The Strongest, Bolivar locked in closest title fight in South America
This week, there was one last 2016 championship still standing in South America -- and it does not want to go quietly.
Up and down the continent, the domestic leagues came to a conclusion either last weekend or the previous Sunday. The exception was in Bolivia, where the final round was not played until Wednesday -- and even this has not proved sufficient to bring matters to a close.
The tournament, the 2016 Apertura, has been utterly dominated by the two traditional giants from La Paz: Bolivar and The Strongest. Bolivar have had their noses in front, but The Strongest have been snapping away at their heels, refusing to treat the trophy as a lost cause.
And so the two great rivals went into the final round with Bolivar leading by three points. A draw away to Sport Boys Warnes would be sufficient for the Sky Blues to perform the lap of honour. The Strongest, in their tiger stripes, had to win at home to San Jose and hope for a slip up from Bolivar. The country sat down to a frenetic afternoon.
The Strongest took a first-minute lead. With the tightest defence in the tournament, the hard part had surely been done. And they were looking even happier when Bolivar went behind half way through their first half. As it stood, the teams would finish level on points, forcing a playoff.
But then, within a minute, the challenge of The Strongest was greatly weakened. They conceded an equaliser, and a few seconds later Bolivar scored an equaliser of their own. In order for a playoff to take place, the scores would have to change in both games -- and, bizarrely, that is what happened -- again more or less simultaneously. Just before half-time, The Strongest went 2-1 up against San Jose, while Sport Boys Warnes put themselves 2-1 up against Bolivar. The playoff was back on!
But only for 10 minutes. On the stroke of the interval, San Jose scored a second. The Strongest had been pegged back, and if they could not win their match, what happened to Bolivar was irrelevant.
The Strongest, then, came out for the second half determined to make sure that they were doing their bit. They were soon 3-2 up, and then they went wild in the last 20 minutes, scoring four more to end up 7-2 winners. Veteran Paraguayan-born midfielder Pablo Escobar weighed-in with a hat trick.
But it would all be in vain if Bolivar managed to hold on for a draw -- they had forced themselves level after 66 minutes, with a goal from their combative Argentine striker Gaston Cellerino.
Nearly 400 miles to the south east, Bolivar's travelling fans were celebrating in Santa Cruz as the clock ran down, with every second taking their team closer to the title. But there was plenty of drama still to come. As the game moved into stoppage time, a fracas led to five players being sent off; Sport Boys lost Cristian Coimbra, who had scored their second goal, international defensive midfielder Alejandro Melean and Jherson Cordoba.
Bolivar had their two senior strikers sent off, Cellerino and veteran international Juan Carlos Arce. Still, they were nine against eight, and all they had to do was wait for the final whistle.
But before it came, in the 100th minute of the match, Carlos Vargas scored for Sport Boys -- and the tiger-striped half of La Paz could join in the celebrations.
And so, the South American club season rolls on -- Bolivar and The Strongest will have to meet one more time.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.