An ode to Marcelo Bielsa, who leaves an indelible mark on Leeds United supporters

There are plenty of anecdotes about Marcelo Bielsa, enough to fill a photo album. Some are presumed to be mythical, others hyperbole. Not all of them end in romanticism. There’s the time he quit Lazio just two days after agreeing to manage the Italian club, or when he abruptly left Marseille after losing the first game of his second season in charge. There’s also a story of Bielsa being so angry with a loss during his Chilean tenure, he entered the dressing room, refused to talk to anyone, moved to another room, and lied naked on top of a bed, contemplating the result as his players sat unaware next door.

Again, some of these stories are true, others perhaps exaggerated in order to ensure people’s perception of El Loco remains intact. He is who he is and what we want him to be. 

Crazy, lost, out of touch … all of the above. Perhaps this is harsh. Perhaps it’s not enough. But no matter what you think of him, Marcelo Bielsa leaves behind a trail of fan emotion, one that can’t be shaken — perhaps, ever.      

To outsiders — those who were never cast under the spell of the eccentric Argentinian — it may seem erratic to believe how anyone could be so affected by his departure. He is after all, just a man. An erratic man. A stubborn man. Obsessed. Hard to decode, even harder to describe. But after everything, he is gone from Leeds, so it’s time to move on.

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But with Bielsa, it’s never as easy as that because these stories, magnified or not, including his tactics and training idiosyncrasies on the pitch, only paint one part of his character. Spygate, post-match press conferences that seemed like a university lecture, language-barrier issues, his bucket — they’re all one corner of the picture. 

The most important characteristic of Marcelo Bielsa, the one Leeds United fans are mourning right now, is less about football (even after helping the club return to the Premier League for the first time in 16 years) and more about the connection, the warm bond he made with the city and her people. It’s this unity that made the story so special and as James Riach wrote for The Guardian this weekend, “he made fans question why they bother watching football in the first place.”

Marcelo Bielsa is less a manager and more a footballing nomad, whose only job is to wake up the city’s heartbeat. He doesn’t care about the job, but rather the challenge of regenerating a sense of pride, responsibility and love for the society he lives in. 

“He is a person that likes to focus on goals that aren’t easy to achieve,” said Ricardo Lunari — a former player at Newell’s Old Boys and someone who considers him a friend and mentor — during Amazon’s “Take Us Home: Leeds United” documentary. 

“Things that are easy bore him,” Lunari continued. 

“He is interested in difficult challenges, challenges that have a lot to do with the heart, that he can put into them and the people that he works with.”

There is an existential sentiment with Marcelo Bielsa because before caring about your football club, he urges you to first care about yourself, and that’s what Leeds fans ached for. They wanted their football to be united, gritty, proud and thirsty for something bigger than themselves.

“I have genuine love for the man. He’s changed the way that I look at life, with more patience, humility, and a deeper care for the small things,” said Leeds fan Andrew Murray, telling me in a message. “These last three-plus years have felt like having a relative that I didn’t know existed enter my life, educate me, bring me unimaginable joy, and remind me of what’s important in football. The fans … despite the fact that his messages were wrapped in the blanket of football, they were and always will be applicable to life. For me and my appreciation of the man, football was secondary.”

This is the Bielsa effect. From Newell’s Old Boys to Athletic Bilbao, Chile and Marseille, those who were influenced by his presence are Las Viudas de Bielsa (Bielsa’s widows), which started in Chile. The manager doesn’t care about your stadium’s needs, the transfer budget or the house he’ll live in. He cares about the town and what it was, what it is and what it could be. 

“If Bielsa doesn’t fall in love with a city, he will not go,” adds Lunari in the doc. “Bielsa did not go to manage Leeds for just the football club, Bielsa went to manage Leeds for the city as a whole.”     

This piece, therefore, is not about what went wrong on the pitch, how it can be amended and what Leeds will look like in the future. Plenty of words can be put together to assemble these predictions. 

This is about a city, a club and a man from Rosario who entered Yorkshire, never fully grasping the language, but yet somehow leaving an indelible mark on the people. This is an ode to humanity. 

“[Bielsa] graciously offered me a few moments of his time an hour ahead of an important game against Millwall to shake my hand, place his arm on my shoulder and greet me before taking a photograph,” recalled U.S.-based Leeds fan Daniel Young, who also messaged me with kind farewells for his former manager. “[Bielsa’s] kindness has never been forgotten and this is not even taking into account the impact he had on the team, the kindness shown to the community, the hope he gave us during COVID-19, his selflessness in what I know must have been difficult times remaining with us and away from his family because he had a job to do, and yes, he definitely did it.”

There are multiple messages all over the internet and beyond from Leeds fans and players alike. All of them point in the same direction, which is to thank Bielsa as a man. As someone who influenced them. Football — at least the results and style — is secondary. 

Marcelo Bielsa leaves Leeds United as a legend of the club, but not in the way you think. Yes, the promotion, the football, the energy at Elland Road, all of these accolades are evident, but the mark El Loco leaves behind — the true, eternal message — is that the most precious thing you can do as a football fan, is to respect yourself, love your family and your community and whatever you do in life — now or later — do it with humility and relentless passion. 

There’s nothing crazy about that. 

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