprise, without looking beneath the surface, would have been happy with Bolivia’s run to the final.
And those, who did look beneath the surface, would have been happy that the tournament’s lack of fair play did not spoil the final outcome. Bolivia went close but, like Dick Dastardly, they were far away from winning. In a game troubled with corruption, it remains a small comfort that the Penelope Pitstop of world football pipped Dick Dastardly at the finish line.