Argentina’s former coach is an unlikely hero across the border in Chile after steering their national team to the brink of World Cup qualification.
By Rex Gowar
Chileans tend to look at Argentinians with a certain suspicion. Cross-border conflicts, typical of South America since the overthrow of the Spanish, have marred relations between the two countries separated by the Andes – a huge barrier in itself, with the highest peak outside the Himalayas.
All the more remarkable then that Harold Mayne-Nicholls, president of the Chilean FA, sought Marcelo Bielsa as coach of the national team, and that the former Argentina boss should become a national hero in Chile, transcending football to impress leading Chileans in other areas of life.
Bielsa, a reclusive, studious man who enjoys success but not the trappings, has been talked about by politicians, psychologists and newspaper columnists to name just a few. When he was discovered in the audience at a Santiago theatre, the applause for him at the final curtain was as loud as it was for the actors.
Mayne-Nicholls says it was his idea to persuade Bielsa, who had not worked since quitting the Argentina job in 2004 after six years, to take the Chile vacancy. “One likes to work with the best and he is one of the most talented trainers in the world,” he explains. “Marcelo was available and I realised he was capable of doing a great job with our players. The manner in which he achieves his objectives is what interested us.
“The results were far better than we imagined. We hoped for a change in mentality in our players and that in time this would be reflected in results. But the change and results came at the same time. We have, after a long time, a concrete chance of qualifying for a World Cup. To that, add the way this team are playing.
“We are all very happy with how they play, how he plans the matches. Marcelo has become a true idol among the people, who are really grateful he accepted this challenge, and with his professionalism.”
Bielsa, 54, youngest son of a middle-class, educated Argentinian family, and whose brother, Rafael, is the country’s former foreign minister, has imbued Chile’s players with a renewed belief, a winning mentality that has carried them to second place in the South American qualifying group for the 2010 World Cup.
Hard work comes first
He has got inside the skin of his players to get them to change, convincing them hard work comes first. The secret of his success is to keep sight of his long-term objectives and not let results affect his thinking.
Bielsa says it is in adversity he has learnt most about himself: “The best moments of my life, in which I have progressed, have to do with failure. Success is deforming, it relaxes one, it deceives, it makes us worse, it helps us to fall too much in love with ourselves.”
Perhaps the key moment was going to Bolivia and Venezuela in mid-2008 with young players instead of more recognised regulars after a 3-0 home defeat by Paraguay in November 2007. Chile had four points from four matches, but Bielsa’s eye to the long term, to developing a style of play for the team, brought two away wins.
The victories were followed by a 3-0 home loss to Brazil and a 4-0 win over Colombia in four days in September 2008. The team’s record under Bielsa is good, but not brilliant. A 2-1 win away to Denmark in August made it 14 wins and 10 defeats in 29 games since taking charge in 2007.
The qualifying record is impressive, though. Chile are the team with most wins, eight in 14 matches, compared to seven each for group leaders Brazil and third-placed Paraguay, and they are the second-highest scorers with 23 goals, two fewer than Brazil.
Chile’s players were once renowned for caring more for their celebrity lives than for wearing the red shirt of Chile. Since the generation that produced the brilliant Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano reached the 1998 World Cup in France, the closest they have been to real success was an Olympic bronze medal at the Sydney Games in 2000 and third place at the 2007 Youth World Cup in Canada.
“Bielsa is the cornerstone of the future of Chilean football,” says Mayne-Nicholls. “He’s not just a coach, he drives all the changes we want in our sporting culture.”
Hector Soto of Chilean newspaper La Tercera, wrote the following, in a vein not unlike the coach’s own way of speaking: “Bielsa is an obsessive type who seeks, not unlike medieval alchemists who tried to find the philosopher’s stone, the key to the internal equilibrium of the pitch. He seeks to turn each victory not into a matter of chance but the inevitable result of hard and rewarded professionalism.
“If he achieves the miracle [of reaching the World Cup] he will take a place Chileans reserve for their saints and heroes. That the man is Argentinian will be hard for our national pride, but in such matters no one should dwell on small things.”
Back home in Argentina, fans who see Diego Maradona foundering as national team boss are proud of Bielsa doing well abroad, but also wonder how the Argentinian FA let him go.