WEIRD COPA AMERICA

WEIRD COPA AMERICA

The 1997 Copa America will go down as quite possibly the strangest major tournament of the modern era.

While it was to be hosted across five cities in the geographically diverse nation of Bolivia, the hosts elected to play all their games in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world.

It’s hard to understate the impact of playing football at 12,500 feet - roughly twice the height at which altitude sickness kicks in. At just 6,000 feet, symptoms such as headaches, confusion, illness and fatigue can start to set in. Double it and you're potentially in real trouble.

The only time the nation had won the competition, back in 1963, they had hosted it. And it was not a coincidence.

Things went awry from the opening ceremony. Chile, a nation locked in a bitter dispute with Bolivia, claimed the hosts had deliberately displayed their nation's flag without its star and later, among other gripes, claimed they were denied access to hot water in a game against Paraguay that was played at near freezing temperatures. Unsurprisingly they performed poorly, unable to collect a single point.

Even in several of the slightly lower lying venues, the altitude was causing real problems and the chaotic results on the pitch reflected that. Mexico’s Luis Hernandez, a player who clearly adapted better than most, fired his side through their three group stage games by scoring all five of his nation's goals.

The most successful nation in the tournament's history, Uruguay, failed to get past the group stage after losing their final group game against Bolivia. The match was played just three days and some 4,000 feet higher in altitude than their previous fixture - an elevation change that left Recoba and co clutching at oxygen masks at half time.

Unsurprisingly, Bolivia, having entirely acclimatised to the altitude over the preceding weeks, won all three of their group stage games without conceding a single goal. The knockout stage would see the under-strength squad defeat Faustino Asprilla’s Colombia in the quarter final before besting Mexico in the semis, the latter of whom had themselves been involved in a lethargic five miss penalty shoot-out the round prior.

While Bolivia continued to run rings around more talented opposition, there was, however, still one other side who looked head and shoulders above the rest: Brazil.

After winning all their group stage games to progress to the knockouts, Brazil comfortably swept past Paraguay with a double from Ronaldo, who was himself dealing with the swirling rumours of his impending record-breaking transfer to Inter and often hooked just after half time. Following the Paraguay defeat, Brazil registered an emphatic 7-0 win over Peru to book their slot in the final.

But there was one foe the Brazilians had yet to face: the altitude of La Paz.

Despite the fact that many of the games in the tournament had been played in temperatures around the mid 20s celsius, the final itself was to be played at night. The unique Andean climate of La Paz meant that temperatures plummet after nightfall and as Brazil and Bolivia lined up the mercury was close to freezing, with the Brazilians fighting for oxygen.

After a predictably slow start, goals from Denilson of Brazil and Erwin Sanchez of Bolivia meant things were all square heading into the break. Three changes for Brazil followed in the period after the half as they struggled to keep up with the hosts.

As he had throughout the tournament, Ronaldo came to the rescue. He struck in 79th minute to net his fifth of the tournament and give his side the lead. Then as Bolivia pushed late for an equaliser, Ze Roberto added a third minutes from time.

 

Remarkably, the victory would be just Brazil’s fifth ever win in the tournament's 81-year history and their first won outside their home nation. 

While home advantage has always been a plus, there has never, and likely will never, be a home field advantage quite like Bolivia enjoyed back in 1997. 

A decade after the tournament, Bolivia were banned by FIFA from playing their home games in La Paz, though this was later reversed. 

After the momentous feat of reaching the final in 97, Bolivia didn’t win another Copa America game for 18 years. 

Truly the Copa America of 1997 was a tournament unlike any other. 

 

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