In July 1955, one of modern football’s most influential men, Marcelo Bielsa was born in Rosario, Argentina. Rosario is an agricultural and an industrial powerhouse of South America and is also the hometown of certain legends of football like Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi, Angel Di Maria and Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino. But the king of Rosario still remains Marcelo Bielsa. The man is absolutely adored in his home town and is a god-like figure. Even Messi struggles to compete with Bielsa when it comes to the most famous football export from Rosario.
Marcelo Bielsa is seen as one of the greatest football minds in history. His academic approach to the game is a refreshing one and he is by far one of the most influential figures in modern-day football management. No South American has had such an influence on how football was played in the 20th century. But how he became this person is a fascinating story and here we’ll shed light on his remarkable journey as a football manager.
EARLY YEARS IN MANAGEMENT
Bielsa was born in a middle-class family of lawyers and politicians. Marcelo wasn’t interested in either of those fields as a young boy and football was the place where young Marcelo felt like he belonged. He grew up supporting Newells Old Boys and joined the academy of his hometown club. His ability as a player didn’t match the interest the kid had in football and even though he went on to play first-team football for Newells, he left at 21 and played in the lower leagues of Argentina football.
At just the age of 25, Bielsa moved to Buenos Aires to coach the university team after failing to make it big as a football player. His approach to management was methodical as we see now from an early age. He scouted roughly about 3,000 players before selecting 20 who made it to his team. His first coaching job in professional football was back to his childhood club, Newells as a youth coach. In 1990, he became the first-team manager of Newell’s Old Boys and won the Torneo Apertura in 1990, Torneo Integracion in 1990-91 and Torneo Clausura in 1992. Bielsa resigned after losing the Copa Libertadores final in 1992 and now the club stadium is named after him.
Post that, he spent almost four seasons in Mexico, managing Atlas and America in the country before returning to Argentina to coach Velez Sarsfield who he led to a Torneo Clausura in 1998. He left that summer and took over at the Catalan club, Espanyol but stayed there only for six games and resigned to become the Argentina National team head coach in 1998.
ARGENTINA NATIONAL TEAM
In a seven-year span, he was in charge of 57 games. His tenure with the national team was unlucky, particularly at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. But he eventually went on to guide the nation to an Olympic Gold Medal in 2004 as his team beat Paraguay 1-0 courtesy a goal by Carlos Tevez. His team became the first Latin American team to win the Olympic title in football since 1928 and this was also Argentina’s first Olympic Gold Medal in 52 years. At the end of 2004, Bielsa, however, resigned from the post stating that his time with the national team was over.
CHILE NATIONAL TEAM
After a two-year hiatus from football, Marcelo Bielsa joined the Chile National team as their head coach in 2007. Bielsa built a vibrant attacking team in Chile which featured the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel. The brand of football his team displayed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup brought immense joy to all and they reached the Round of 16 of the tournament before crashing out against Brazil. His tenure with the country was hugely successful and he helped develop a young and exciting team. Bielsa resigned in 2011 citing differences in opinions with the President of the Chilean National team.
Despite his success in Argentina, Mexico and with the national teams of Argentina and Chile, it wasn’t until his tenure at Spanish giants Athletic Bilbao that many in Europe began to realise that Bielsa was something extraordinary. His team went on to compete in the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey final in the 2011-12 season only to lose to Atletico Madrid and FC Barcelona, respectively.
The following year saw some key players leave the squad. Javi Martinez was sold to Bayern Munich for truckloads of money and Fernando Llorente was frozen out of the club due to disagreements with the club over his contract. A 12th-placed finish in the La Liga wasn’t good enough and Bielsa’s contract wasn’t renewed.
In 2014, Marcelo Bielsa joined Ligue 1 side, Marseille and became the French team’s first Argentine coach. His team finished the first half of the 2014-15 season top of the league but the team faded away in the latter half and eventually finished fourth in the league. He then only lasted a solitary game the following season before resigning yet again.
His reputation of being unpredictable didn’t help as his reigns with Serie A team Lazio and Ligue 1 club Lille lasted just two days and thirteen games, respectively.
In June 2018, a giant of English football, Leeds United came calling for El Loco and it was like a match made in heaven. The Whites had been constant strugglers in the Championship (second division of the English league) and he took over a team which was destined to finish mid-table. Bielsa changed the whole atmosphere around the club with the free-flowing football which he has coined as ‘Bielsa Ball’. The club and the supporters took barely any time to get behind the Argentine and Elland Road was rocking yet again.
In his debut season, the team was playing some brilliant football and were on top at the halfway mark. Injuries to key personnel and the infamous ‘Spygate’ incident meant that the team fell off in the league and finished outside the automatic promotion spot. They went on to lose the playoff game against Derby County and it meant that the Whites’ faithful had to wait yet another year for a chance to return to the Premier League.
At the end of the 2018-19 season, Bielsa had understood the shortfalls of his team in his debut season and he made sure that none of that was repeated in the 2019-20 season. He helped the Whites break a 16-year long wait for promotion as they went on to win the Championship in that season and now are testing his football tactics in the Premier League.
The sight of him sitting on the icebox on the sidelines is iconic and his legacy won’t be measured by the number of trophies he wins but the influence he has had on modern-day football. It has been an incredible journey from humble beginnings in Rosario to winning all the hearts in Yorkshire, England. Bielsa is well and truly a football fanatic in its purest sense.
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