Seleccion de Coroico are the most dangerous football team in the world. Admittedly, at first glance the Bolivian side don't appear to be all that fearsome. Left-back Rene Flores possesses the physique of a medium-sized schoolgirl. Winger Jose Luis Garcia looks like he could be chopped down by a character in a Lowry painting. Right midfielder Victor Garcia wears his gel-laden hair crafted in an apparent homage to the classic 80s blo-wave. And gritty ball-winner Elvis Alvarez - despite his persistent and potentially-threatening use of the term 'whore-fucker' - wears lilac boots. Enough said.
But it is not for Seleccion de Coroico's imposing demeanour that they are the world's most dangerous team. It is for the fact that to reach their home ground you need to travel on what is statistically the world's most dangerous road. 'The Road of Death', as the locals affectionately describe their 80-kilometre widowmaker, averages over 100 fatalities a year - almost one every three days - and is a nerve-shredding gauntlet of sheer drops, zero visibility, hairpin corners, mud slides and crumbling cliff edges. Even the most sadistic of computer programmers would probably think twice about including this plethora of perils in a PlayStation driving game.
And so, even if the opposition does make it to Coroico alive, they are likely to be so traumatised that the trivialities of winning a football match will be the last thing on their minds. By virtue of their location, then, Seleccion de Coroico are a fear-inspiring, awesome, formidable team. The only trouble is: today they are playing away.
'The Road of Death', as the locals affectionately describe their 80-kilometre widowmaker, averages over 100 fatalities a year...even the most sadistic of computer programmers would probably think twice about including this plethora of perils in a PlayStation driving game.
It is six in the morning and the team is assembling in the main plaza of Coroico. The town is a soporific cluster of cobbled streets thrown up on a forested mountain in the Yungas region of Bolivia, north-east of the capital, La Paz. Overlooking a cloud-filled gorge and home to just over 3000 inhabitants, local wisdom has it that Coroico possesses the best restaurants in Bolivia which, if you are die-hard fan of lukewarm spaghetti Bolognese, could well be true. Otherwise, the chief point of interest in the town is its Camino de la Muerte - The Road of Death.
Dropping 3000 metres from La Paz, the road begins safely enough as a windy paved pathway through the mountains, but soon it becomes a narrow, muddy skidpan upon which the slightest error of judgement means a fatal plunge into the valley below. The numerous crucifixes and roadside memorials are testament to the road's destructive qualities.
Seleccion de Coroico, the town's only football team, play in the top division of the regional championship. Today's game is against the nearby town of Licoma, though it is being played in the better-equipped stadium of the regional capital, Chulumani. As the team congregates in front of the town church, player/manager Gonzalo Guarachi - Goni to his friends - wears the worried expression of football coaches the world over. His problem this morning is that two of his players have gone AWOL and he has been reduced to asking random passers-by in the plaza if they are up for a game.
This is all a bit of a come-down for the 32-year-old Goni. Until he was 22, he played professionally for The Strongest, one of Bolivia's two, well, strongest teams. A Coroico born-and-bred football hero who was consistently feted in the national press, his career was cut short through a combination of injury and personality clashes with managers. Now Goni makes his living as a taxi driver. And he manages the most dangerous team in the world for fun.
Goni, however, cannot see why The Road of Death causes so much fuss. 'I am not bothered by it,' he tells me. 'I have never had an accident on it. Well, actually, one time I was on a bus and the gears broke - we rolled down the hill, hit the cliff face and flipped over. I didn't travel for a few days after that, I can tell you.'
I ask him if any opposition players have ever died on the way to a game.
'Not yet!' he replies, with the sinister laugh of a Scooby Doo villain.
Then Seleccion de Coroico are not all that dangerous after all?
'Oh, they are dangerous,' says Goni earnestly.
'Because sometimes when they play they are so hungover they could die.'
Team captain Alberto Mostajo is not overly concerned by the fact that two members of his side are missing. In fact, the 27-year-old Alberto - Berti for short - is far too preoccupied with posturing in his wraparound sunglasses to be worried about the minor inconvenience of only having nine players. Genial and charming, Berti is Seleccion de Coroico's striker, leading goalscorer, ringleader, raconteur and wideboy all rolled into one.
When, earlier, I asked manager Goni who was the best player in the team, he replied simply 'Berti'. When I asked him which player caused the most trouble, he again replied simply 'Berti'.
So was Berti out on the town last night? 'No,' says the man in question, earnestly. 'Drinking before a game is wrong and I would never do it.' Then he slips away to surreptitiously solicit an aspirin from a street vendor.
Returning, Berti explains how seriously he takes his position as captain of Seleccion de Coroico. 'It is a huge responsibility,' he explains. 'I have to represent the town and the team, and I have to lead by example. The most important thing to me is that I maintain the respect of the players.'
'None of the players have any respect for Berti as captain whatsoever,' confides central defender Agustin Figuerdo. 'He loves to order everyone around but he never accepts advice from anybody else. He never learns and he makes the same mistakes over and over again. And he's far too temperamental. Most of the players try to keep away from him on the pitch in case he shouts at them.'
The four-hour journey along the hair-raising Chulumani-Coroico road bears frightening resemblance to the final scenes of the film The Italian Job
Agustin, a calm, thoughtful student, is universally known as 'The Chinaman' for his Oriental looks, though can trace no Eastern ancestry in his family. The 23-year-old believes that Berti's problem is that he has a 'star complex' - he hogs the limelight like it is going out of fashion. 'Once, when we were training, we were doing an exercise and I happened to beat Berti to the ball,’ he explains. ‘Then he elbowed me in the face and cut my eye open.'
It is now seven a.m. in the plaza and the issue of the missing players has been resolved; the pair are apparently travelling directly from La Paz, where they are studying, to the match in Chulumani. The team board the bus – a dust-coated death-trap - and, after a minor disagreement over who should sit where (resolved only when Berti thunders: 'You sit where I tell you!'), they are on their way.
As they cruise through the streets of Coroico it becomes clear that they are minor celebrities in the town, and the locals wave them on their way and bid them good luck. Berti revels in the attention, his cries through the window of 'Hey sexy!' and 'Alright, darling?' being met with resounding indifference by the girls at which they are targeted. No matter, Seleccion de Coroico are on their way, spirits are high and the bus is running on testosterone.
It soon becomes apparent that the road to Chulumani is the second most dangerous road in the world. The precarious corners and cavernous gorges that fall away from the edge of the road seem of little concern to the players, however, and all sing along heartily to the top Bolivian pop tune of the moment, the lyrics of which translate something like:
'Drink! Drink! Drink!
Swig! Swig! Swig!
Down it! Down it! Down it!
Berti, of course, sings loudest of all while, no doubt, severely disapproving of the song's sentiments. Minutes later, for reasons best known to himself, has stripped down to his boxer shorts. Once again leading by example, he is spraying his teammates with water. Amid the shenanigans I ask him what he knows of today's opposition, Limoca. 'Nothing!' he states defiantly. In that case, I persist, how does he intend to approach the game and what tactics does he intend to employ? Berti thinks long and hard, nodding his head as he weighs up a response of sufficient gravity and technical complexity. Finally he is ready: 'Erm... 4-4-2?'
Today's game is only the second of the season: Seleccion de Coroico lost their first. 'We were defeated because it was raining so much,' explains kit man Rolando. But surely the conditions were the same for both teams? 'Ah yes,' concurs Rolando, 'But some of our players were still very drunk from the night before.'
Limoca, too, lost their opening fixture the previous week, but Seleccion de Coroico are considered one of the strongest teams in the Inter-Yungauo Championship and are expected to win today. Confidence is high, then, among the Coroican players, and as the bus pulls into the stadium at Chulumani they are greeted by a clutch of flag-wielding supporters. 'Hi, thanks for coming!' beam the footballers. 'You drunken fuckers!' reply the fans.
The Chulumani stadium is one that appears to have been built on some sort of medieval principles of defence. It is perched atop a mountain with a 360-degree vista of the valley below. Perhaps home fans pour boiling oil on visiting teams as they approach? Or more likely they simply look on with detached amusement as another opposition player indulges in an over-enthusiastic sliding tackle and careers over the edge of the precipice that lies just metres beyond the edge of the pitch.
If you shoot too high over the goals, the ball is lost forever to the canyon deep below (an activity which, it later transpires, the Limoca strikers seem to have some sort of sweepstake on). A small stand houses the press and VIPs, while the 2000-strong crowd are consigned to sun-bake on the concrete step-seating that borders three sides of the ground.
In the Seleccion de Coroico dressing room, Goni is giving his final team talk. 'You have to play as a team. It doesn't matter who scores, it is the team that counts. Play with confidence - and score six!'. Berti adds his own inimitable advice: 'Win. Or I will take your shirts and sleep with your women.'
Fifteen minutes into the game, the score is 0-0. Local South American sides have a tendency to forgo some of the more subtle aspects of football - like defending, for example - in favour of demonstrating how many drag-backs and step-overs they can perform. Not Coroico, however: they are disciplined, hard-working and feisty. Goni's cool marshalling of the side probably has something to do with this, though more likely the fear that Berti will sleep with their respective girlfriends imposes a ruthless efficiency upon the team. Oh, and it helps that Limoca are rubbish.
Five minutes later Goni has a free kick inside of his own half, which he hoofs all the way up the field. On the dry and dusty pitch the ball bounces so high that it clears the entirety of the outfield players of both sides, allowing Seleccion de Coroico striker Waldo Torrez to lazily pirouette and help the ball into the Limoca net. Goal.
The crowd explode into a mild ripple of token applause and goal-scorer Waldo Torrez raises his arms in salute. Waldo is the quintessential South American footballer: he plays like he's starring in a Nike ad. Combining a dazzling repertoire of tricks with studied nonchalance, Waldo is cool. He doesn’t run. He glides.
Local South American sides have a tendency to forgo some of the more subtle aspects of football - like defending, for example - in favour of demonstrating how many drag-backs and step-overs they can perform.
Half time and Goni has a few things to say to the team. Apparently they are losing too much possession in midfield and making too many unforced errors. 'We need to be stronger on the ball,' says the player/manager. And, as the teams trot out for the second half, Berti adds: 'Play as a team. And don't badmouth each other on the pitch.'
'You son of a whore. You fuck. I shit on your mother.' Berti is angry. It's a couple of minutes into the half and Waldo has just taken a shot on goal instead of passing to his unmarked captain.
Despite Berti’s histrionics, however, Seleccion de Coroico are well in command of the game’s second half. The centre-back pairing of Goni and The Chinaman are calm and composed and prevent Limoca from notching up even a single shot on target in the entire game. Or then again, maybe it’s simply that Limoca’s strikers can’t shoot for toffee. Either way, Seleccion de Coroico’s increased dominance serves to stir their followers a little. ‘Coroico [population 3200] is the capital of the world!’ claims one geographically-confused supporter. ‘You are all thieves!’ answers a Limoca fan, cryptically.
As the game draws to a conclusion, it becomes clear that Limoca would not be able to get the ball in the back of the net if the game continued until Christmas. Hence, Berti turns proceedings into a one-man mission to get his name on the scoresheet. With four minutes to go Waldo Torrez once again risks his girlfriend’s fidelity by electing to shoot rather than pass to Berti. Predictably, Berti is apoplectic.
The final minute and Limoca receive a free kick midway into Coroico’s half. Their goalkeeper, who, bizarrely, has smeared his entire face in Barbie-pink sunblock, waltzes up to take it, misses and begins to peg it back to his unguarded net. The ball, meanwhile, falls to Berti, on the halfway line, who, with a casual glance up, propels it towards the open goal. It’s his moment of glory, a jaw-dropping 50-yard strike, a triumph of skill and audacity. He turns to acknowledge the roaring crowd… only the ball isn’t in the net, but instead bobbing rather lamely towards the corner flag. Berti has missed. The final whistle blows. Seleccion de Coroico have won but Berti, clearly, has lost.
‘We made too many mistakes,’ says Goni in his post-match assessment. ‘We should have scored more goals,’ adds Berti, somewhat hypocritically. I ask the pair of them where Seleccion de Coroico need to improve for their next fixture. ‘Midfield,’ states Goni (a defender). ‘Midfield,’ concurs Berti (a striker).
The players are a little subdued, but it doesn’t last long. Berti causes much hilarity (admittedly mostly to himself) by fashioning his shorts into a pair of briefs and high spirits soon return. Coroico did win, after all.
As the team bus prepares to leave the stadium, Berti and The Chinaman are nowhere to be seen. It transpires that they have buggered off into the town centre at the behest of a group of female supporters. The bus pulls into the main plaza and a search party is dispatched. It is now seven in the evening and the bus driver warns that it would be advisable to get going: it is dark, it is about to rain and the road home would be even more treacherous than usual. Danger is never far from Seleccion de Coroico.
Once located, it appears that Berti is endeavouring to take on the nightlife of Chulumani. Unfortunately, Chulumani is to nightlife what Bolivian food is to world cuisine. Berti, with The Chinaman and a reluctant Goni in tow, is reduced to banging relentlessly on the boarded up door of a clearly bankrupt Karaoke Bar. He gives up only when a bottle of local firewater – an evil concoction of distilled grape skins and paint-stripper called Singuni– is produced, and leads his acolytes into the town square to begin drinking.
Two hours later and much drinking later, and the Chinaman looks pensive. Bottle in hand, he turns to Berti and, genuinely bemused, asks: ‘Berti. Why exactly are you captain of the team?’
Berti, however, is in no mood for idle conversation. He heads off to the nearest shop and comes back with four more bottles of Singuni. ‘Do you think this will be enough?’ he asks. Just then the team bus performs its 50th circuit of the town square and, amid much hollering from the rest of the team, Berti, The Chinaman and Goni are finally shepherded onto the bus.
The four-hour journey along the hair-raising Chulumani-Coroico road bears frightening resemblance to the final scenes of the film The Italian Job: while the bus perilously snakes its way through the mountains, the team sing, dance and make merry. Seleccion de Coroico may not win the Inter-Yungauo Championship; they may need to stop turning up to games with furious hangovers; and captain Berti may need to start setting a somewhat different example to his players. Hell, they may not even be all that dangerous after all. But if Bolivia is the heart of South America then players like the affable bunch from Coroico are its thumping pulse.
And, no, unlike The Italian Job the bus doesn’t spin off the road and end up see-sawing over the edge of a cliff. In fact, something far more catastrophic occurs.
‘Fuck! We’ve run out of alcohol!’ declares The Chinaman.
‘Hang on lads!’ says Berti. ‘I’ve got a great idea…’
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