There is method to Marcelo Bielsa's 'madness'
Argentina sent three head coaches to the 2010 World Cup. Their own, Diego Maradona, a famous novice in the job but an eccentric giant in the game of football. Paraguay have an Argentine manager, too, the lower-profile Gerardo Martino, who was a playing contemporary of Maradona's but as a technician owes a great deal more, in terms of influence, to the current coach of Chile. That is, to Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine coach known as "El Loco".
Bielsa gets called "crazy" not because he has the scatterbrained, emotional reflexes of a Maradona, but because he is an obsessive. Ask any Argentine football fan and they will reel off colourful anecdotes that demonstrate the perfectionist streak in Bielsa. His desire for absolute rigour, his notion that, in matters of preparation, no stone should be left unturned. They will tell the story of how, as a young coach, he wanted to establish a scouting network. One day his teenaged daughter mentioned to him that in her class was a lad, around 17, who knew everything about football.
"Bring him to me," Bielsa said. The boy came to the family home in Rosario. Bielsa took him aside, shut him in a room and grilled him about the game, asking questions with increasingly more obscure answers until he was satisfied the youth knew his stuff. He then asked him to spy on future opponents, and the lad, known as Paqui, was apparently known to climb trees to monitor rivals' training sessions.
Bielsa turned to coaching young, injury having hampered a playing career that he had chosen despite coming from a background that would naturally have led him to different professions. His father was high up in Argentina's judiciary; his brother and sister are both in politics. Bielsa is not shy of expressing an opinion and, when he does, it places his political instincts firmly to the left. But his mind seldom strays from football, to which he has always aspired to bring his intelligence to bear to the maximum.
At age 35, he led the Argentine club, Newell's Old Boys, to a league championship. The first-team was not his only concern, either. The "El Loco" tag began to stick when colleagues encountered him scouring the countryside in his nondescript car looking for young, gifted players, especially those who might have escaped the usual scouting systems for being too rural or for playing outside the traditional football schools.
He was a tough boss. He chose spartan hotels when his teams travelled. At Newell's he organised training camps in a military base with only one telephone to link the players to the outside world. By the time he was national coach of Argentina, his rigour was legendary, as was his candour. Fernando Redondo, the midfielder, recalls Bielsa coming to visit him while he was playing in Madrid. The coach told Redondo: "I don't like you, but it's my duty to include you in on my itinerary."
That peculiar mixture of fair-mindedness and candour seems typical: "He has strong human principles," said Roberto Bonano, the former Argentina and Barcelona goalkeeper, "and he is very serious and disciplined. He treats everyone equally, if they are Gabriel Batistuta or the guy who mows the practice pitch." Bielsa took Argentina - and apparently 700 football DVDs for their homework - to the 2002 World Cup. Where they flopped.
With Chile, he has had a second chance at the tournament, with a young squad and a sincere appreciation from the Chilean public for how he has lifted the team. Already the Chileans, without their most talented current footballer, Roma's David Pizarro, whom Bielsa was not ready to welcome back from international "retirement", have gone further than the Argentina of Bielsa, Batistuta, Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo and company did eight years ago.
Chile's coach dismisses the idea that 2010 is making personal amends for 2002. "Wounds don't heal in that way," he told reporters after Chile had qualified to meet Brazil in the last 16. The Chileans will not be favourites tonight, but they will have prepared meticulously. And it is Brazil versus an Argentine manager. Even the stoic Bielsa will be emotionally stirred by that aspect of the contest.
Updated: June 28, 2010 04:00 AM