Bolivian Apertura, national team bring 2016 to an end in entertaining fashion
Bolivar ended up having special reason to lament Wednesday's stoppage time madness.
All they had needed to do was avoid defeat away to Sport Boys Warnes to claim the 2016 Bolivian Apertura league title. They were being chased by their great La Paz rivals, The Strongest, who after a nervy first half had blasted their way to a 7-2 win against San Jose. But that all looked irrelevant as Bolivar went into stoppage time tied at 2-2.
Then, the chaos began.
Five players were sent off. Bolivar lost two. Sport Boys lost three. Surely the nine men would hold put against the eight; they did not. In the 11th minute of stoppage time, Sport Boys scored a winner. Bolivar and The Strongest were now level on points with the league calendar completed: As a result, a play off had to be hurriedly organised for Saturday afternoon.
Bolivar had done themselves some serious harm against Sport Boys. It wasn't only that they lost, it was the fact that the two players sent off were their most important strikers: Argentine centre-forward Gaston Cellerino and the skilful Bolivian international Juan Carlos Arce. Both were suspended from the playoff and Bolivar were forced to field a weakened side for the most important game of the year.
Between Wednesday and Saturday had there been enough time for heads to cool? Evidently not. There was a huge flare up in the second minute. Two yellow cards were shown; it could have been more. The referee trusted that he could calm the game down but he never really succeeded. Those two yellows were the first of 12, two-thirds of them to Bolivar.
There was a simple explanation for the fact that the sky-blue shirts of Bolivar picked up eight cards against four to the tiger-striped The Strongest. Bolivar were second best all afternoon. They without their leading attacking weapons and also found it very hard to defend. The Strongest were soon able to play the ball into the spaces outside Bolivar's back three and in front of the defensive line, they never got a grip on Pablo Escobar, the veteran Paraguayan-born playmaker who is the one undoubted class act in the Bolivian game.
Inside the last 20 minutes, Escobar scored Bolivar's second goal, tucking home coolly off his "wrong" right foot to round off a splendid one-two with Alejandro Chumacero. Another exchange between the pair should have yielded a third goal but the ball took a bobble just as Chumacero was about to slide it home.
There was time for some late drama when the Spaniard Juanmi Callejon, by far Bolivar's most effective player, pulled back a goal in the 88th minute but it finished at 2-1, with the title going to The Strongest.
And so came to an end the final championship left standing this year in South America. Everything else in the continent had been wrapped up by last Sunday, but with the crazy events of Wednesday's stoppage time and the playoff between the La Paz rivals, Bolivia found itself in the spotlight... and not only for domestic reasons.
The opening goal for The Strongest was slotted home on the half-hour by Fabricio Pedrozo, after a misdirected defensive header from Nelson Cabrera fell at his feet. Cabrera has turned out to be a key player in the recent saga of the Bolivian national team, a story whose first bizarre chapter was written in Chile during the 2015 Copa America.
In that tournament, Bolivia reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997. But coach Mauricio Soria was accused of inciting players and coaching staff to protest to receive more bonus money. Soria was sacked and then offered a reprieve as the Bolivian FA found it hard to replace him. He refused the chance to be "unsacked," however, and Bolivia had to look elsewhere, settling on former international playmaker Julio Cesar Baldivieso.
A notoriously stormy character, Baldivieso clashed with senior players and the team got off to a dreadful start in World Cup qualification, losing five of their first six games. He was sacked after this year's Copa Centenario.
In came an Argentine, Angel Guillermo Hoyos. He looked like exactly what Bolivia needed, especially given his fine record of working with youth players. Hoyos initiated a long-term development project and also got off to a good start with the senior side, beating Peru at home and getting a draw away to Chile.
Making a late substitute appearance in both those games was Nelson Cabrera, who had made his Bolivia debut in the Copa Centenario. Cabrera is Paraguayan and, according to Bolivian legislation, had been given citizenship after three years of residence. But there was a problem. FIFA regulations demand a five-year period, which made Cabrera ineligible. On appeal, Peru and Chile were awarded the two games by a 3-0 margin.
Hoyos was understandably upset. Earlier in the week, he suddenly resigned as national team coach to take charge of Universidad de Chile. Bolivia swiftly named a replacement: yes, Mauricio Soria.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.