This was their chance, and they blew it. A win in Jujuy over Costa Rica (and not even a full Costa Rica, remember, but an Under-22 squad with five overage additions) and they would have been assured of a place in the quarter-final of the Copa América for the first time since 1997. Only once before, in 1995, have they ever got that far before away from the comforting altitude of home.
Reach the last eight and then, perhaps, they could have begun to start thinking of World Cup qualification for the first time since 1994 and the heady days of Marco Etcheverry, particularly given, with Brazil already qualified as hosts, there is an extra available to Conmebol (four of nine to qualify automatically, with one entering a play-off). Perhaps they got ahead of themselves thinking of what might be.
Bolivia had, seemingly, done the hard part by drawing with Argentina, although that was perhaps not so unexpected. It's not so much that the last time they'd met, in World Cup qualifying in La Paz, Bolivia had won 6-1 against Diego Maradona's side, who sleepwalked through the thin air; it's that the Copa América keep on offering up Bolivia to the hosts in their opening game, almost as an easy kill to get the party started. Four times in the last five tournaments they've been the designated sacrificial lambs; every time they've come away with a draw.
It's one thing to sit men behind the ball and defend doggedly, though, quite another to have to make the play and bear the onus of the creation. Against Argentina, Bolivia had looked solid, the thirtysomething duo of Jaime Robles and Walter Flores doughty at the back of the midfield, with Edivaldo Rojas offering a dash of excitement behind the combative Shakhtar Donetsk striker Marcelo Moreno.
Bolivia would never be complacent – they're too aware of their own deficiencies and the modesty of their football history for that – but after the draw in La Plata there was a definite feeling of confidence heading into Thursday's game in Jujuy, in the foothills of the Argentinian Andes. This was, after all, almost a home game, as Bolivians piled over the border in their thousands. Many wore not the green shirts of the national team, but national dress – bowler hats, colourful ponchos, pollera skirts, all adorned with coca leaves; there was a sense of carnival, of the expression of a national pride of which football was only a part.
But against the youthful energy of Costa Rica they were exposed. This was a strange game. Patches of it were dreadful, with aimless high balls whacked nowhere in particular, but both sides broke exhilaratingly at speed. At half-time, Bolivia seemed marginally on top, a little porous at the back but essentially let down by the quality of their crossing. The Costa Rica coach Ricardo La Volpe's decision to move the forward Joel Campbell to the left, though, turned the game.
The 19-year-old Laprissa striker is highly rated and has been compared to Paulo Wanchope, but he had done little to catch the eye in this tournament until he was presented with the lumbering Bolivia right-back Lorgio Alvarez as a victim to torment. Goals from Josué Martínez, following in after an Allen Guevara shot had been saved, and Campbell, a missed Guevara penalty and a David Guzmán free-kick that pinged off the post were a measure of Costa Rica's domination as Bolivia lost discipline and had Ronald Rivero and Flores sent off.
Bolivia could yet go through if they beat Colombia in their final group game, but it is left to Venezuela to carry the standard for the minnows. They also drew their opening game, but they looked a rather more complete side in frustrating Brazil than Bolivia had against Argentina, and face Ecuador, who drew their opening match against Paraguay, in Salta on Saturday. Historically, Venezuela are smaller fish even than Bolivia, but with players emerging from the side that reached the last 16 of the World Under-20 Championship in Egypt in 2009 (where Costa Rica reached the semi-finals), their chances of qualifying for Brazil 2014 look rather stronger.