In the 1980s, a young man with long hair and intense eyes would zip through the streets of Rosario on a Zanella 50 moped. Marcelo Bielsa would be off to his kiosk. The kiosk was a trove of newspapers and magazines, and whoever had sold it to him might as well have handed a kid the keys to Disneyland. Bielsa subscribed to some forty magazines of his own. He had read up on the Ajax of Rinus Michels, and soon he was studying AC Milan, who were conquering Europe under Arrigo Sacchi. Bielsa admired innovators like Sacchi. He too wanted to win a European Cup. How that would happen was unclear, but Bielsa had made a first step by taking a post at the academy of Newell’s Old Boys. Friends knew that when an urge took him, Bielsa was hard to stop. One time he was having dinner with a friend, Marcelo Toquero, when Toquero told him that Ferro and Obras—two basketball teams—were playing in Buenos Aires later that day. Bielsa immediately left the table, brought around a car and drove the two to the capital—a journey of four hours.
Twelve years before Bielsa joined the Newell’s academy as coach, he had done the same as a player. His aim to become a footballer made him a ‘black sheep’ in the family, Toquero told La Tercera. Bielsa’s father, Rafael Pedro (a lawyer), and his mother, Lidia (a schoolteacher), would see his brother, Rafael, become minister of foreign relations under Néstor Kirchner, and his sister, María Eugenia, become vice-governor of the province of Santa Fe. Yet Bielsa went his own way. Once when he had a piano lesson, he escaped through a ground-floor window in order to play football with his friends. At Newell’s, however, he struggled to make the first team. He dropped down to the lower leagues, and retired in his mid-twenties. He began studying physical education. Soon he got a job coaching a university team in Buenos Aires. There he treated his players as professionals, using the formal version of ‘you’—usted—and walking around with a thesaurus. Before he picked a squad of twenty, he watched three thousand players.
The highlight of his two years in charge was a draw with the reserves of Boca Juniors, after which Bielsa joined Newell’s a second time. The academy chief, Jorge Griffa, became his mentor. Since Newell’s could not outspend the big clubs, the two drew up a plan to scour the country for gems. Afraid of flying, Bielsa climbed into a Fiat 147 and traversed the pampas for three months, visiting clubs and towns and schools. One day he and Griffa went to Avellaneda, a port city just south of Buenos Aires, and spotted an overweight kid in a regional tournament. It was Gabriel Batistuta. Another time, on a cold winter night in the town of Murphy, they turned up at a house and knocked on the window. The woman inside thought it was a thief. But Bielsa and Griffa explained that they were acting on the tip of a friend who had mentioned a young player named Mauricio Pochettino. They were let in. Bielsa asked if he could see Pochettino. He could. They entered a bedroom where Pochettino was asleep—it was, after all, 1am. Bielsa asked if he could see his legs. Sure. Bielsa had a look, turned to Griffa and said: “He looks like a footballer.”
Bielsa and Griffa wanted to sign Pochettino, but the boy refused. He preferred Rosario Central, and only after his grandfather had persuaded him did he agree to travel the three hours by bus to take part in a trial. Pochettino was nervous. When he turned up, Bielsa and Griffa told him to get changed. The game started. After five minutes, Bielsa took him off. Pochettino did not understand. What had he done wrong? Nothing, it turned out, because Bielsa soon invited him to a youth tournament. Only later did Pochettino realise what had happened, and today he too can identify talent quickly. “We realise immediately,” he wrote in Brave New World. “It’s a question of attitude and energy. Do they transmit those traits or not? A guy like Bielsa, who was ahead of his time, just like Griffa, could see it in five minutes.”
Once they had recruited the talent—Pochettino, Batistuta, Eduardo Berizzo, Ricardo Lunari—Bielsa and Griffa set out to educate them. Whereas other youth teams trained for forty-five minutes, Bielsa would lead sessions that lasted up to three hours. The workload taxed Batistuta, whom Bielsa told to do extra training and change his diet. “When I arrived, I was fat—it’s that simple,” Batistuta said, according to FourFourTwo (FFT). “I liked alfajores. The first thing Bielsa did was to get rid of them and teach me to train in the rain. I hated him for it.”
The academy became a sort of football university. Bielsa told his players to study papers and journals—El Gráfico, Solo Fútbol, Clarín. They had to draw up dossiers on the opposition, which featured tactics, set pieces and reports on their last games. Then the players had to present their findings in front of the team. “It helped you find answers on the pitch,” Pochettino said, according to FFT. “All that homework—I wish all my friends could have experienced at least one per cent of what I did.” In a way the players were acting as scouts, which was just as well, because Newell’s could surely not have afforded scouts anyway. There are stories of Bielsa asking players to steal broomsticks from home, which staff would then paint white and staple together to create dummies for slalom runs.
When dealing with players, Bielsa could be direct and aggressive. He used cutting words to berate those who fell short. Deep down, however, he loved them. “One of the keys that characterise a leader is that he has to be loved in order to win, and not win in order to be loved,” he once said. Yet the tough treatment did not sit well with everyone. “It wouldn’t say it was dictatorial, but sometimes it did make you feel bad,” Lunari said. “He hurt you with his corrections and his vocabulary… Many times the players responded, because they couldn’t bear it. He wanted to test their limits.” Years later Lunari would ask Bielsa if he was aware of how harsh he had been. Bielsa replied: “Did you not realise that I was forming players that would be able to handle the Argentine first division?”
In 1990, Bielsa took charge of the first team. At thirty-five, he was the youngest coach in the top division. With him came the kids he had trained. Having created a direct 3-3-1-3 based on high pressing and rehearsed moves, Bielsa would each Friday hold a tactical session that drew on a hundred and twenty attacking situations. If the players lost the ball, they had to win it back immediately. “My defensive work can be summed up in one phrase: ‘We all run’,” Bielsa has said. “The process of recovering the ball has five or six main rules, and chau, that’s it. Attacking is indefinite, interminable. That’s why it’s easier to defend than to attack. To run is a voluntary decision; to create demands indispensable talent.”
The players worked furiously hard, though none more so than Bielsa. Apparently he got his nickname—El Loco—when he told the defender Fernando Gamboa that he’d cut off his own finger if it meant victory. “We were a group of dreamers and the first dreamer was Bielsa,” Batistuta said, according to FFT. “He dreamed about being Arrigo Sacchi, who he watched constantly winning European Cups. He wanted that to be us. A group of street kids to become heroes.”
That 1990/91 season the league split into two separate championships: the Apertura and the Clausura. The two league winners would meet in a two-legged playoff to decide the title. Newell’s won the Apertura. In the Clausura, however, they had nothing to play for, and slumped to eighth. Only in the playoff did they find form, beating the Boca side of Óscar Tabárez on penalties to win the title. People began to take notice of Bielsa, who had succeeded at his first attempt.
The start of the 1991/92 Apertura did not start well for Newell’s. Their first six games ended 1-0, 0-0, 0-1, 0-0, 0-1, 0-1. At some point Bielsa invited the players to a training camp with the sole focus of not coming last. The players accepted, aware of what awaited. They would live in isolation, doing little but eat and train. “You hardly had any private life,” Pochettino wrote. The only link to civilisation would be a telephone that disconnected at 10pm. If you expected a call, you’d have to wait by the phone until it rang, otherwise whoever picked up would say you weren’t there—they too would be awaiting a call. And yet the camp seemed to help. Newell’s finished their last seven games unbeaten and ended up third from bottom.
When Newell’s then beat Quilmes 2-0 in their first game of the Clausura, they seemed to have recovered. But then came a 6-0 defeat at home to San Lorenzo in the Libertadores group stage. As the story goes, Bielsa hid in a hotel room, closed the curtains and began to cry. His work was turning to dust. “I could not understand what was happening around me,” he said. He questioned himself, and seemed to grow increasingly erratic. In that same period, a group of angry fans is said to have showed up at his home, at which point Bielsa stormed out holding grenade and threatening to pull the pin.
Bielsa asked the players if they still believed in him; they did. Newell’s drew 0-0 at Santa Fe, then racked up four straight wins. They would not lose in the league until June. In mid-May, they won 5-0 at River Plate. They also struck back in the Libertadores with a 1-0 win at San Lorenzo, and soon set up a semi-final with América de Cali. The first leg ended 1-1. In the second, in Colombia, fans bombarded their team bus, smashing windows as the players took cover on the floor. Out on the pitch, Berizzo was hit in the head by a battery. Yet Newell’s won on penalties to reach the final. There they lost in the same manner to São Paulo, a crushing disappointment. Bielsa had come so close to winning a continental title, like Sacchi had, although he kept on working. By the time Newell’s left Brazil, Bielsa had already watched the game back twice.
The season wasn’t over. Back in Argentina, Newell’s unbeaten run had propelled them to the Clausura title race. With three games left, they struck up a win and two draws to finish top. There was no longer a playoff to decide an overall winner, so Newell’s were crowned champions. In an interview, Bielsa pointed to the training camp as the turning point, holding it up as proof of the character they had fostered. He had turned a group of street kids into heroes. Bielsa added that his work at Newell’s was done. And with that, he resigned.
One of the inspirations for Bielsa at Newell’s had been César Luis Menotti, who was also from Rosario, and who now coached Mexico. When Bielsa resigned, Menotti recommended him to Atlas. They offered Bielsa a role at the academy, which he accepted. He spent a month in Mexico watching youth games. He read up on Mexican history and culture. He tried the cuisine. “I have never seen anyone who eats as much as Marcelo Bielsa,” Ernesto Urrea, a neighbour, said via These Football Times (TFT). “He loved the Mexican antojitos, and the tacos they sold on street corners. When he went to restaurants, he asked for all the dishes on the menu to taste them all.”
Bielsa had firm views on talent development. He claims to have spent twenty years studying how footballers are formed, and says he once drew up a five-year plan that players should follow from age fourteen to eighteen. The plan had more than a thousand training sessions, detailing what the player had to do each day, aided by videos, graphs and exercises. Whether this is the plan he drew up in Mexico is unclear. What is almost certain is that Bielsa based his work there on what he had learned in Rosario. Like his friend Jorge Valdano, another Rosario native, Bielsa values amateur football; the spirit with which a bunch of kids might gather after school to play on a field of dirt, until the sun says goodbye and sends them home. The only things that attract Bielsa are the game itself and the fans who whom it belongs. He dislikes media, money, agents. “If I’m convinced of one thing, it is that I was happy when I enjoyed football as an amateur; I was happy when I fell in love with my job,” he has said. “I have a profound love for football… and I despise everything that has been added, all that has appeared in order to make it, strangely, more desirable.”
This sense of purism affects the way in which Bielsa views youth development. Not only does he love the amateur spirit of football; he sees it as a better educator than modern academies. “I’m certain that, today, the development of most footballers goes against the development of pure talent.” Modern academies are too organised and calculated, he says, leaving little room for improvisation. Society hasn’t helped. Bielsa believes a player needs to practice four or five hours a day from he is seven to seventeen. But this is hard if someone spends time on video games, social media, computers, music lessons. Kids no longer play football because they have nothing else to do. Those who live in big cities don’t even have space to play, says Bielsa, although there are exceptions. “There are continents that keep producing players,” he says, “because they have the things that are otherwise missing: place, time and love for the game.”
One such place was presumably Central America in the early 1990s. Bielsa set up a youth development scheme in Mexico, which seemed to be valued; he was soon asked to lead the first team. Like many coaches, Bielsa brought with him players he trusted, namely Berizzo, Cristian Domizzi and Lunari, the latter from CD Universidad Católica in Chile. Some sources say Lunari joined Atlas on loan, though Lunari has said a fee was involved. One early morning, he told Informe Robinson, he picked up the phone and heard a familiar voice.
“Ricardo, this is Marcelo Bielsa. I want to bring you here to play for Atlas.”
“Well, why not? I’d love that,” said Lunari.
“Okay, let’s see if the clubs can come to an agreement.”
The next morning Bielsa called again.
“Ricardo, I want to inform you that Universidad Católica are asking one million dollars for you. Now, you know that you’re not worth that kind of money, right?”
“Well… no, I know I’m not worth that.”
“Right, so there’ll be no deal.”
Fifteen minutes later a Católica director called Lunari.
“Atlas have paid one million dollars for you. You’re going to Mexico.”
Lunari was confused. He travelled to Mexico. When he landed, Bielsa called him straight to the training ground. He asked Lunari to sit down, looked him deep into his eyes, and said: “I want you to know, to be convinced, that you are not worth a million dollars.”
“I know,” said Lunari. “I know I’m not worth a million dollars.”
“Okay, good,” Bielsa said. “Now you can go out and train.”
The Mexican league was split into four groups, with the top two in each going to a knock-out phase to decide the winner. Bielsa led Atlas to second in their group, their best position in twelve years. They then lost in the quarter-finals to Santos Laguna, after which Bielsa left. He decided to stay in Mexico, and took charge of Club América in 1996. Yet neither here did he stay for long. He returned to Argentina, where he won the Clausura with Vélez Sarsfield in 1998. Players included José Luis Chilavert, Mauricio Pellegrino and Martín Posse, to whose wedding Bielsa turned up clutching a VHS tape of a game.
When Bielsa then moved on to Espanyol, it could have been a stepping stone for him in Europe. But then he was offered the Argentina job.
By now Bielsa had stopped giving interviews; he refused to favour big media over local papers. To make up for it, he promised to answer every question in his press conferences. One Argentina conference lasted four hours, forcing journalists to leave early so as not to miss their deadlines. Soon Bielsa was working so hard that he’d sleep at the training complex. One night in 1999, he went for a 2am jog around the complex. Police officers began to shout at him, perhaps thinking he was an intruder. But Bielsa was listening to a tape and heard nothing. Soon he saw guns pointed at him. He hid behind a tree and began to shout. “Don’t shoot, I’m Bielsa!”
Bielsa did not always sleep at the training centre. For some time he locked himself up on a ranch in the pampas, studying video from 10am to 10pm. He was accompanied only by an elderly lady who made sure he has food to eat and clean clothes to wear. When Bielsa studies footage, he can follow two games at once. He believes seemingly fluent aspects of the game have limited scope for variety. He says football has no more than twenty-nine systems, for instance, and that there are exactly eleven ways to approach the goal. There are exactly thirty-six types of passes—a short pass, a long pass, a one-two, a pass between the lines, etc. These variations form part of a matrix in which the number of patterns is finite. “I’m certain of that,” Bielsa says.
In 1999, Bielsa took Argentina to the quarter-finals of the Copa América. They lost to Brazil. When the World Cup qualifiers began, he dropped Juan Román Riquelme and Javier Saviola. The least surprising call was Riquelme, who needs a side to be built around him; Bielsa makes few concessions for players who take up too much space. “If one of the organs demands all of the blood, it would obtain an excessive health at the cost of the rest of the body,” he once said. “Where is the value in being healthy, if you’re part of a dead body?”
Argentina won the qualifying group by twelve points. Bielsa spent the next months picking his squad, then led the team in friendlies against Wales (1-1), Cameroon (2-2) and Germany (1-0). Packing his bags for Korea and Japan, he took with him two thousand video tapes. Argentina went as favourites, which might have worried him. “For me, confidence is synonymous with relaxation,” he once said. “I prefer fear, because it forces me to stay alert.”
There is a story that, in the run-up to the World Cup, Bielsa asked his players whether they wanted to play with a back four or a back three. Most of the players said a back four. Bielsa thanked them for their feedback—and announced that they’d play with a back three. Whatever is true, Bielsa did start the tournament with Pochettino, Walter Samuel and Diego Placente at the back; they were flanked by wing-backs Javier Zanetti and Juan Pablo Sorín. Diego Simeone and Juan Sebastián Verón played in central midfield, Claudio López and Ariel Ortega behind Batistuta. In the opener, Argentina beat Nigeria 1-0, thanks to a Batistuta header.
In one way Bielsa reaped his own rewards when Batistuta scored. In the next game, however, Pochettino allowed Michael Owen to fall inside the box and earn a penalty that David Beckham fired home. Argentina lost 1-0. Then against Sweden, Argentina created chance after chance and missed them all. At half-time, Pochettino saw for the first time that Bielsa had nothing to correct. Then Anders Svensson smacked in a thirty-yard free-kick. Only two minutes from time did Crespo equalise from a penalty-kick rebound, by which point it was too late. Argentina, with more shots and corners than any other side at the World Cup, were out.
The players began to cry. Back home, Pochettino did not go out for ten days. Bielsa survived the sack, but endured another blow two years later, when Argentina—with Saviola, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tévez—lost the final of the Copa América to Brazil. The score was 1-1 with three minutes left when César Delgado scored for Argentina. Deep into stoppage time Adriano equalised, and Brazil won on penalties.
At this point Bielsa was exhausted, though he did have a final shot at glory. That same summer, he took Argentina to the Olympics in Athens. The games might have reminded him of the back-to-basics amateur spirit: the Olympic village had no television and no computers. Argentina won all their six games without conceding a goal. Tévez scored eight. The triumph allowed Bielsa to go out on a high—and so with that, he resigned.
Bielsa spent the next three years out of work. At first, he took refuge in a convent. “I took all the books I wanted to read,” he said, according to FFT. “I didn’t take my phone and I had no television. I lasted three months there, after which I started having full conversations with myself. I was going mad.”
In August 2007, he became the coach of Chile. They had bowed out of the 2004 Copa América in the group stage, and had just crashed out of the 2007 edition with a 6-1 defeat to Brazil. They had watched the last two World Cups at home. The morale was in tatters, as was their Juan Pinto Duran training complex, which Bielsa demanded be upgraded. The showers ran out of hot water, the players had single beds, the television sets were old. Yet the federation had no money to renovate it. And so Bielsa set out on a national tour to give public speeches, raking in cash. Soon the Pinto Duran had big beds, plasma screens, air conditioning and a modern gym. Bielsa himself shied away from luxuries, however, preferring to stay in a small room with little but a television and a small cupboard.
Not for the first time, Bielsa fell out with parts of the national press. He felt they misinterpreted him, and thought about putting his quotes in writing so as to avoid confusion. While he shuns radio and television, Bielsa does read newspapers: he feels it is his duty to know what is written about his players. Such dedication made him popular in Chile, as did his empathy with the common man. When once on his way to a stadium to watch Alexis Sánchez, Bielsa is said to have spotted two kids playing football in the streets. He fell so in love with the sight that he gave them his tickets, then went to a bar to watch the game. Another time, after an earthquake had shaken the country, Bielsa was asked about people looting television sets. “I don’t know if that’s a crime,” he said, according to The Guardian. “What I do know is that it is a crime to tell people that they are idiots if they don’t have a plasma TV, and then tell them they can pay for it in one hundred instalments.”
Bielsa made Chile fast and thrilling. He varied between 3-3-1-3 and 3-4-3, sometimes playing Sánchez and Jean Beausejour up front, other times using Jorge Valdivia as a withdrawn striker. Bielsa said the job awoke in him the love for his profession. Chile stormed to second place in the qualifiers, and a first World Cup in twelve years. In South Africa, they lost to Spain (2-1) but beat Honduras (1-0) and Switzerland (1-0), only to fall in the last 16—again to Brazil (3–0).
Another title tilt came at the Copa América a year later, but Chile lost in the quarter-finals to Venezuela (2-1). Bielsa then clashed with new FA president Sergio Jadue, and left. Chile would miss him, and when they won the Copa América in 2015 and 2016, many credited Bielsa. For his part Bielsa said goodbye to a country, and a squad, that he had come to adore. “The one who loses is me,” he said.
In July 2011, Bielsa joined Athletic Club. They had finished sixth, but new presidential elections had ushered in Josu Urrutia, who had wanted Bielsa. Before he began, Bielsa watched all thirty-eight league games from the previous season, taking notes on spreadsheets with colour codes. Unfamiliar with his methods, Athletic went five league games without a win, but when they first succeeded, at the sixth attempt, they went eight unbeaten. As the season progressed, Iker Muniain was asked whether Bielsa really was a mad as people said. “No,” Muniain replied. “He’s madder.”
Even long-time Bielsa followers saw new habits now. Bielsa drew chalk marks on his shoes to show his players where on the foot to strike the ball, then walked around with the chalk for days. Someone noticed that Bielsa took exactly thirteen steps every time he crossed the technical area. Bielsa did not explain why. In another episode, a group of kids who supported Athletic asked Bielsa if he could sign their sticker album. He refused. Instead he took the album and told them to meet him a day later, at the same place and time. When they turned up the next day, Bielsa gave them back the sticker album, signed by the entire team.
Athletic did not keep up their form in the league, but they did make two cup finals. The first one was in the Europa League against Atlético Madrid, who had spent six months under Diego Simeone to become an armour-plated winning machine. Simeone had played under Bielsa for Argentina and learned a great deal, yet his tactics were based on the opposite. Athletic vs Atlético was master vs pupil, attack vs defence, creativity vs destruction. Atlético won 3-0.
Bielsa has never changed his style based on results. Injustice is common in football, he says; the team that dominate the game might still lose. As such, he rails at those who criticise teams that play well but lose, and equally those who praise teams that play badly and win. Defensive football that yields unmerited results is to Bielsa like a shortcut. He borrows an analogy from Menotti about a man who walks around a garden in a ninety-degree angle; the man could cross the garden and save time, but he’d also tramp down the flowers. Sometimes Bielsa has even appeared to devaluate titles. What matters, he says, is the manner in which we pursue our objective: the dedication, the work rate, the integrity. Just like there are people in society who do great work for no recognition—nurses, doctors—so is football filled with coaches who do good work but do not win trophies.
In this spirit, Bielsa might praise his side even if they have lost. The defeat to Atlético, however, was not one such occasion. What hurt him most was the number of Athletic fans who had travelled to the game, hoping for a first title since 1985, only to suffer such a clear defeat. When Athletic proceeded to lose the Copa del Rey final 3-0 to Barcelona, Bielsa let rip. In a recording leaked from the dressing room, he admonishes his players for not fighting like they should have. “You have let down a city that deserves better,” he said. And with that he wished his players a good summer and went on holiday, not knowing whether he’d return.
As it happened, Athletic wanted Bielsa for a second season. But trouble soon ensued. The club signed Aritz Aduriz and Isma López, players he had not asked for. Then in July, Bielsa held a ninety-minute press conference to say he had filed a police complaint—about himself. Athletic were renovating their Lezama training ground, but had not finished in time for pre-season. Angered by the delays, Bielsa had walked into the office of the supervisor and pushed him. “I’m sorry,” Bielsa said now. “He may well be the worst site manager around, but he deserved respect.”
Athletic issued a statement distancing themselves from his conduct. Bielsa opened a Facebook account to publish a point-by-point response. “I can accept that they have said I do not have the authority [to act as I have],” he wrote according to The Guardian. “But not that, directly or indirectly, it has been suggested that I have not told the truth. My opinion about the quality, progress and the control and fulfilment of the work carried out at Lezama is not subjective. I can prove that each and every one of the things I said corresponds to concrete and verifiable facts… if no one made mistakes, why does the first team not have a place to carry out their pre-season in the timeframe agreed?… Why is it that the club and I see the same reality in different ways if we both work with good intentions for a shared objective?”
Athletic ended the season in 12th place. Come summer, the board decided not to renew Bielsa’s contract.
Bielsa kept up his habit of picking clubs with strong identities and vocal fans. In 2014, he went to Marseille. At the training ground, he castigated a group of youth players for throwing away their water bottles. The squad Bielsa met had Dimitri Payet, André-Pierre Gignac, Benjamin Mendy. “When he addressed the players the first time, he didn’t smile once,” Mendy wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “But when he talked about strategy, you could see the madness coming out. You could see his passion. You could see that he lived for football, for every detail. After the meeting, a teammate looked at me and said, ‘He is not normal, this one!’ He was right. Bielsa is not normal. Who wants normal?”
Marseille had finished sixth. Bielsa had ambitions to do better. He had the players sleeping at the training ground several days a week. They were weighed every morning. Out on the pitch, Bielsa would rope off zones in which players rehearsed moves. He found a way to explain tactics out on the pitch—by attaching a screen and a whiteboard to a golf buggy. When they honed their finishing, Bielsa allowed each player only two chances, on the premise that he wouldn’t get more in an actual game. The club released videos from training in which Bielsa walks back and forth, hands on his back, shouting in Spanish. “Keep going! Keep going! Now! Get closer, get closer! Well done Mario! Good! Good! That’s it, that’s it!” At the end the players fall to the floor, gasping for air. Bielsa walks over to some of them. “Well done boys,” he says.
The players never knew what Bielsa was going to say or do. One day Bielsa said, “Let’s train until the sun goes down,” and they did. “Another day, we were training poorly,” Mendy told Le Journal du Dimanche, as translated by Get French Football News. “So he took a ball and stared at it. He said, ‘Lads, all the work we are doing is for him. Video, dietetics, sleep, everything is for him. Why would you sacrifice your lives playing football if you do not even train correctly?’”
By Christmas, Marseille were top of Ligue 1. Bielsa gained popularity with his exciting football and his idiosyncrasies. On match days he would sit on a cool box in blue club training gear. Once, he inadvertently sat down on a cup of burning hot coffee. But as Bielsa teams tend to do, Marseille tired. After a 3-2 home defeat to PSG in April, a leaked video showed Bielsa walking back and forth in the dressing room. “It’s very difficult to accept injustice, guys,” he said. “But listen to what I’m going to tell you. If you play like you did today until the end of the championship, you are going to get the prize you deserve… Accept the injustice, because everything evens out in the end. I congratulate you all!”
The talk didn’t work. Marseille ended the season in fourth place. Come August, they lost their first game of the new campaign, at home to Caen. Elodie Malatrait, the club’s head of communications, would recall going to bring Bielsa to the post-match press conference. “I knock at his office, put my head round the door,” Malatrait said. “I see him deep in thought, walking in circles. He could be like that after a defeat, but I became alarmed when I saw that his interpreter, who was there next to him, was totally white. I understood something was up.”
At the conference, Bielsa spent fifteen minutes talking about the game. Then he read a prepared letter. “I took my decision on Wednesday,” he said. “I’ve finished my work here. I’m going back to Argentina.” And with that, he resigned.
Bielsa did not stay in Argentina for long. In summer 2016, he joined Lazio. Two days later, he accused the club of failing to sign the players he had requested—and quit.
A year later, Bielsa moved on to Lille. Handed full control of transfers, he booted out twelve players, many of them seniors—Rio Mavuba, Marko Baša, Vincent Enyeama. One of them, Éric Bauthéac, told L’Équipe that Bielsa had made up his mind based on a chat that had lasted forty-five seconds. After thirteen league games, Lille sat second from bottom. The club suspended Bielsa, then sacked him. “You cannot build a team without having a spine of experienced players to support quality youngsters,” Luís Campos, the sporting advisor, told RMC via ESPN. “For me, that was when the project was broken.”
What Bielsa made of the failure is hard to say, but he will have taken something from it. He has said that the times in life when he grew was when he had lost, and the times he got worse was when he had won. “Success is deforming; it relaxes us, it cheats us, it makes us worse, it leads us to like ourselves too much,” he has said. “Failure is the opposite: it teaches us, it makes us solid, it brings us closer to our convictions, it makes us coherent.”
Now, as Leeds chase promotion, Bielsa might fear that their success will blunt him and his players. Should they win the Championship, however, it would surely be a cathartic triumph for a coach who has won nothing in fifteen years.
Or perhaps not. Whatever might be said about Bielsa, he always tries to tell the truth, and when he says that he values the process above the result, maybe we ought to believe him. “I don’t think I’ll ever be mentioned in a book,” he once said. “But if so, I wish that it be not because of a title I won, but because of the methods I used in pursuit of my goal.” His work at Leeds has now made him well known also in England, consolidating his status as one of the most innovative tactician in recent times. Whether or not he wins the Championship, Bielsa’s methods are certain to appear in many more books. And with that, his wish has surely been granted.