After riding on an excellent freekick by Lionel Messi, which guided Argentina to a 1-0 win against Ecuador, the Albiceleste will continue its World Cup 2026 qualification campaign against Bolivia at the Estadio Hernando Siles stadium in La Paz on Wednesday.
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On paper, it should be another seamless day at the office for Lionel Scaloni’s world champions. Undefeated in the last three fixtures against Bolivia, current form suggests nothing less than an Argentina win. Add the fact that the Bolivians are reeling from a 1-5 thrashing at the hands of Brazil in their last match, it becomes evident that Argentina not only enjoys superiority on paper but also morale.
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There is something, however, that will work in the favour of the Bolivians. Call it Mother Nature’s aid if you will, but when Argentina comes out of the tunnel of the Hernando Siles stadium, it will be aware of the daunting physical battle that will lie ahead for the next 90 minutes.
What makes the Estadio Hernando Siles such a difficult venue for visiting teams?
Situated at nearly 12,000 feet (3637 metres) above mean sea level, the thin air around the Hernando Siles stadium will be an advantage for the Bolivian players because Scaloni’s men have had minimal time to adjust to the challenging conditions. Even if the world champion undertook a couple of training sessions to acclimatise to the conditions, playing a competitive match will be a completely different ballgame for Messi and his men.
According to media reports, Argentina players were given personal oxygen tubes on arrival to combat the altitude sickness. Midfielder Alexis Mac Allister had uploaded a picture of him using the same, but he has since deleted the post.
Argentine midfielder using an oxygen tube after arriving at La Paz, Bolivia.
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Alexis Mac Allister/IG
While there is no denying that the Hernando Siles is one of the most scenic stadiums in the world, overlooking the Altiplano range, it is also the world’s most elevated stadium, according to FIFA. Named after Bolivia’s 31st president, Hernando Siles Reyes, it is the country’s largest stadium, with 41,143 seats.
FIFA’s altitude ban
Bolivia had to fight with football’s governing body FIFA, to retain Hernando Siles’ right to be known as an official World Cup qualifying venue.
Until May 2007, FIFA did accept the stadium as an official venue to host World Cup qualifiers despite vocal protests from visiting teams about the altitude advantage enjoyed by Bolivia whenever a match was played at the stadium.
The protests were heard, and on May 27, 2007, FIFA declared that no World Cup Qualifying matches could be played in stadiums above 8,200 feet (2,500 m) above sea level. This meant that the Hernando Siles stadium would not be eligible to host World Cup qualifying matches.
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Players and people outside Bolivia have always been antipathetic towards the Hernando Siles Stadium, and the decision was seen as a welcome change. However, there were people who spoke out against the decision, like then-Bolivian President Evo Morales and Argentina legend Diego Maradona, saying that the move was discriminatory against high-altitude nations in Latin America.
The Estadio Hernando Siles became an embodiment of the Bolivian struggle against FIFA’’s ban on high-altitude games. After widespread campaigning, FIFA increased the altitude limit from 2500 metres to 3000 metres on June 27, 2007. The next day, the governing body also announced a special exemption for the Hernando Siles, allowing the stadium to continue holding World Cup qualifying matches.
The ban was revoked in May 2008.
While the stadium has been cleared by FIFA, there have been occasions where players have spoken out against the conditions. In 2017, Brazil’s Neymar posted photos of his teammates with oxygen masks before a 2018 World Cup qualification game in the stadium. He said it is “inhumane” to play under those conditions.
How has Argentina performed at the Estadio Hernando Siles in recent times?
Argentina’s most recent game at the stadium was in October 2020 for a qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Messi and his men eked out a 2-1 win, with Lautaro Martinez equalising to cancel out Marcelo Moreno’s opener and Joaquin Correa scoring a late winner in the 79th minute.
Three years earlier, Argentina succumbed to a 2-0 loss in a 2018 World Cup qualifying match.
In a 2014 World Cup qualifying match, Argentina drew 1-1 with Bolivia, with Moreno and Ever Banega on the scoresheet.
Messi was reported to be sick in that match at half-time as he gasped for air. His teammate Angel Di Maria had to be given oxygen. Commenting on the altitude, Messi said – “It is terrible to play here at altitude, so a draw is a good result for us. Every time you make an effort or play at high pace, you need time to recover.”
“Some of the players had a headache and others felt a bit dizzy, but there was nothing wrong with me.”
Rodrigo De Paul and Lautaro Martinez of Argentina celebrate after a match between Argentina and Bolivia as part of South American Qualifiers for Qatar 2022 at Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti on September 09, 2021 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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However, it was in April 2009 that Argentina suffered a 6-1 thumping against Bolivia in a 2010 World Cup qualifying match. Maradona, who had spoken in favour of the Hernando Siles’ right to host qualifiers, saw his team suffer its heaviest defeat in 60 years.
Rodrigo De Paul, Gonzalo Montiel, Leandro Paredes, Lautaro and Messi all started for Argentina in its last match at the Hernando Siles stadium but the world champion also has young blood like Julian Alvarez and Alejandro Garnacho, who are yet to face this daunting challenge.
Coming to the match, Messi might start the game from the bench after picking up a minor knock against Ecuador. He skipped the last training session with the team before the team left for Bolivia. Scaloni told a news conference Sunday that he could leave a decision on Messi until a few hours before the match. Lisandro Martinez is most likely not to be risked due to a foot problem sustained in Manchester United’s recent Premier League match against Arsenal. Apart from that, it should be a full-strength team for the Albiceleste.
Bolivia will bank heavily on Moreno to find the net against what should be a challenging opposition and a tough nut to crack despite the altitude advantage the home team will enjoy.