Imagine the life of a world renowned, £6 million-a-year football manager, fresh from one of the defining moments of his career. A huge mansion in an exclusive suburb? A garage full of Mercedes or Porsches, perhaps supplied by a sponsor? Rails of sleek designer suits?
The reality for the unique figure who has delivered the rebirth of Leeds United, and will next month oversee the club’s first game in the Premier League for 16 years, however, is rather different. He lives in a rented one-bedroom flat above a newsagent’s; he walks to and from work, his backpack making him look like he’s on his way to a seniors’ hiking-group meeting; and he is rarely seen wearing anything apart from a baggy clubissued tracksuit. Even to a black-tie dinner.
Welcome to the remarkably unremarkable world of Marcelo Bielsa, the eccentric 65-year-old Argentine maverick who is known to some as ‘El Loco’ (the madman) but these days is more commonly referred to by Leeds fans worldwide as ‘God’. In less than two years he has taken the biggest sleeping giant in English football and not just reawoken but reinvigorated it, and the city as a whole, in a quite astonishing way.
It would be great to say, especially as a Leeds fan, that I’ve got an exclusive interview with one of the most fascinating characters in world sport. But he doesn’t do one-on-one interviews – because he believes they are undemocratic – and so only speaks at official press conferences (in his native Spanish, as he speaks very little English).
Phil Hay, of leading sports website The Athletic, who has covered Leeds for all of the club’s 16 years outside of the Premier League, says, ‘His argument is basically that, “Everybody should have the same opportunity to speak to me, to ask questions of me, to hear what I have to say. I shouldn’t be excluding anybody from that.” Actually, I quite like that approach – and his press conferences are the most fascinating I’ve ever sat through, without exception.’
And there certainly has been plenty to cover, in what has been a roller-coaster two years. From players having to pick litter as part of pre-season training and being ordered to deliberately allow an opposing team to score an equaliser in a crucial game (to right a perceived moral wrong), to accusations of spying on rival clubs and the £200,000 fine that followed. Which, of course, Bielsa being Bielsa, he insisted on paying out of his own pocket. Welcome to El Loco, the West Yorkshire years…
The unlikely love affair between Bielsa and Leeds began in 2018 after yet another season of underachievement from a club whose fall from grace is a byword in football for hubris and overambition.
Leeds finished third in the Premier League in 2000. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001. But then the citadel – built on borrowing to bring success – began to fall and fall hard. On the pitch, it meant relegation from the Premier League in 2004 and then from the Championship to League One in 2007 – the first time in its history the club had played at such a low level.
Off the pitch was worse. Administration, fire sales of the best players and a succession of owners who promised much, delivered little, overseeing a revolving door to the manager’s office where few stayed long, even fewer could achieve in an often-toxic atmosphere and no one came close to restoring the club back to the Premier League.
In 2017, Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani became the latest owner with a grand vision – but his first season ended with the club mid-table and having gone through two managers in less than a season. Which is when his director of football Victor Orta suggested a name so outlandish that it seemed someone had been raiding the boardroom drinks cabinet.
Marcelo Bielsa was a cult figure in world football. Having never worked in England, his profile here was low. But his CV included notable highlights: the Argentine league title with his hometown team Newell’s Old Boys in his first managerial job; winning the Olympic football tournament with Argentina – the country’s first Olympic gold medal for 52 years; and successful spells with Athletic Bilbao and the Chilean national team.
But then there were the abrupt departures. From Marseilles, resigning after one game of his second season following a disagreement with the club’s management. From Lazio, resigning after just two days, claiming that promises made to him on player recruitment and other issues were not being kept. And Lille, sacked after 13 games because he had decided to sell certain players.
And then there was the most famous incident, which helped create the El Loco myth. It came when a group of Newell’s ‘ultra’ fans turned up at Bielsa’s house to complain about a 6-0 defeat. He opened the door holding a grenade and threatened to pull the pin if the fans did not leave. Then, as they fled, he was said to have chased them down the street in his pyjamas, shouting, ‘Do you still want to talk?’
Leeds’ long-suffering fans knew little of their new manager’s idiosyncratic ways. Daniel Chapman, co-editor of award-winning Leeds fanzine The Square Ball, says, ‘I’d heard of him, but I didn’t know a lot about him. Then I read through his biography and I was like, “Oh, it’s the hand grenade guy.”
‘But he did his first press conference after he was appointed in June and then he completely disappeared because he doesn’t talk to anybody, and there was no reason for a press conference in pre-season. We had no idea what was coming.’
When Orta and Leeds chief executive Angus Kinnear flew to Buenos Aires to interview Bielsa – which does make you wonder who was interviewing whom – they were concerned how much he knew about Leeds and the Championship in general.
The answers quickly revealed the manager’s obsessive nature: he’d watched every Leeds game from the previous season (more than 70 hours of pretty average fare) and ran through the preferred formations and lineups of every team in the division.
In addition, he had managed to get hold of the layout and facilities at Leeds’ training ground, Thorp Arch, near Wetherby, and had a list of improvements, most notably adding sleeping pods so the players could rest between sessions.
Bielsa’s all-out attacking and high-tempo possession football demands the highest levels of fitness and stamina from his players. So each of them got used to having a weight target and being weighed every day. Fitness and running statistics are also obsessively monitored. And then there is the weekly game of ‘Murderball’: a full 90- minute match, played at full intensity with no stoppages. No free kicks. No throw-ins or goal kicks (coaches positioned around the pitch just throw in a new ball, so that the game can carry on uninterrupted).
But his demands were more than physical. He made the players read for 30 minutes a day. And then there was the litter pick, when he asked the club staff to work out how long the average fan would have to work to pay for a ticket to watch a match. About three hours, was the answer. So, at the end of one training session, Bielsa called his squad of millionaire players together and ordered them to collect litter at Thorp Arch for the next three hours to understand better how hard the fans worked to be able to support the team.
One of the younger players, Ryan Edmondson, now on loan at Aberdeen, recently said, ‘We had trained and afterwards he got us all into a room. He told us all these stories about the people who come to the games and how hard they have to work to go to one game. A lot of the players weren’t happy with it because it wasn’t something they were used to. But I think the message behind it was crucial as it helped the boys have that humility within their game. If you’re not humble, then a lot of the time you’re not willing to work.’
All of this was fuelling the El Loco mythology – but would have been nothing if results on the pitch did not improve. And there was plenty of doubt about Bielsa. Chapman says, ‘Initially, suspicion kind of grew because we didn’t make any spectacular signings. We sold players that people thought we would be keeping, and he didn’t say a word about what his plans were.
‘Then, in the first game, against Stoke, who had just come from the Premier League, everything changed because he basically named the same team that everybody had grown to hate at the end of the previous season – when the players just didn’t seem to care – and at half time it was the most incredible football we’d seen in years. That was the moment when everybody suddenly became interested in what he was doing, how he was doing it and how it was having this impact.’
That season may well have been the most dramatic in the club’s history. Yes, there was superb football and growing belief. But then there were three quite remarkable hiccups.
First, ‘Spygate’, when a Leeds employee was caught ‘observing’ the training session of promotion rivals Derby. Bielsa immediately admitted he had sent the ‘spy’ – and had done so to every other opponent. He even called an impromptu press conference, at which some foresaw another walkout.
Instead, the astonished gathered media were treated to a 77-minute session in which Bielsa gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation of his data and research. Despite admitting no rules had been broken, the Football League fined Leeds £200,000 (and changed the rules). Hay wasn’t surprised: ‘It’s just the way he is. He asks people to take responsibility and he takes responsibility himself.’
Second, the bizarre incident in a match against another promotion hopeful, Aston Villa, when Leeds scored while one of their opponents was on the ground injured. As the Elland Road crowd erupted to celebrate a crucial goal, the players were squaring up as the referee tried to regain control. The TV cameras cut to the managers, to capture Bielsa, calling his players back and screaming, ‘Give a goal. Give a goal.’
The Leeds team parted and allowed Villa to score unopposed. Only defender Pontus Jansson made a half-hearted effort to prevent the goal. Chapman remembers, ‘Another manager, apart from Bielsa, I’m not sure they would have made the same decision. I’m also not sure it would have been accepted in the ground the way it was.
‘You could feel that kind of, “Well, if Bielsa has told them to do it then that makes sense.” The Villa player was booed as he ran through to score, but the anger quickly turned less towards Bielsa for letting Aston Villa steal, essentially, an unfair goal, [than] to Jansson, for being the one player who tried to stop them from scoring.’
The incident led to Bielsa and Leeds winning the prestigious annual global Fair Play Award from world governing body Fifa. But it was the only silverware of the season, which ended with the third and final hiccup: defeat to Derby in the promotion play-offs, having thrown away a two-goal lead. A season so full of so many good things ended as sourly as many others. It seemed as if Bielsa’s reputation as a genius who too often fell just short had been proved in his first foray into English football.
Fast forward 14 months (thanks to the Covid-19 extended season) to July this year, and Leeds are playing Derby again. Except this time the Derby players line up to form a guard of honour to welcome Leeds on to the pitch – as the newly confirmed champions of the Championship.
The veering narrative lurches of the previous season had been replaced by a relentless march to promotion. Yes, there were blips. But pretty much every opposing manager praised Bielsa and his team. Rotherham’s Paul Warne perhaps put it most poetically: ‘It’s like going on The X Factor and being backstage next to Elvis Presley, with his collar turned up. You’re wearing jeans and a white T-shirt and, psychologically, you fear the worst.’
However much rival managers and players might have admired Bielsa, it was nothing compared to the fans. They loved not just the success but the style of the man who delivered it. Who was regularly spotted doing his shopping in Morrisons (still in his club tracksuit), holding team meetings with his staff in the local Costa and happily posing for pictures with fans on his walk to work. According to Hay, ‘He constantly says to us, “I don’t understand the fascination with people seeing me at the baker’s or seeing me at the supermarket. I don’t know why that gets written about.” He just feels it’s kind of tittle-tattle and to an extent he’s right.
‘But at the same time it’s fair to say there won’t be many people who are seeing Guardiola in Morrisons or Mourinho buying bread rolls. It’s just odd but it’s also very infectious. And it’s hard not to like that.
‘I think deep down he understands it. He really knows that these days the gap between supporters and players and managers, particularly at the elite level, is just getting wider and wider and wider. It’s not something he likes. It’s not something he thinks is good for the sport.’
Chapman says Bielsa’s nature particularly appeals to the Yorkshire mindset. ‘There was a quote from [ex-Leeds manager] Howard Wilkinson recently, who got it quite right when he just said, “Nothing about Bielsa says, ‘Look at me.’” He is a multimillionaire. He’s incredibly intelligent. He’s regarded by thousands of people as a genius, and his decision to live in the middle of Wetherby in a flat above a shop just has put him in the right ballpark for the people who live in Leeds who don’t like show-offs basically.
‘He doesn’t wear his achievements on his sleeve, and he’s self-deprecating, even though he’s confident. There’s always that thing in Leeds, that I think holds the city back in some ways, that you’re not supposed to talk about how good you are at stuff, and he never does. But you are supposed to be really, really good at stuff, and he is.’
There is a tragic irony that this man of the people has brought such joy to so many – but in an empty stadium, devoid of the atmosphere and celebration he and the players deserve. Watching Leeds crowned champions was great, but oh to have been there or watched as Elland Road rang out with songs in honour of its unlikely hero.
Now, the question is how does this most atypical of managers get on in the most commercial and cut-throat league in the world. Hay says, ‘I’ve thought about this a lot because, in many ways, the Premier League feels to me to be contrary to the aspects of football that Bielsa really loves. I think from a coaching perspective there’s a lot to appeal to him. Games against Guardiola, games against Klopp, games against Mourinho, games against the clubs that Leeds feel like they should be mixing with.
‘I think that he’ll revel in that challenge and they’ll definitely warm to him. I just worry that the rest of the stuff that goes with the Premier League will not be to his taste. The attention will go through the roof. I will be quite intrigued to see how he enjoys it. But I hope he does because he hasn’t half earned it.’
Bielsa V The rest
A one bedroom flat above a newsagent’s. His wife Laura, an academic, is said to be mostly based in Argentina.
A £25 million Belgravia mansion for José Mourinho; Rangers’ Steven Gerrard owns a swanky Palladian-style mansion; Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp apparently lives rent-free in a £3.75 million mansion owned by his club.
Bielsa sits on a blue bucket during matches, insisting that it gives him a better view than from the Elland Road dugouts. (He’s got form – he opted for a cool box when at Marseilles.)
To keep managers and players warm and comfortable during games, many top clubs in Europe have installed professional racecar seats at a cost of £3,500 each.
Takes a 45-minute walk to work from his flat in Wetherby every day. Although he was seen marching around a Volkswagen showroom back in May, he was reportedly shopping for a car for a friend.
Pep Guardiola has pranged £460,000 worth of cars while at Man City. Mourinho’s collection includes an Aston Martin DB9 (among others) but he still gets driven to White Hart Lane by limo as he ‘doesn’t like driving in England’.
Turned up to Leeds’ black- tie centenary dinner last October wearing his trusty tracksuit and trainers. If it ain’t broke…
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has previously modelled for Louis Vuitton, adidas Y-3 and Mango. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is never seen without a sharp suit, while Mourinho favours Armani, Ermenegildo Zegna and Hugo Boss.
Nick Varley is the author of Parklife: A Search for the Heart of Football