This article was first featured in the Mexico issue of These Football Times magazine
“He is ideal,” said César Luis Menotti. “Although the truth is that he’s a little crazy.” The World Cup-winning coach was discussing and recommending compatriot Marcelo Bielsa, approaching the end of his breathtakingly successful first coaching role with hometown club Newell’s Old Boys. Atlas president Fernando Acosta had heard enough. He was convinced.
An Atlas entourage, headed by Acosta, flew to Rosario, where they met Bielsa, intense, passionate and unerringly focused. What they offered was different – El Loco would not be first team coach of Atlas, but instead a football director, a role which would involve building the club’s youth system, placing the foundations for the future, and training young players. It was a long-term project, and Acosta was impressed by Bielsa. This was something on a grander scale than the Argentine’s previous work, although it seemed his meticulousness would make him the perfect fit.
Clearly Atlas had done their research. Before he became Newell’s coach, Bielsa had worked with the club’s youth set-up, and it was his revolutionary approach to scouting that would contribute to his later success in charge of Los Leprosos. Coming to the conclusion that there were likely players all over Argentina being missed by the big clubs, Bielsa divided a map of the country into 70 sections and visited each one, driving over 5,000 miles in his modest Fiat 147.
Now it was Atlas, in Mexico, hoping to benefit from his relentless, almost obsessive work-rate, his idiosyncrasies and unapologetic studiousness. First, though, Bielsa had to be sure. He travelled to the city of Guadalajara to carry out what he described as an audit, spending a month viewing youth matches and contemplating his future. His decision was made after watching a game between 16-year-olds, after which he declared the calibre of players on show good enough “to reach international level”.
Bielsa was not one to take such a decision lightly; clearly he saw this as a project with potential, and even perhaps longevity. Working conditions in Mexico were also considered superior to those in Argentina, although the league and national team were of less quality, something Bielsa hoped to change. In July 1992, he began his work at Atlas and immediately instigated a transformation, a revolutionary approach to the scouting and coaching of young players in Mexico. “The work he organised was impressive, fast, effective and efficient,” Acosta said. “He organised a player recruitment network that still exists in 92 cities in Mexico.”
Nothing of the like had been seen in the country before. In the position to focus solely on his role as director, Bielsa’s exhaustive search for talent overshadowed even his seemingly unrelenting efforts at Newell’s. “I designed a structure to observe 20,000 players a year,” he said in an interview with a Mexican newspaper in 1997. “Atlas had a relay in 2,500 cities, we organised tournaments, and we selected 15 players from each one.”
Bielsa’s work would have an impact beyond the short term. Atlas were considered to have the best scouting network and training centre in Mexico until 2010, and the national team reaped the rewards of some of the players unearthed. When Mexico played Argentina in the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup – a game which required extra-time and very nearly produced a shock result – eight of the 11players that started in Ricardo La Volpe’s side had been detected or trained by Bielsa during his time as director at Atlas, the likes of Rafael Márquez, Pavel Pardo, Oswaldo Sánchez, and record goalscorer Jared Borgetti. His impact was far-reaching.
It wasn’t just in finding talent that Bielsa thrived. His work coaching and helping young players grow proved instrumental. He insisted that youngsters focus on their strengths, evaluating their qualities and explaining to them, in great detail, where and how they could improve. He also stressed the importance of concentration. Football was to be on the mind before training and after training – at all times. The players had to buy into his relentlessness; after all, the man who once claimed “I am a student of football” was now very much a teacher.
As successful as Bielsa had proved as director, the Atlas hierarchy were eager for him to take over as first team coach. At first he was reluctant – he had planned on continuing in his original role, away from the pressure of coaching that had consumed him at Newell’s. He had hoped to become “more reflective” in moving to Guadalajara, and, to an extent, he had achieved that. “I understood that football was not life,” he said.
Football was not life, but Bielsa had been typically immersed in his role from the moment of his arrival in Mexico. To ensure he was suitably prepared, he read up on the country’s culture, hoping to understand Mexico’s idiosyncrasies, as he did Argentina’s. As fellow coach and Bielsa’s neighbour during his time at Atlas, Ernesto Urrea says: “I think he knew more about Mexican history than I did.” Such a devotion to acquiring knowledge was typical of Bielsa, who, as a child, was said to have read a book a day, and subscribed to more than 40 international sports magazines.
Bielsa was eventually persuaded to take control of the first team for the 1993/94 season, the Atlas board adamant that, as a proven coach, he would be as innovative and progressive as he had in his role as director the previous season. Bielsa’s side was an inexperienced one, made up in part of teenagers, some of which had been discovered by his scouting network. Pardo, a defensive midfielder who would go on to win the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007 and appear 148 times for Mexico, was handed his debut by Bielsa, as were goalkeeper Sánchez, record appearance holder in the Mexican Primera División, and prolific striker Borgetti.
“Bielsa was a warlord,” Borgetti said, reminiscing of his time under the Argentine coach. “When I arrived in Guadalajara, I knew nothing about football. He taught me a lot about how to see the game, analyse it. He was very demanding, a perfectionist, but he wants his players to learn football so they know and see what will happen in a game. He did not just teach me to play, it’s deeper than that.”
Borgetti top scored for Atlas with 13 goals that season, as Bielsa’s side finished as runners-up in their Primera División group, behind Tecos and level on points with city rivals Guadalajara. That meant qualification for the playoffs, a stage Atlas had not reached for 12 years. Bielsa had overseen a noticeable improvement, and his radical, idealistic methods, it seemed, had been adapted to by his players.
It had helped that much of the side had been formed in the youth set-up, already given time to adjust to Bielsa’s unorthodox approach. Then there were the players brought in from his former club Newell’s, including midfielder Ricardo Lunari and defender Eduardo Berizzo. Such cohesion had allowed Atlas to perform beyond their means, though they were beaten at the quarter-final stage 3-2 on aggregate at the hands of Santos Laguna.
Bielsa was typically attentive as coach of Atlas, taking training sessions with characteristic authoritarianism and meticulous attention to detail. Returning from training, he would watch videos late into the night and plan for future sessions, his mind unable to switch off. “Marcelo arrived in Mexico with a catalogue of about 300 training exercises and left the country with more than 500,” Urrea recalls. “His wife, a trained architect, drew them, then Marcelo filmed them in action to show to the other coaches at Atlas. He is a creative mind, one of the smartest people I’ve met.”
Despite the relative success of his season as a coach with Atlas, Bielsa planned on returning to his role as director following the summer break, but he was again persuaded to take control of the first team. This time, though, things didn’t go as planned. Bielsa was concerned that the squad was not of the required level to compete, and results began to decline. He became stressed and anxious, seemingly exhausted by his own approach, while his team began to show the signs of burnout, something which has become synonymous with Bielsa throughout his coaching career.
It was reminiscent of the latter stages of his time at Newell’s, and Bielsa announced his resignation just 23 days into the new season. “When one commits oneself overly affectionately, as I did at Newell’s, there are more disappointments than satisfactions,” Bielsa said. Disappointment was the more prevalent sentiment in his Atlas exit, but he would later return briefly as director in 1996. In the meantime, Bielsa’s resignation as Atlas coach would allow him to pursue his new hobby: golf.
“If Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer play golf, why not me,” said Bielsa, who would remain in Mexico following his departure from Atlas. His free time allowed him to delve deeper into the culture of the country, and his neighbour Urrea remembers his almost insatiable appetite for the local cuisine. “I have never seen anyone who eats as much as Marcelo Bielsa,” he said. “He loved the Mexican antojitos, and the tacos they sold on street corners. When he went to restaurants, he asked for all the dishes on the menu to taste them all.”
Read | The obsession of Marcelo Bielsa
Bielsa, now a free agent, was approached by Club América ahead of the 1995/96 season, one of Mexico’s biggest and most successful sides, playing at the formidable Estadio Azteca. Before his arrival in the capital city, he asked for videos of every game from América’s last two seasons, which he analysed, making judgements on the needs of the players, their strengths and weaknesses. The team was a talented one, more so than at Atlas, the likes of François Omam-Biyak, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Luis García part of a strong squad.
The season began well; América were top at the halfway point, seemingly well-adjusted to Bielsa’s high pressing, attacking philosophy, but the second half of the campaign brought with it problems. The club were owned by TV executives and the president expected the first team coach to perform certain media duties. Bielsa, unhappy with such demands, voiced his concern, and following a run of three successive defeats, he was sacked, the end of a brief, underwhelming spell with a Mexican powerhouse. Significantly, it was his time with América that would lead to his refusal to do any one-to-one interviews. The media would be dealt with solely through press conferences.
Bielsa returned to Atlas, to the position he had prospered in, again working tirelessly to recruit and advance young players to shape the future of the Guadalajara club. He left in March 1997, returning to Argentina with Vélez Sarsfield, but he remains highly thought of at Atlas, the club at which he was able to improve himself as a teacher of the game, and the players he developed as his students. “Unfortunately, Bielsa did not get to harvest all his work,” Atlas president Acosta said. “Maybe two years later he would have seen all the players he formed.” Indeed, two years after Bielsa’s departure, Atlas reached the final of the Primera División for the first time in their history – a testament to his work.
As a coach, Bielsa’s time in Mexico could have been considered somewhat underwhelming. Certainly, it was not nearly as exhilarating as his success with Rosario, or as inspirational as his later spells with the Argentina and Chile national teams. El Loco, though, perhaps sums it up best. “The moments in life in which I have grown have to do with failure. Success is deforming, relaxing, deceiving, makes us worse. Failure is the opposite; it is formative, it makes us solid. It brings us closer to our convictions.”
Bielsa had not failed as such, but Mexico had certainly helped him reassert his convictions. His five years in Central America are rarely mentioned, but they were undoubtedly formative in the career of one of the 21st century’s most influential coaches.
By Callum Rice-Coates
Art by Phil Galloway
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