Matthew Monk

Matthew Monk is a school teacher from the UK who has the World Cup as one of his greatest passions. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Travellers Tales - Sucre, Bolivia

    Some places are naturally relaxing, with peaceful, unimposing plazas and streets. They have long sweeping boulevards and tree lined avenues, where - if you want to - you can hide away from the stresses and strains of the world, forgetting your troubles and recharging your batteries. What is more, these places are still quite easy to find, and some of them appear in the most unexpected of places.

    Sucre - the official capital city of Bolivia - is one of these places. Fundamentally it is a university town, and is populated almost singularly by students of one sort or another. Even the 'locals', the residents who live here permanently rather than only in term time, seem to have adapted to the slower pace of life. Things don't get done in a hurry in Sucre, but they still get done. Life still goes on, it is just that it takes place at a much more human rate.

    And of course, even here you still cannot escape the tentacles of global football.

    Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere - only the likes of Haiti and Cuba can really outstrip the level of poverty that exists here. This is not to say that everyone is uniformly poor - far from it, La Paz, Sucre, Potosi and all the other towns boast strong and influential middle and upper class populations. But you cannot escape from the fact that money is tight everywhere, and that little is spent on what Europeans take for granted like communications infrastructure. Unless that is the infrastructure is to be used by tourists. Internet cafes are more prevalent than petrol stations, tourist hotels, cafes and restaurants can be found on every corner. Bolivia wants the hard currency and US Dollars us gringos bring in, and they are providing every comfort they can think of. Sure, few Bolivians actually use these facilities, but tourism is the fastest growing industry here and in a few years it will be twice as big.

    In almost all the 'tourist hotels' you find a television, and about the only thing most people watch on them is football. But unusually, I have not seen very much Bolivian football so far. The first game I saw in Bolivia was a rerun of a Bayern München against 1FC Köln in what must have been a German Cup Final or Semi Final from the mid 1990's. Bizarrely, no Bolivians or South Americans were playing - as far as I could work out anyway - and it certainly did not seem to be a very exciting game. But down in the hotel reception there was a crowd of Bolivians avidly watching every kick and scramble. Now even though the game was very obviously quite old, everyone watching was glued to the screen as if we were watching this year's Champions League Final live.

    Two days later the same thing happened again - this time for the Boca Juniors vs Man Utd friendly. At least this time it was a live game - broadcast all across South America on Fox Sports - but again, there was no obvious Bolivian interest, and certainly nothing - you would think - to justify the crowd huddled around the TV. In between I did manage to catch some Bolivian Fútbol on TV, but I gave up after five minutes, such was the poor quality of the sound and picture. It was like watching something on a pirate video or DVD, and looked as if it was being filmed illegally on a camcorder.

    Only later did I find out that it was being broadcast on the main commercial channel, and involved top-flight teams. This time there was no crowd huddled around the lobby television. You could still see the game flickering away in the background, but no one seemed that interested in it. This was not Boca or Man Utd or Bayern - it was only Bolivian, and that isn't very interesting. The players are not high profile enough, you see - where was Veron, Beckham, Ferdinand, or even Jurgen Klinsmann?

    This is the problem football in Bolivia has: no one much is interested in the local Bolivian players, and while I did see one sun-weathered poster of Marco Etcheverry advertising shoes in La Paz, the Nike posters with Ronaldo, Figo and even Hidetoshi Nakata smiling out, were everywhere. Argentinian shirts - and especially the almost universally worshipped Boca - are on display all over. Even the 'police officer' who came on our coach and demanded a 10 Boliviano 'entrance fee' in Copacabana was wearing a Boca cap! Bolivian football is just not sexy enough to compete with Argentina or Brasil, and cannot even beat out seven year-old German cup matches.

    But football is still watched avidly, and Bolivia boasts a well-maintained, well resourced national stadium, complete with a eighteen-month old message from Uncle Sepp picked out in tasteful aluminium lettering. Yet even here - in what would be a tourist attraction in many other cities - Bolivia seems to have chickened out. Right in front of the stadium's main concourse is a partly subterranean museum filled with Tiawanaku ruins. Standing guard, while the small boys struggle to find any interest in their Bolivian flags, a huge red monolith dominates the plaza and attracts the tourists. Bolivia does not seem too interested in Bolivia.

    Even on Independence Day there is not too much sign of rampant national pride away from the central plaza. There the President is being inaugurated in front of a stage managed display of his pink clad supporters, and national pride is high on the agenda. But by the time you get to Prado, down on the main strip where the rich Bolivians parade themselves, it is only the schoolgirls who display the green, red and yellow national colours. If the shops weren't closed you wouldn't even know it was a national holiday. And what Fútbol match is on TV tonight? Bolivia famously beating mighty Brasil right here in the ultra high altitude of La Paz? Not a chance - Barcelona against Newcastle seems to be the match of choice in the hotel tonight.

    It almost seems as if the locals have given up on Bolivia as an international force. The 'glory days' of 1994 are long, long gone, and with Boca and Brasil taking up residency in much the same way as the G14 have done in Europe, there seems little room for a way back. Bolivia are always going to have a chance of reaching the World Cup Finals, simply because they play home matches 4000m up, but until they do get back onto the biggest stage no one much will care. Maybe one day Boca will sign a Bolivian superstar, and he will be profiled on ESPN or Fox Sports. Then the customers of Mongoes in La Paz or the Joy Ride in Sucre might even look up from their Corona or Heineken beers and take some interest. I wouldn't hold out too much hope of that happening anytime soon though.



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