“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, muchmore important than that.” Those were the words of a person many consider to be one of the greatest coaches of all time, Bill Shankly, the man who laid the foundations for making Liverpool a legendary club. Those are also words that would resonate with the man many consider to be the greatest football coach, or maybe even the greatest coach across all sports, alive and turns 64 on Sunday.
Marcelo Bielsa Caldera. Or to give him his nickname, given with sincere affection by millions of followers. El Loco. The Madman. It is a name that evokes a smile from the man himself. As he said once, “A man with new ideas is a madman, until his ideas triumph.” And Marcelo Bielsa’s ideas about football have been triumphing for a while now.
There would be some who would be shocked at my statement about Bielsa being the best coach in the world. And with good reason. For, by conventional benchmarks, Bielsa has not done much. His trophy cabinet is definitely on the bare side – he has three league titles (in Argentina) and an Olympic gold medal (and Olympic medals do not count for much in football) in a career that spans more than three decades.
He has won no major honour with any high profile European club and has won no Champions League or even a Europa League title. In fact, he is not even at a top divisor club at the moment – he is the boss at Leeds in the English First División (in essence, the second division, as it comes below the Premier League, which is the top division in England)
In comparison, someone like Pep Guardiola, the current manager at Manchester City has already won eight league titles and two Champions League titles and has managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich and is currently setting records at Manchester City. There are many who in fact consider Guardiola to be the best manager in the world.
But not too many know that when he was considering to take up the managerial role, Guardiola went to Bielsa for advice. Bielsa’s reply was legendary: “Do you really like blood so much?”
Which perhaps sums up Bielsa’s attitude towards football. Although he had a very short career as a player – he played as a defender for Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina – but retired at the age of 25 to focus on management. The rest, as they like to say, is pretty much history.
You would not sense it by looking at his track record though. If anything, Bielsa appears like an eccentric who changes clubs too frequently. He has managed twelve different teams in senior football since 1990, and his longest tenures were as manager of Argentina’s national team (1994-2004) and from 2007-2011 at Chile.
Yes, there are many who consider him to the forerunner of the “pressing” style of play that has been dominating modern football, but then there are others like Jürgen Klopp and Guardiola that have gained more success from it.
As I pointed out, Bielsa has never really won a “high profile” trophy like the World Cup or the Champions League or Copa America. And yet, someone like Pep Guardiola calls him the best coach in the world (he WOULD know, I assume).
The reason for Bielsa’s formidable reputation stems partly from his passion for the sport, a passion that is so far-reaching that it encompasses everything around the game, even life itself. A passion that has seen him transform not just football teams but cultures.
He is known to be a stickler for detail – his players are given extensive football footage to pore over before every match, and the work rates he encourages are so high that many feel that his teams tend to “burn out” mid-way through a season.
You would have thought that that sort of philosophy would have made him unpopular among players, but that is far from the truth. Bielsa’s near crazy intensity has made him a darling not just of those he coaches but the fans as well. When there was rumour that he would be stepping down from the post of national manager in Chile (after making the team a football power and guiding it to a very successful World Cup campaign), fans launched a movement called “Bielsa is NOT leaving.”
But passion is only a part of it. Perhaps the biggest reason Bielsa enjoys near-cult status as a manager is because of another quality. One which has very little to do with football. Which is why it is so rare in the sport.
Marcelo Bielsa is an honest man. From resigning from the post of Lazio manager within two days because he did not get the players he wanted, showing a two hour presentation on how he used spies to find out about the opposition team’s strategies, saying that a referee was right to penalise him because he himself had behaved badly, Bielsa can never be accused of duplicity.
The man’s sincerity is legendary. And what is amazing is how in a cynical world, he has managed to earn plaudits for it. A great example of this was seen a few months back in a match between Bielsa’s Leeds and Aston Villa.
Leeds needed a win desperately to qualify for the Premier League and the team were also leading through a goal that many felt was controversial because his side continued to play even after a Villa player was lying injured. The Villa bench and fans erupted with rage, calling the goal unfair. Bielsa’s reaction? He ordered his team to concede a goal, bellowing “give them a goal” from the touchline. Leeds failed to qualify for the Premier League.
Most other managers would have been crucified for not being “practical” and for being too idealistic. Not Bielsa. His contract at the club was extended, and the news of it sent fans into raptures. And that has been the reaction that the man has evoked at the clubs he has managed – one of awe tinged with affection. He has never seemed to be swayed by money or stars but has instead chased his idea of football. A football that fans love because it is so based on constant attack.
“I am obsessive about attack,” he once said, and his teams have reflected his obsession. No matter who the opposition, no matter what the venue, no matter what is at stake, a Marcelo Bielsa team will attack.
And while the constant “run, run, run” philosophy can take a physical toll of his players, it also often ends up making them more complete and fitter individuals. And for all the talk of being a hard taskmaster, Bielsa is known for being fiercely affectionate of his players, especially the younger ones. He has never blamed the players for a defeat.
“If players weren’t human, I would never lose,” he once famously said. And the players have often responded with a loyalty that is unheard of. One of his players, Julio Saldana, continued playing a few days after the death of his wife in a car crash. simply because he derived so much strength from the team that Bielsa had built, and of course, Bielsa himself.
Small wonder Guardiola once remarked, “I have never met a player who has worked with Bielsa and has spoken badly of him.” Guardiola is not the only coach who is in awe of Bielsa. Mauricio Pochettino, the highly acclaimed coach of Tottenham Hotspur calls Bielsa “my football father,” having also played under him at both club and national level. “We are a generation of coaches who were his disciples,” he said. “How he feels football, the passion he has for football, I think we all took that from him.”
So do the fans. So do the players. We will let Guardiola have the final word about him on his birthday: “For me, he is the best coach in the world.”