SANTIAGO, Chile – Whichever teams wins the Copa America on Saturday, Argentina or Chile (4 p.m. ET, beIN Sports), it will in a way be a victory for Marcelo Bielsa.
In a tournament that has been dominated by Argentinian coaches–five in the quarterfinals, four in the semis–it is the two most closely associated with him who have prevailed: Jorge Sampaoli, the furious Chile coach who openly declares himself a bielsista disciple; and Gerardo Martino, the reserved and much-criticized Argentina coach, who was a key player in Bielsa’s Newell’s Old Boys side that reached the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1992.
In the swirl of subplots that have dominated this tournament, that of the redemption of Martino has gone largely unnoticed. He is a quiet man, hard to read, and yet the pressure he was under was evident in his dismissal from his technical area during the win over Uruguay after raging over yet another foul on Lionel Messi.
In part, that sense of expectation comes from being entrusted with one of the most gifted generations of attacking players there has ever been and ending Argentina’s 22-year trophy drought. But in part it’s been about reasserting his own capacities after a spell at Barcelona in which he himself has tacitly admitted he often felt out of his depth.
“His sporting capabilities are visible; now he has to convince the people that don’t know him, that he’s up for the job,” said Juan Manuel Llop, who played in that Newell’s side. He sees Martino as having an essential faith in the bielsista way of playing–“ball possession and attack… that’s how he understood football as a player: neat passing, always thinking of the opposition goal”–but being far more prepared to compromise than his former coach.
“He’s intelligent and realizes the kind of players he has and what’s the best kind of football he can play with those players,” said Llop. “With Paraguay, it was one style. With Newell’s, his bet was to play another type of football, close to Barcelona’s way of playing in terms of ball possession and attack.”
It was his success with Paraguay–leading the 2015 semifinalist to the 2011 Copa America final (albeit by drawing every game)–and then with Newell’s, where he won the Torneo Final in 2013, and a good relationship with Messi (they are both from Rosario) that earned him the national team job. There has been much skepticism, and for a long time he looked like being just another in the long line of Argentina coaches–Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista, Alejandro Sabella–who have failed to get this starriest of forward lines to play the sort of football of which it should theoretically be capable.
But the 6-1 win over Paraguay changed everything. The mood around the camp has changed. The anxiety that characterized the atmosphere in the first week of the tournament has yielded to confidence and expectation. Even Carlos Tevez, whose presence could have been a destabilizing factor, has had his moment of redemption, scoring the winning penalty in the quarterfinal shootout as he’d missed the decision one four years ago.
Chile, by contrast, seems to have grown increasingly anxious as the tournament has gone on, the idealistic image it once had sullied by Arturo Vidal’s drunken-driving charge and Gonzalo Jara’s suspension for digitally provoking Edinson Cavani in the quarterfinal. Sampaoli, although far more classically bielsista than Martino, may himself be forced to move away form the hard-pressing game he has traditionally favored.
Sampaoli has tempered the pressing a little anyway in this tournament, seemingly to acknowledge that many of his players are weary and could not maintain such intensity over a full tournament. The approach has been more possession-based, but he changed training before the Uruguay game to focus on winning high balls. This week, his obsession has been Messi, and he has locked himself away for hours watching videos, while his players have sought answers by playing against Argentina on a PlayStation 4.
“Stopping Messi is not easy,” said his Barcelona teammate, Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. “Seeing his career and what he’s done in his career… but our strength is the unit. Every component of our team will try to perform his role, trying to neutralize Leo... but not only him, his companions are world-class. We have to worry about all of Argentina and not just Leo.”
The suggestion is that Sampaoli will switch to a back three, with Marcelo Diaz dropping in at sweeper and Francisco Silva coming in for Jose Rojas to act as a man-marker. However Chile lines up, though, and whatever the bielsista interplay, it’s hard not to agree with Paraguay coach Ramon Diaz.
"If Argentina plays like it did against us,” he said, “it will win.”