The Strongest: how Bolivia’s oldest club bounced back from tragedy

I was watching an episode of the ITV quiz show The Chase earlier in the year. There is often a football question in the programme and the “Chasers” themselves have an impressive knowledge of the sport. “The team called The Strongest play in which country?” appeared on the screen. The possible answers were Uruguay, Argentina, or Bolivia. I screamed Bolivia! at the TV set. The Chaser, Paul Sinha, chose Argentina and then compounded his error by saying he had never heard of a team called The Strongest. I turned off the set in disgust. How can people not know this stuff?

The Strongest are based in Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz and were founded in 1908 when a group of middle-class friends decided to create a football club. As was the trend in Latin America at the time, they wanted a club name that was English but also contained the word “Strong” as various clubs had popped up in La Paz but none had lasted more than a few years. Initially, they were known as the “Strong Foot Ball Club” but eventually became The Strongest, a name which has endured ever since.

The club’s home kit features black and yellow stripes, taken from the colours of the chayñita, a bird indigenous to the region. The shirts also feature a tiger which glares at you from the club badge. The Strongest are the oldest team in Bolivia and have never been relegated from the top division, winning six consecutive La Paz Football Association League titles in the 1930’s. They were champions of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional Boliviano in 1952, two years after its formation, and have won the title fifteen times, a record that is only bettered by their city rivals Club Bolivar.

The club have a unique claim to fame, in being the only football team to have a battle in a full-blown war named after them. Between 1932 and 1935, Bolivia and Paraguay fought a three-year war over the disputed terrority of El Chaco after oil reserves were found there. Bolivia had already lost its access to the coast in the War of the Pacific (Chile fans taunt Bolivians by chanting Vamos a la playa – let’s all go to the beach). Bolivia was determined not to lose anymore possessions and the country was engulfed in a patriotic fervour to claim the land. The members of The Strongest led the way by enlisting and even had their own military division named after them called Stronguistas. It comprised players, staff and supporters of the club.

The El Chaco war was a disaster for Bolivia but the country’s one major successes was the Batalla de Cañada, which took place over 15 days in May 1934, considered their greatest victory of the conflict. The Bolivians captured over 1,500 Paraguayan troops and killed a further 400, whilst also taking possession of a considerable amount of weaponry and provisions, the Stronguista’s playing a decisive role. During the conflict, former player José Rosendo Bullain died in action defending his fellow division members and footballer Froilan Pinilla was awarded the Estrella de Hierro – the Iron Cross – for his bravery in repelling a Paraguayan insurgence. Afterwards, the clash became known as the Batalla de Cañada Strongest, in honour of the decisive role the Stronguistas undertook. Thus, the club can claim to be the only football team in the world to have a battle named after them in the history books.

In September 1969 an event occurred which shook the club, the supporters and the city of La Paz, to its very foundation. It is testimony to the team that they not only recovered but continued to prosper. When the plane carrying the Brazilian team Chapocoense crashed in December 2016, the news of the tragedy was covered in detail in media outlets across the world. Similarly, the Superga and Munich air disasters are known across the globe. Yet, nearly 50 years previously The Strongest were involved in a similar incident that received scant coverage outside Bolivia.

The team had been invited to take part in a series of commemorative friendly matches in Santa Cruz De La Sierra, a commercial centre east of the Andean mountains. Three more teams were to participate, two from the city of Santa Cruz itself and Cerro Porteño from Paraguay. It wasn’t the most impressive performance from The Strongest; they lost both of their matches and were heavily criticised by the press in La Paz for their substandard displays. On 26 September at 16.00 hours, the plane carrying 74 passengers, including members of the football team, departed on time. Thirty minutes later the pilot Teddy Scott Villa contacted ground control to confirm that everything was proceeding normally. This was the last recorded message.

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After half an hour had passed without any further contact from the plane, the authorities started to initiate a search procedure focusing on the location of the last transmission. This proved to be an extremely inaccessible and impenetrable area and it was not until the 29 September that a group of miners from the nearby Viloco mine discovered the wreckage of the plane in a crater on Mount Choquetanga, 4,500 metres above sea level and surrounded by deep snow.

There were no survivors. When the rescue teams arrived, they could only confirm that all 74 passengers had died, including 16 players from The Strongest, their manager and coach. After the bodies were recovered they were transported back to La Paz where daily funerals were held for each member of the club who had perished. Bolivia declared a state of mourning and the country came to a standstill. The deceased players were elevated to a level of idolisation and even today you can still see posters of the team on walls and windows around the city.

No definitive account was ever produced to explain the accident. Due to its age, the plane was not equipped with either a Black Box flight recorder or any other method of ascertaining what had happened in the cockpit. The weather, poor visibility, mechanical failure, pilot error or a combination of all these factors could have resulted in the catastrophic outcome. At the time this was the worst ever aviation disaster in the history of Bolivia. The tragedy engendered a rare sense of Latin American solidarity as Argentina’s Boca Juniors immediately offered to loan four players, as did several other sides. Testimonial matches were held in Argentina, Brazil and Chile to raise funds for the victim’s families. This altruistic action helped The Strongest to resurrect themselves and within five years they were national champions again.

Although The Strongest were the first team from Bolivia to participate in the Copa Libertadores they, along with most Bolivian sides, have a long history of underachievement in the competition. They play most of their games at the Estadio Hernando Stiles, named after the 31st president of the country, which also doubles up as the national stadium. At 3,367 metres above sea level it is one of the highest football arenas in the world. Whilst this has given The Strongest a massive advantage when playing at home, they have, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved to be spectacularly unsuccessful on their travels. They went 34 years and 48 matches without winning a single away fixture in the Copa Libertadores until they achieved a 1-0 victory against São Paulo in 2016, sparking wild celebrations on the streets of La Paz.

Technically, the Estadio Hernando Stiles cannot be used for international fixtures as FIFA prohibits matches being played above 3,000 metres. Fortunately, after protests from the Bolivian FA and support from such luminaries as Lionel Messi, they agreed to make an exception for the venue. It comes as no surprise to learn that in 2017 Neymar posted photos of the Brazilian team wearing oxygen masks before a World Cup qualifier, claiming that it was inhumane to play in such conditions.

The Strongest are the only team ever to have a battle named after the side and are one of the few teams unfortunate enough to have their playing squad wiped out by an air disaster. Yet the club lives up to its name and the badge with the snarling tiger as its emblem personifies the determination of the players and supporters to fight to the end. As their fans proudly claim: “we call them Tigers because whenever fate goes against them, like a wounded tiger they fight back to claim the victory.”

By Paul McParlan for the SOUTH AMERICA series

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