The story goes that one evening when he was in charge of the Chilean national team, Marcelo Bielsa felt a twinge of doubt, a mental block. Any other coach would normally turn to his mentors, delve into the video shelf for old videos looking for anything to help him or in some extreme cases, turn to alcohol (we know who it was). Bielsa went straight to the Santiago Zoo to find his motivation.
That’s just who he is and where the nickname comes from – El Loco, The Mad One. His unique personality shapes every team he manages, his philosophy a blend of passion, obsession, eccentricity and to a certain extent, craziness. He does not give exclusive interviews and prefers to answer those seeking his presence in his press conferences. Even then he refuses to look into the journalists’s eyes, preferring to keep his head lowered and his eyes on the microphone.
Another fascinating tale about El Loco goes that for 12 hours straight over a barbeque session (or asado, as some may prefer), Guardiola and him spoke of nothing but the beautiful game. Guardiola had spent the previous 11 hours travelling just to seek Bielsa’s advice. Salt shakers and ketchup bottles became the center of attention as talk of positional and possession football became intense and ideas flowed freely. Guardiola, being a football man himself, was completely taken by this mad Argentine who had left a mark on him. Pep would, of course, imbed this philosophy of possession football and high pressing on arguably one of the finest club sides the world has ever seen.
He had this to say about Guardiola during his first press conference as the Athletic manager:
“Guardiola has recovered the idea of multifunctional players: right backs to wingers, left backs and midfielders to central defenders, etc. He has taken advantage of his versatile players, something that was not appreciated not long ago. It is crucial that a coach, when he manages great football players, does not interfere with their talent. But, he has improved them. He has made them to do things they probably do not master, but his players still make the sacrifice. They do it for the team.”
Before he took the Athletic Bilbao job, his last spell in Spain ended in typical Bielsa fashion – he left Espanyol after managing them for just 6 games (of which they only won one). 12 days before his first official game, he knew he was going to go. The Argentina national team post was up for grabs and there was no one who could stop him.
Even his arrival at Athletic wasn’t without that element of ‘Bielsista’. Inter’s then President Massimo Moratti approached him about the managerial vacancy there only for him to say no without even blinking an eye. Why, you ask? Because he had already promised ex-Athletic skipper Josu Urrutia that if he was elected as the club president, Bielsa would follow him in. As things turned out, Urrutia won the presidency and Bielsa followed. That sense of loyalty and sticking to his principles is a wonderful sight in today’s money-grabbing football environment.
One of the biggest followers and disciples of Marcelo Bielsa is the current Barcelona manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. Martino was Bielsa’s leader on the pitch during his early managerial career at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. Martino even resembles Bielsa on the touchline – sporting spectacles, always thinking about the next move, pacing around on the touchline with his head down wondering how to outfox the man in the opposition dugout.
When he took over at Chile, the national team were a joke – the fans were used to seeing them finish near the bottom of their Copa América and World Cup campaigns and were resigned to their fate when he arrived. The impact he and his coaching staff had was not immediate – the first six games were the same as in previous times – lethargic, lacking confidence and looking every bit a beaten side. And then the Bielsa effect kicked in. The team (a talented bunch from the outset) started buying into his philosophy and the results started to flow. The high pressing game was embedded into every player and for the first time in a long, long time, the whole nation was riveted and rallying behind their national football team. During his tenure, Chile finished 2nd in World Cup 2010 qualifying, above both Argentina and Brazil.
One of the main beneficiaries of his time with Chile was Alexis Sánchez. Sánchez was always a very gifted and blessed footballer but he lacked that final polish which separates the true greats from the rest. He had a knack of dribbling one too many times and a very frustrating tendency of losing possession at the most inopportune moment. Under Bielsa, he went from a gifted yet erratic footballer to the wonderful player he is today with Barcelona.
Pep Guardiola summed up El Loco’s philosophy when he described his Athletic team before the Copa Del Rey final in 2012:
“They run up, they run down, they run up, they run down, they run up, they run down …”
He may never land a job in Europe again because of the unique culture he brings with him but his mark is indelibly etched in European football and will be remembered fondly by those who’s life’s he touched. The only person coming close in terms of his influence is Zdeněk Zeman (the current Italian crop of youngsters have him to thank). Wonderful manager and an even better man.