Away from the extreme altitude of La Paz, Bolivia are probably the weakest of the 10 South American nations — and for this very reason they are often served up as a sacrificial lamb for the hosts on the opening night of the Copa America.
But the Bolivians have doggedly refused to read the script. In 1999 they held hosts Paraguay to a first-day draw — and they did the same to Peru in 2004, Venezuela in 2007 and even Argentina in 2011. So can they now do the same thing to Brazil in 2019?
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Bolivia are under no illusions. While most of the other teams in the competition have been playing gentle warm-ups against northern rivals from CONCACAF, Bolivia’s only preparation match took them to France to face the reigning world champions. Their aim — to get used to the pressure of holding out against vastly superior opponents. Sporadic breakouts whenever possible — but mainly, defence, defence and more defence.
Coach Eduardo Villegas has great faith in his new centre-back pairing of the classy Luis Haquin and the combative Adrian Jusino, but the main man on Friday night in Sao Paulo is likely to be last line of the deep Bolivian defence — goalkeeper Carlos Lampe.
The 32-year-old shot-stopper has previous form against Brazil. Less than two years ago he produced an astonishing display in La Paz to rescue a 0-0 draw in a World Cup qualifier but equally, he has experienced the other side of the coin. Twelve months prior in the away fixture in Natal, Lampe had to pick the ball out of his own net five times as Brazil ran riot. Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino were all on the scoresheet that night and they will be gunning for Lampe once again in Sao Paulo.
Carlos Lampe has some happy memories of playing on Brazilian soil. He made his name as a 20-year-old in the Pan American Games of 2007, played in Rio de Janeiro, where Bolivia finished fourth and he stood out as an excellent long-term prospect. Now, 12 years later much of the fate of the opening game of the 2019 Copa is in his gloves.
Brazil versus Bolivia is the kind of match which will most likely unfold in one of two ways. It is hard to see Bolivia causing Brazil too many problems and so, the game will likely boil down to a simple question; will Brazil score early?
If so, they should be able to coast to a comfortable victory but If not, things become much more interesting. The longer the hosts have to wait for the opening goal, the more we will learn about the strength of their character, especially in the absence of Neymar, by some distance their brightest attacking star. In the warm-up matches against Qatar and Honduras, the goals came early and victory was never in doubt. With no quick breakthrough, they could become frustrated, and the notoriously impatient Sao Paulo crowd may start to complain. How will Brazil react to that sort of pressure? It is a fascinating question, much of which will depend on how long Bolivia’s No.1 Lampe can keep the hosts at bay.