"I'm not taking Chile to the World Cup, I'm going with Chile to the World Cup" Marcelo Bielsa said in the press conference immediately after the country qualified for the Finals. As Chilean journalists unveiled pictures of a monument in his honor back in Santiago, and expressed "Total Thanks" on behalf of the nation, Bielsa, an Argentine said he hoped it wouldn't be misconstrued as false modesty. He stressed that it was not him alone that had gotten the oft-dismissed, yet soccer-loving nation its ticket to South Africa.
"The axis of qualifying must be placed with the footballers, and I think we must value that the infrastructure necessary for high perfomance was provided to me and the public had the warmth that facilitates the enterprise" he concluded.
Bielsa's use of language is not average football punditry; in fact, it's not average at all. His press conferences have been known to last hours, yet he has not given a single interview in close to a decade. Upon arrival in South Africa he extended the decision to the squad, and has kept a very tightly closed shop asking players not to tweet or use Facebook during the tournament. In fact, no intercourse at all for Chile's squad -- whether of the on-line social type or the more traditional physical closeness with spouses or other special friends. Only the first 15 minutes of some training sessions are open to the press, and any recordings (audio, visual, or other) strictly forbidden. Even Chilean football directors have been asked to refrain from asking players for autographs and kindly requested to stay away from HQ and allow them to work.
But Bielsa is a man of method, and he has been working more or less in the same way for a long time now. Were his training sessions open, what we would most likely see is his great secret: "His training sessions are very short but intense and he does something no other manager in the world does" Roman Iucht, an Argentine tactical expert and author of a forthcoming book on the man they call "El Loco" tells me before the game. "He has exercises which represent actions likely to occur in the match and that the players repeat. The idea is not to mechanize the movements on automatic pilot but rather to understand the underlying cause behind each one. When they click, they realize that in the actual match what the guy made them do in training happens -- and it can work very well."
Half a game into the 2010 World Cup campaign and the world was tweeting about the result of such methods, as Chile went 1-0 up against Honduras with some of the finest football of the tournament so far. "Some of Chile's attacking, backheels, incisive passsing and pace is outstanding" said English writer Henry Winter, while Argentinian hacks were quick to recognize that the movement on the pitch was very "a la Bielsa." "A great pass from [Matias] Fernandez, centred by [Mauricio] Islas with [Jean] Beausejour anticipating. Using the extremes, the way Bielsa likes," pronounced Iucht.
He may be a novelty to much of the world, but Argentina's football family knows Marcelo well. In spite of a superb qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup, his squad suffered one of the earliest exits in the country's history. Despite this, he is very respected in his native home, and in his pre-match interview yesterday acknowledged Argentina's football fills him with a little "nostalgia." Always reluctant to engage with the "non-football" side of the job, he is reknowned for being obsessive, thorough, honest, straight and loyal. His first soccer love, his club Newell's Old Boys in Rosario, named its stadium after him. He was active in the democratic process which rid the club of a corrupt chairman after years abusing power, and outspoken against him even as manager of the national team: "It's inevitable that I manifest my opinion even with the knowledge that this is not purdent from my current position. but it's a moral obligation which supersedes my role: I think the current president of Newell's harms Newell's" he said of Eduardo Lopez at a time when no-one spoke out against him.
A strong Moral code also guided him through the Santiago neighborhood of Constitucion in the aftermath of the earthquake which devastated the country earlier this year. He partook in a fundraising telethon and spoke movingly about the impact the suffering had had on him "Every conversation I've had has been a mouthfull of optimism," Bielsa said. "Beyond the inmense, scathing pain, these people are reconstructing already."
Today, the ex-president of Chile Michelle Bachelet, in South Africa for the first round of games, said Bielsa had provided Chilean society with a very good role model. And praise for the man can be found in almost every player who has ever served under him, whether Chilean, Argentinean, or at club level. His ability to bring respect, dignity and a reserved demeanour at odds with the nickname "Loco," or "Madman," which he also takes with a pinch of salt. Asked how he feels he has changed since 2002, his last World Cup in activity, he said "I'm older and madder."
The 1-0 win against Honduras he classidied as "fair," quick to point out that it would be a mistake to "celebrate exaggeratedly" at this stage bearing in mind that the objective is to get past the first round.
In itself, that would be a fairly historic result for Chile. However, the country isn't a newcomer to the World Cup. Chile hosted the 1962 World Cup and took centre stage in a violent incident known as the Battle of Santiago. It was ousted from the 1982 World Cup by Carlos Caszely missing a penalty. During the nineties it enjoyed a glorious stint with the double attacking delight which was the famous Bam Bam and El Matador pairing, Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas. Chile is not new to football -- the country is full of fans who love the ball every bit as much as their neighbors. In the words of Nicanor Parra, one of Latin America's most influential poets, "the true truth of the matter is that we were people of action, in our eyes the world was reduced to the size of a football and kicking it was our delirium."
Wednesday, Chilean fans singing appeared to drown out the vuvuzelas, probably the first time since the tournament started that the sound of the horns was overcome. The whole team kept the ball, kept the movement, each player in a personal duel with an opponent, keeping the ball, attacking at times with seven players up front, closing in on any attempts at counter-attack, as if playing out once and again carefully rehearsed choreographies.
Wednesday, Chile's party has just kicked off. And the whole country continues to address Marcelo Bielsa: "Total thanks."