It’s my first game from the Bolivian LFPB (Liga del Fútbol Profesional Boliviano) with Universitario de Sucre facing Oriente Petrolero, two teams languishing in the mid-table region of the Apertura half of the competition. Going in to the game, Oriente Petrolero had drawn a mind-boggling 8 of their 11 games, and had only lost once. Universitario were just a point better off but were playing at the Estadio Olímpico Patria, where they had a fine record.
Football tends, more often than not, to follow certain formulae and basic principles. Being a Bolivian football newcomer (save for a few games in the Copa Sudamericana and a harrowing experience with Aurora in the Libertadores), I applied these principles to the game and assumed it would be a turgid, boring, low quality draw. Despite my inexperience with Bolivian football, I’ve commentated on scores of South American games from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Peru – well, you get the picture.
As it turns out, I was right. The game itself, the football, was pretty dire. The game, however, was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever borne witness to.
The first 20 minutes or so were as expected; more like a basketball game than football. Turnover after turnover, nobody on the pitch seemingly with the ability to retain the ball and find a teammate. Then something happened off the ball, after a rather ugly tackle between Rolando Barra, a 25 year old Universitario Centre Back, and 23 year old Alcides Peña of Oriente Petrolero, which turned out to be the catalyst of a shocking, violent assault by the former.
Play carried on as did the fracas between the two players, off camera. As they tried to disengage, Peña attempted to shrug Barra off to allow himself to get up. Once on their feet, Rolando Barra landed a headbutt of seismic proportions flush on to the bridge of the nose of Peña. Poor Alcides went down you’d expect, out cold. Play continued still.
The referee, who will I doubt will ever be permitted to officiate a football match again in his sorry life, was alerted to the incident by some of the players and halted the game. After discussion with his assistant (also a spectacularly incompetent or disgustingly corrupt person), the ref sent both players off. Both! I was speechless – which, considering what I do for a living, is somewhat inconvenient to say the least.
The game continued, 10 on each side, with the same dearth in quality we’d been witness to in the minutes leading up to the double sending off. Universitario took the lead as the clock ticked over in to stoppage time at the end of the first half, and it was a welcome goal in an otherwise drab and soporific first 45 minutes.
The first half over. The football, as expected, woeful. Think of the worst football you’ve ever seen. This was worse. The ugly, violent assault had, however, pricked my interest in a car-crash viewing kind of way.
Still, as shocking as it was, that Barra headbutt didn’t even come close to preparing me for what the second half had in store.
With the game following a similar instantly-forgettable path as had been forced upon us in the first half, suddenly Universitario went on the offensive. A through ball brought a clumsy challenge in the box from Bolivian international defender Miguel Ángel Hoyos, and the referee immediately pointed to the spot. The first thing that flashed through my head was ‘so much for the bore draw’ . This was just the beginning of the most jaw-droppingly incredible thing I’ve ever seen on a football pitch.
Up stepped Jose Gabriel Rios, whose penalty was well struck, high to the keeper’s right hand side. The kind of penalty that draws superlatives from commentators – unstoppable, two keepers wouldn’t have saved it, etc – except this time, Carlos Erwin Arias, capped 39 times by the Bolivian national team, guessed the right way and pulled off an absolutely wonderful save. Before his team mates, particularly Hoyos who gave away the penalty, could congratulate him, the whistle went.
The referee’s assistant had adjudged Arias to have moved off his line before the ball was struck, and Eberth Cuellar ordered it to be retaken. Suspicious, particularly given the incident in the first half, and bloody unlucky considering the calibre of the save from Arias which was genuinely World Class.
Rios stepped up once more and struck it low, to the keeper’s left, only for Arias to pull of an equally impressive stop. Again the celebrations cut short, again the whistle. Incredible. The replays showed that Arias had stepped off his line before the ball was struck, but – as we all know – these are only penalised by the most pernickety of officials, and never twice in a row.
Oriente Petrolero, restrained in their protestations after the first retake, weren’t so bashful. They surrounded the referee’s assistant and that all-too-familiar South American sight of riot police getting involved was splashed across the screen, before the Verdolagas, en masse, left the pitch in protest at what they perceived to be biased officiating. 7 minutes of Reservoir Dogsesque standoff ensued, before Oriente agreed to allow the game to reach its conclusion after much debate with the officials from the Asociación de Fútbol Nacional.
Take three, then. This time it was Edgar Escalante who faced the possessed Carlos Erwin Arias from 12 yards. Given the fact it was a retake, I’m not entirely sure a changing of the taker is allowed. Largely irrelevant in the scheme of things, however.
Up stepped Escalante who fired low to Arias’ left. Once again, Carlos Erwin Arias saved the penalty and this time the celebrations were allowed to run their course, the penalty stood (despite Arias moving off his line for the third time!).
What seemed to be a perfunctory, run of the mill win for Universitario in Sucre just a few minutes earlier was now anything but. Still a goal ahead, the game continued while this commentator was an absolute wreck, banging on about divine intervention and stumbling over malformed words that made little or no sense whatsoever. If the incident in the first half had me flummoxed, this unbelievable sequence of events rendered me entirely ineffective.
6 minutes after, cosmic order restored, Oriente Petrolero went down the other end and Rodrigo Vargas netted. The rest of the game a blur, it finished with the teams all square. A run-of-the-mill, formulaic draw as expected. Except it was anything but.
By Paul Sarahs
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona