Illustration by Federico Manasse
Nicknamed ‘Platini’ due to his skill-infused style of play, Erwin Sánchez was the catalyst for the unexpected Bolivian rise to prominence of the mid-1990s.
Along with Venezuela, Bolivia have long been viewed as the perennial whipping boys of South America. While Venezuela remain the one CONMEBOL nation yet to reach a World Cup, Bolivia have always harboured a vague glimmer of hope that the wheel will turn for them once more.
Winner on home soil of the 1963 South American Championship – the tournament we all now refer to as the Copa América – a glorious moment that was clinched with a 5-4 victory on a remarkable day in Cochabamba against back-to-back world champions Brazil, Bolivia have always harnessed the potent weapon of high altitude in their footballing endeavours.
No opponents enjoy venturing to Bolivia. When high altitude is combined with a new generation of players of rich potential, then hope resurfaces. In many ways, Venezuela have traditionally been better placed to cope with disappointment than Bolivia have.
Having been present at both the 1930 and 1950 World Cup finals, through invitation rather than a successful qualifying campaign, it wasn’t until USA 94 that Bolivia reached football’s greatest show on earth under their own steam.
With immense power in his right foot, Erwin Sánchez was blessed with a varied armoury of skills. Forceful and direct, powerful in full flow, he also had the hidden ability of subtlety. It was something that he used sparingly, however, like a baseline tennis player who notoriously bludgeons the ball from the back of the court until an opponent submits, only to throw in a deft and delicate drop shot to close out match point.
Sánchez was the only member of Bolivia’s squad at USA 94 who was plying their club trade in Europe at the time. Having burst onto the Bolivian scene with Club Destroyers, and then Bolivar, it was the mighty Benfica and Sven-Göran Eriksson who made their move for him in the summer of 1990, fresh off the back of narrowly losing the European Cup final to Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, and having yielded the Portuguese title to Porto.
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While Sánchez was part of a title-winning Benfica squad in his debut season for them, he struggled with Eriksson’s approach to the game. He drifted in and out of the side and happily accepted a loan move to newly promoted Estoril for the 1991/92 campaign, helping them to mid-table respectability. With a regular place in the side and his form returning, Sánchez began to be noticed. In the summer of 1992, the Portuguese cup winners Boavista swooped for his services, and in Oporto he found a city much more to his liking than Lisbon had been.
Sánchez thrived under Manuel José, helping Boavista clinch a place in the UEFA Cup in his first season and make a run to the quarter-finals the season after. He was fast becoming a legend in the eyes of the Boavista faithful. Another UEFA Cup qualification was achieved in 1994, and when Sánchez headed off to the World Cup finals, he cemented his legendary status in his homeland by scoring Bolivia’s first – and to this day only – goal at a World Cup.
It was a mixed tournament for Bolivia. The positives taken from a narrow defeat to Germany were overshadowed by the frustrations of a goalless draw with South Korea, before they were outclassed by Spain, against whom Sánchez found the net.
1994-95 would prove a hangover of a season with a disappointing mid-table finish, an early exit from Europe, and being dismantled by Sporting in the cup. Sánchez and Boavista bounced back, however, and UEFA Cup qualification was gained once more in 1996, while in 1997 Sánchez scored the crucial third goal against Benfica in the Taça de Portugal final, when he and Boavista found themselves up against José, their old inspirational coach.
The summer of 1997 was pivotal for Sánchez. Bolivia hosted the Copa América, and he was the driving force behind a run to the final itself, where they lost out to Brazil. When he returned to Portugal, it was not to Boavista, but instead to Benfica, to team up once more with José. A poor start to the season meant that José was soon gone, and surplus to the requirements of the new coach, Sánchez was soon back at Boavista. It is here that he rose once more to challenge the Portuguese footballing elite, when Boavista stunned everyone by winning the title in 2001.
Sánchez, the force of nature, and Bolivia’s greatest, scaled the heights through skill and stubbornness in the most unexpected colours