The crazy world of Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa: From signing Mauricio Pochettino in his sleep, asking for a

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Marcelo Bielsa was sat next to Jorge Valdano on a flight headed for Euro 96 in England when he asked his compatriot, “After losing a match, have you ever thought about killing yourself?” It would be easy to dismiss such a question as a morbid joke if it came from the lips of anyone else. But for Bielsa, a man whose obsession with the beautiful game is unrivalled, such thoughts stem from sincerity. Getty Images – Getty Marcelo Bielsa was hoping to lead Leeds back to the Premier League at the second attempt Twenty four years on from his first visit to these shores, he has all-but awakened the sleeping giant of English football. Leeds are on the verge of a return to the Premier League following a 16-year absence – and you can listen to their promotion push live on talkSPORT with games against Stoke on Thursday and Swansea this weekend. If they do make it back to the top-flight, it will be largely thanks to ‘El Loco’, who has made himself a bit of a cult hero in Yorkshire. Getty Images – Getty The Estadio Marcelo Bielsa in Rosario, Argentina, is named after the Leeds boss His professional coaching career started at Newell’s Old Boys, the club who nurtured Lionel Messi before the six-time Ballon d’Or winner joined Barcelona. Bielsa left home to live at Newell’s’ training facility when he was 15 years old. His unremarkable playing career began at La Lepra too. For masterminding two titles in consecutive years, Newell’s Old Boys renamed their stadium in Bielsa’s honour. And it was in Rosario where he cultivated a reputation just as much for eccentricity as tactical nous. Giving the finger One such instance for this occurred the day before a much-anticipated derby in 1990 between Newell’s and Rosario Central. Bielsa took teenager Fernando Gamboa aside and asked him how much he wanted to win the game. The youngster replied with great enthusiasm, but Bielsa was unconvinced. He asked Gamboa if he would cut off one of his fingers if it meant victory was assured. Unsettled, the inexperienced defender said that if he cut off a finger to ensure every derby victory then it would not be long before he lost a whole hand. Bielsa told Gamboa he didn’t understand what it meant to desire a win so wholeheartedly. The next day, Gamboa scored the opening goal as Newell’s beat their rivals 4-3. AFP – Getty Bielsa proved he had no need for police protection when confronted by ultras in Argentina as he is said to have threatened them with a grenade if they didn’t leave his home El Loco is born The following season, Newell’s were thrashed 6-0 by San Lorenzo in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s answer to the Champions Leagues. That night, a gang of 20 incensed ultras turned up at Bielsa’s home, demanding he come out to face them. When he emerged at the door, he did so clutching a grenade. “If you don’t leave,” he said, “I will pull the pin.” It was this incident that popularised a nickname for Bielsa: El Loco (The Crazy One). Nun on the run Despite his unnerving intensity, Bielsa is a man of morality. After standing down as coach of Argentina in 2004, he went to live in a monastery with nuns for three months without a phone or television. There he read voraciously and reflected on his guilt, frustration and embarrassment at failing to guide the national team to anything greater than an Olympic gold medal. Soon after, he retreated to his farm where he continued to live in relative anonymity for three years. During this time away from football’s bright lights, he continued to study the game. AFP – Getty While out running, Bielsa once decided to offer a broken man a job in his home and later in life handed himself into police after an argument with construction workers He would take breaks for regular exercise and one day he came across a man whose wife had left him for another man and taken all their possessions. Though he was not in need of houseworkers, Bielsa offered to pay the man to prepare lunch for them both every day until he had enough money to get his life back on track. Marcelo’s morals Deeply concerned with issues of social justice and the world’s rights and wrongs, Bielsa once handed himself into the police after a minor scuffle with a construction worker while head coach of Athletic Bilbao. The other party did not report the incident but Bielsa was so wracked with guilt that he felt he deserved to face consequences from the authorities, who basically shooed him away. Rodman’s crazy life saw him wrestle with Hulk Hogan and call Kim Jong-un a good pal Spy Some may scoff at the idea of Bielsa as a man of integrity. After all, he was at the centre of Spygate, a much-discussed lowlight of the 2018/19 season that revolved around Leeds sending employees to spy on the training sessions of their upcoming opponents. While not in breach of any rules, the club were fined £200,000 for ‘failing to act in good faith’ towards their fellow Championship clubs. The saga climaxed with a memorable press conference in which Bielsa revealed his methods, highlighting the level of detail that goes into preparing for each fixture. Bielsa held one of football’s more memorable press conference when he addressed ‘spygate’ After showing evidence of the extensive research, he openly questioned why he bothers. Admitting that much of his work has minimal repercussions on the outcome of games, he explained that he does so because he would feel guilty if he did not commit so extremely, seemingly acknowledging his obsessive nature. In regards to Spygate, he believed he was engaging in a practice of preparation common in South America, where it is not viewed as the heinous act of cheating some English fans believe it to be. Fair play Bielsa and Leeds were later awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award for allowing Aston Villa to score a goal unopposed in the Championship fixture at Elland Road. Matheusz Klich had opened the scoring for Leeds when Jonathan Kodjia was down injured. In the chaotic aftermath, Bielsa was seen instructing his team to let the visitors equalise. Pontus Jansson partially resisted, attempting a half-block. The defender was sold the following summer with many citing friction with Bielsa as the primary reason for his departure. Leeds binge Many suspect Bielsa owns, or has viewed, more video footage of football than anyone else in the sport. It’s said he’s developed the ability to watch two games simultaneously on separate screens. When he was approached by Velez Sarsfield in 1997, he arrived at the interview with more than 50 tapes in order to reference his observations. When Leeds chiefs flew to Argentina in hope of securing his services 20 year later, they were shocked to learn Bielsa had watched every single one of the Whites’ league fixtures from the previous season in full. During that meeting, Bielsa started listing every formation used by Leeds’ opponents throughout the course of the 46-game campaign. AFP – Getty Bielsa’s attention to detail has won him many admirers at every club he has been at – except maybe Lazio… ‘Murderball’ While such thorough measures have improved Leeds significantly, Bielsa’s intensity has often combusted in spectacular fashion. He lasted just two days as Lazio coach, quitting on principle after he believed the club had reversed their promise to invest in the squad. His demands take their toll on his players. Several of his sides – most notably Marseille, Athletic Bilbao and last season’s Leeds – have suffered what has become known as ‘Bielsa Burnout’, a critical dip in form in the last third of the season that cost them their ultimate goal. It’s common for Bielsa to install running tracks at training grounds and force players to jog until they vomit. Leeds players are weighed every day and those who fail to show physical progress risk being dropped, regardless of their ability. While players are put through their paces on the training pitch, fans love him for the results he produces Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ sessions (an energy-sapping form of the game in which the ball is constantly in play) have become infamous at Thorp Arch. Despite this, the majority of players form strong attachments to him. Gabriel Batistuta, Mauricio Pochettino, Benjamin Mendy, Aymeric Laporte and Diego Simeone all cite Bielsa as a primary influence on their understanding of the game. It was Batistuta who encouraged Pep Guardiola to fly to Argentina and meet Bielsa before embarking on a managerial career of his own. The current Man City gaffer did just that and the 11-hour discussion between the two tacticians has since passed into folklore. AFP – Getty Pep Guardiola has been full of praise for Bielsa’s coaching It’s said the pair made David Trueba, a Spanish film director and mutual friend who was also in attendance, stand between chairs as they attempted to plot out moves, patterns and formations with whatever was at hand. Years later, after Guardiola had overseen perhaps the greatest club side of all time in the form of Barcelona 2009 – 2011, he declared Bielsa was the best coach in the world. Not all Bielsa’s stories are steeped in seriousness. Those who played under him for Chile recently revealed he would get naked and lie on top of a table after some defeats. Pochettino’s big break in football came after Bielsa visited his house in the dead of night. The future Spurs manager was asleep as his mother was asked to draw back the covers so Bielsa could see if the young defender had ‘footballer’s legs’. Pochettino signed with Newell’s Old Boys soon after and played for Argentina under Bielsa’s watch. Pochettino, signed by Bielsa in bizarre circumstances at Newell’s, later played for the manager at international level Born into a rich family, Bielsa has always been conscious of modesty. Despite being one of the best paid managers in the Championship, it’s almost impossible to spot evidence of his wealth. The 64-year-old lives in a one-bedroom flat above a shop in Wetherby with minimal possessions. He walks to and from the training ground every day, politely refusing lifts from journalists and passersby when it rains. He is frequently pictured shopping in Morrisons, wandering the aisles in a club-branded tracksuit. In fact, he has rarely been seen in anything other than Leeds apparel since moving to Yorkshire in the summer of 2018. He was even photographed in his familiar tracksuit at the club’s centenary dinner, alongside the other guests in formal black tie. The regulars at Costa (Wetherby branch) are accustomed to the spectacled man in the corner, reviewing hours of footage on his laptop. It’s said he is fond of a Five Guys burger and is no stranger to McDonald’s either. With no designer clothes, super cars, or excessive nights out to show for his wealth, his lifestyle isn’t comparable to the vast majority of his peers. So where does his money go? In 2018 he donated approximately £2million to Newell’s Old Boys when his former club were in need of a new training facility. Rather than acknowledging his generosity, Bielsa explained his contribution was merely ‘paying a debt’ to the club who formed him. When Leeds were fined for Spygate, Bielsa insisted on paying personally, refusing to allow the money to come from the club’s finances, as is customary in such cases. The Elland Road faithful love Bielsa, who is currently in his second season at the club One of the aspects that makes Bielsa such a compelling character, is his relatively modest honours list. For a coach so respected among his peers, he is yet to win a trophy in European football. But the impression he leaves on the clubs who employ him are evidence of his aura. Marseille president Vincent Labrune compared hiring Bielsa to ‘signing Lionel Messi for a 12 months’. Fans from several of his former clubs have embarked on pilgrimages to Elland Road in the last two years. There are coaches who could claim to have their own fan base. Or perhaps, for Bielsa, it would be more accurate to describe his followers as a cult. Whatever you want to call his believers, they will feel vindicated if Leeds are promoted as champions when the 2019/20 season ends.,

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