Bolívar manager Xabier Azkargorta was always a motivator and a coach that maintained a positive outlook on things no matter how they were playing out on the pitch. In his office, he had a sign that read “Never Stop Going Forward. A Golazo For Life.” On Wednesday, that golazo came in the 70th minute when Julio Ferreira scored a tremendous goal with one of the few opportunities he had in Bolívar’s 1-0 victory over León in the Copa Libertadores.
In that match, the Bolivians endured countless attacks by the reigning Liga MX champions, but survived because of their organization and practicality. The squad did not attack much, but at the same time, León failed to find the spaces to put Bolívar in a bind on a consistent basis. The few times “La Fiera” were able to do so, the ball would tease the players and fans in attendance, but they eventually lost.
The win was not just “historic,” as several players mentioned after the match, it was a reaffirmation of what Azkargorta instilled in them in just two short weeks when he took the helm at Bolívar.
It seems like back to the future for the Bolivian. When he took over as coach of the Bolivian national team for the 1994 World Cup qualifiers, there were many naysayers in the Bolivian press that were won over by his work all of a sudden.
Twenty years later, Azkargorta returns to the spotlight once again as coach of Bolívar just hours after parting ways with the same national team that he put on the international soccer map two decades earlier.
Once again, Azkargorta quickly started to show his “coaching magic,” changing the fortunes of a Bolívar side that struggled in the early part of 2014 under caretaker coach Víctor Soria while magnate Marcelo Claure was looking for a replacement for another Spaniard, Miguel Ángel Portugal, who departed for Atlético-PR back in December. That move, ironically, saw Azkargorta go from one of the poorest national teams in the western hemisphere to coaching the club owned by one of the richest men in Bolivia — communications magnate and David Beckham business partner Marcelo Claure.
The Hernando Siles stadium was always the biggest strength for Bolivian clubs and national teams, as it was (and continues to be) a place of strength as even the biggest of rivals trembled when the prospect of having to play 3,640 meters (11,948 feet) about sea level. The same could be said about Oruro (3,706m/ 12,159 feet) or Cochabamba (2,558 m/8,392 feet).
Now when they play away from those confines, their results are dire to say the least. The Bolivian national team have not won on the road in World Cup qualifying play in 21 years. That was when Azkargorta’s side defeated Venezuela 3-1 en route to their first and only World Cup appearance.
Playing away from home was always the demon that Bolivian sides endured. Having to leave that comfort zone was always a problem mentally, and Azkargorta was always aware of that. This is why the win against León was so huge. Azgargorta’s win was not just also important for his team as they went top of the table in their group in Copa Libertadortes; he was also the coach of the first Bolivian side to ever win on Mexican soil.
“It’s about convincing the players that they can play and fight in any condition; that the rivals don’t have three legs or two hearts and don’t have seven lungs,” said Azkargorta after Bolívar’s 1-0 win against León in Guanajuato. “They are a football player which they can compete against.”
In the press conference after the match, he was asked about his team’s good fortune.
“Luck is a lady and you have to seduce her. Send her flowers, take her out to dinner and work towards getting her. She never arrives on her own. Today we worked hard and we sent her flowers and in the end. She helped us out.”
He believes that he’s changed the culture of the club in just two weeks. What was most important was not that the club believe in some intangible. The important part is being able to measure the intangibles with tangibles. Their draw against Flamengo at the Estadio Maracanã was a start as no Bolivian team have earned points on Brazilian soil until that match. They followed up that performance with a 2-1 win against O Mengão at the Hernando Siles and then went on to get the win in Mexico.
Before that, the results were not coming despite having an outstanding campaign from captain Julio Ferreira and former Real Madrid B and Real Valladolid man José Luis Capdevila as well as former Real Madrid youth player Juanmi Callejón (Napoli’s José María Callejón’s twin brother). Callejón is Bolívar’s leading goalscorers in Copa Libertadores and is currently tied with fellow compatriot and former Pichichi winner Dani Güiza, who currently plays at Cerro Porteño in Paraguay.
Still there is a different vibe at training in one of the biggest clubs in Bolivia as one of the greatest names is beginning to get them out of their early year doldrums. In typical “El Vasco” fashion, Azkargorta has resurrected the morale of this side and now it seems like they are once again poised to fight for big things domestically, despite their 4-0 loss to Aurora with an alternate side. Right now all guns are blazing and many in Bolivia are talking about this team being at the doorstep of returning to the knockout stage for the first time since 2012.
Yes, it’s only two weeks that he’s been in charge; there is a tendency to get a bit carried away. Through all that, the old wise Basque man with the pronounced moustache shows many of his naysayers that he still has what it takes when given the tools. Maybe that could be the lesson that the Bolivian federation could learn from this.
Juan is a soccer pundit that has covered football from all over the world for the past 11 years. He’s done television works for various outlets and has written for sites like Goal.com, The Telegraph, Soccerly and In Bed With Maradona amongst others. He is also a frequent guest on TALKSport, BBC World Service, Radio Globo and Radio Huancavilca amongst others. You can follow him on Twitter.