The Tale of “El Loco” Bielsa Reaches the Premier League

September 10, 2020

ROSARIO, Argentina — Marcelo Bielsa's threat was visceral.

"If I have to cut a finger of mine to win tomorrow's derby, I will," he told his players. "I still have four left."

Bielsa made that statement in 1990, in his first year as a coach, to rouse the passion of his players at Newell's Old Boys before a trip to archrival Rosario Central.

His team won the Argentine league match 4-3, even without Bielsa having to lose a finger. But it was an early example of the motivational methods of a coach who was already then known as "El Loco" for his obsessive personality and explosive character.

Now, 30 years after starting his coaching career at the Rosario-based club, Bielsa is about to become the latest high-profile — and colorful — manager to tackle the Premier League.

Bielsa led Leeds back to England's top division after a 16-year absence, and the team will face Jurgen Klopp-led Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday in the season opener against the defending champions.

For the 65-year-old Bielsa, it's the latest highlight in a journey that started in Rosario and has also taken him to clubs in Mexico, Spain, France and Italy — along with the national teams of Argentina and Chile.

And perhaps an unexpected career for someone who comes from a family of notable lawyers. Bielsa's grandfather, Rafael, was a prominent local professor and the author of several law books. But a young Marcelo broke with family tradition and opted for soccer, joining the Newell's Old Boys academy instead — the same place where Lionel Messi would later get his start.

But a modest playing career as a center back only lasted five years, after which he started working as a youth coach and talent scout at Newell's academy.

Bielsa drove thousands of miles to scour Argentine towns and cities for young talents, and it quickly became clear that he was good at spotting them. He brought back players such Gabriel Batistuta, and also discovered Mauricio Pochettino — who went on to have coaching success of his own, leading Tottenham to last year's Champions League final.

Pochettino lived in Murphy, a town about 150 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Rosario, and was supposed to sign for a different team. But, according to Pochettino, Bielsa showed up at his house one night at 1 a.m. and convinced his father to let him sign for Newell's.

Years later, Pochettino was one of the key players as Newell's won the Argentine league title in Bielsa's first year as head coach.

The celebrations of that title featured a raucous and shirt-waving Bielsa, who has rarely displayed that kind of raw emotion in public since.

"It was because of the tension he had at that moment," said Juan José Bottoli, a doctor that worked with Bielsa then. "He was the kind of guy that felt in his blood all the work he had done."

Bielsa won the title again the following year after a penalty shootout against Boca Juniors at La Bombonera Stadium, but lost the Copa Libertadores final in 1992 to Sao Paulo, also on penalties.

That period also gave birth to one of the more legendary stories about Bielsa.

After a 6-0 loss to San Lorenzo in a Copa Libertadores match, a group of hardcore fans came to his doorstep. Bielsa then supposedly came out holding a hand grenade and threatened to unplug it if the fans did not leave.

These days, it's his coaching methods that are most talked about.

Since his early beginnings, Bielsa has been obsessed with team preparation, a meticulousness that his friends say was inherited from his family of legal minds. It has translated into thousands of hours of studying every aspect of the game, as Bielsa tries to minimize the unpredictability of soccer.

"He always treated us with great demands. It bothered the younger ones like us a little," said Ricardo Lunari, who played for Bielsa at Newell's. "But over time, you realize that everything he is doing is meant to make you a first-division player."

One of his big inspirations is the 1995 Champions League winner Ajax, coached by Louis van Gaal. That attacking team used a 3-4-3 formation with two wingers up front and a target man, a rigid system that has been frequently used by Bielsa.

Pochettino is far from the only one of Bielsa's former players who have gone on to become coaches. Others include Mexico's Gerardo Martino, Paraguay's Eduardo Berizzo, Argentina's Gabriel Heinze and others. Many learned from binders that Bielsa gave them as players with tactics about future opponents.

"They got used to planning matches, and that later suited their own knowledge," Bottoli said.

Bielsa left Newell's in 1993 to join Mexican club Atlas, but his legacy in Rosario still lives on.

"His sense of belonging and his intense spell as coach make him an idol for all of us," Newell's vice president Cristian D'Amico said.

The club's stadium is named after the coach, and Bielsa repaid the honor with $2.5 million that was used to build a hotel for players to prepare for matches.

The return of "El Loco" is still awaited in Rosario. That feeling has not changed even after his career low in 2002, when Bielsa's Argentina team arrived at the World Cup as favorites and left with a disappointing group stage exit.

"When he stops coaching," said Lunari, the former player, "his place in the world will be Rosario and it will be close to Newell's."


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