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THE PEOPLE’S GAME

In praise of Bielsa, the man who out-foxed Ferguson

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Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.
- Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor


There's only one way a man who has reached the top can go, and that's down - or so the saying goes. No sooner had Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic de Bilbao finished off Alex Ferguson's mythical Manchester United in the Europa Cup, the presses overheated with excitement over the Argentine coach who had tapped into the imagination of football purists worldwide when managing Chile during the 2010 World Cup. Ferguson himself said after the defeat that Bielsa's side "was a pleasure to watch" while Pep Guardiola (who apparently and much quotedly 'famously drove through the night once to meet Bielsa' ) declared that we stand before the "best manager on the planet".

An old Latin proverb says the greatest possible praise is to be praised by a man himself worthy of praise - ergo the flowers thrown at Bielsa by managers of the stature of Ferguson and Guardiola are almost like an apostilled stamp of authenticity. No one is better positioned than those two to proclaim facts about management. Undisputedly, it seemed but a few days ago, the Bielsa phenomenon was pronounced.

Conversations sparked off between his critics. And he has many;those who feel he plays a 'vertical' game;those who question his allegiance to the roving 'line of three' players, too advanced to be defenders, too far back to be midfielders;those who have suffered for lovingly following his schemas. And his advocates - those of us who love his attacking mentality, those who delight in the mathematical precision of his passing overview, and those who respect his integrity. The debates were intense and heated, in cafes and bars and in print, virtual and on paper.

But then, defeat at the hands of Marcelo Simeone's Atletico Madrid. Ahhh! Almost as if a single result could ever conclusively prove anything, the conversation swiftly gathered momentum with voices implying "I told you so" in many word forms.
Marcelo Bielsa himself is a humble man who focuses on the task far more than on accolades or criticism from others. He is probably the kind of man who John Keats must have been thinking of when he said, "Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a severe critic of his own works".

An otherwise reserved man who never gives interviews, if there's one thing Bielsa is capable of publicly acknowledging, it's his own ability to err. "I made a mistake" he famously proclaimed in 2002 when Argentina lost a World Cup group match against England - "I read the game in a certain way, and I was wrong".

He did the same immediately after the match against Atletico. "I feel especially guilty over this defeat because the decisions I took didn't alter or resolve what I was attempting to correct. Rather, they debilitated that which was solid in the team, " he told a press conference. El Pais, Spain's leading broadsheet, titled his discourse as 'didactic', and printed the detailed scrutiny with which he explained his decisions, what motivated them, what he was hoping to achieve, and why they didn't work.

They don't call him El Loco for nothing. The nickname translates 'madman' in Spanish and he embraces the avatar with jokes. But football for him is no joking matter: he takes it seriously at every level. Obsessively devoting hours to watch specific moves by specific players who will oppose his teams, studying and labelling and archiving information which he imparts precisely, reiterating training exercises until specific responses become almost mechanical, Bielsa is known to then make up for his reservations by waxing lyrical for hours on end at press conferences. No question will remain unanswered. No one will be neglected.

In Chile they teased him about using "21 schemes, " an accusation he took to heart. But the truth is the country's football fans remain largely devoted to him, and grateful for the historic World Cup campaign they enjoyed under him. He resigned when the politics of the industry surpassed his convictions: there are some people he will not work with, he said.

Bielsa is not your run of the mill man of football. In his native Rosario, his family comprises a prestigious lineage of lawmen and politicians. His sister has been involved in provincial politics forever, and openly stands against corruption. His brother was for a time foreign minister of Argentina. Marcelo was active in ousting a questionable chairman who ruled his own club, Newell's Old Boys, in the style of a despot for over twenty years. During the odd stints when he has not been managing, Bielsa has written beautifully about the game.

When big jobs come up, he tells his friends to "lose his phone number" and locks himself away to devote 25 daily hours, eight days a week, to the task at hand. He proposes an offensive tactical approach, but is not particularly fond of creative freedom - rather, he rehearses possible outcomes. A mathematician, with a reverence for hard work and sacrifice, and an uncompromising commitment to the values he holds, he has been written about in a book by columnist Roman Iucht as "the last romantic".
"Ideas must be defended during defeats, " wrote Iucht on Twitter replying to many who relished the bad result this week, "Nobody revises anything during success". And it is precisely because his team has followed staggering outcomes such as the Man United clashes with undramatic losses such as the one against Atletico, that those of us who love Bielsa, love him. When dissecting the motivation behind his decisions during the game, Bielsa calmly stated with conviction "It is an experience I would repeat".
Thankfully.

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