Mockery of Bielsa ignores his 40 years of integrity
Leeds manager deserves better than to have Fair Play award jeered over ‘Spygate’,
Mark Chapman’s face was a picture on Monday night. The broadcaster dissolved into uproarious, scornful bemusement, a cryingwith-laughter emoji made Lancastrian flesh, when he informed his guests on Radio 5 Live that Leeds United and Marcelo Bielsa had been given a Fifa Fair Play Award.
In the studio, Micah Richards and Chris Sutton treated the news as if it were the sickest of jokes.
Fifa had rewarded Leeds for the moment in their penultimate match of the season, when the manager ordered his players to allow Aston Villa to equalise, a goal which killed off their vanishing chances of automatic promotion.
“Do previous misdemeanours not count?” asks Sutton, presumably referring to the pearl-clutching hysteria spawned by January’s so-called “Spygate”, the details of which were expertly spun until Leeds were formally reprimanded and fined for a breach of “good faith”, rather than for breaking any existing regulation.
It captured the common reaction: that a man and his team who had been condemned could not possibly warrant recognition for an honourable act, never mind that Paolo di Canio was similarly commended in 2001 for refusing to exploit Paul Gerrard’s injury during West Ham’s match against Everton a couple of years after he had shoved the referee Paul Alcock to the ground.
Which was the more heinous “misdemeanour”, Bielsa’s breach of protocol, or di Canio’s of the laws of the game? Which was greeted with the contempt Gore Vidal reserved for Henry Kissinger receiving the Nobel Peace Prize?
Little wonder, then, that Leeds United supporters smell double standards. The outrage of other fans amuses them, as if Fifa has effectively trolled or flicked two fingers to the rest of the English game on their behalf, ensuring the “Dirty Leeds” cliche receives another airing.
But it masks a salient point. Frank Lampard and John Terry, for example, were fined for regrettable behaviour in the aftermath of 9/11 yet both are venerated throughout the game. Does being perceived as an insider afford some football figures the kind of understanding and protection denied the likes of Bielsa?
Leeds United have been getting up people’s noses for 55 years, ever since they were promoted to Division One under Don Revie and arrived with an outlaw reputation burnished by a misleading Football Association disciplinary table, which tarred the first team with the youth and reserve sides’ indiscretions.
The players who served in that golden age for the club have long since given up caring what others think of them. They have the respect of their peers and, crucially, of each other, an unbreakable bond forged in defiance of sustained criticism and grotesque bad luck. Bielsa’s 40 years in football and his loyalty to the integrity of his vision of the game insulate him from the snarking.
But to malign him for scouting the opposition’s training and to employ it to scoff at his fitness for the award is to use a tiny fragment of the mosaic of his career and pass it off as the whole picture. In 15 months at Elland Road, he has transformed the club, healing divisions, producing the finest football supporters have seen for nearly 20 years, and behaved at all times with unpretentious grace, whether disturbed on his trips to Costa or Morrisons in Wetherby, or in his divergence from the custom of blaming referees for setbacks.
Last year, he donated £3 million to his first club and lifelong passion, Newells Old Boys, which he called a debt, not a gift, for the joy and opportunities they had given him. When Spygate blew up, he immediately took responsibility for it.
There was no dissimulation or cover-up. On his insistence, the club accepted the English Football League sanction without complaint and he settled the fine himself.
As soon as he was made aware that Mateusz Klich had scored against Villa with an opposition player down injured, thereby falling foul of the English football code, Bielsa made instant reparation.
When Bielsa twice found himself on the wrong side of the illogical rectitude of certain unwritten English football conventions, he apologised and tried to make amends.
Leeds fans, like their greatest players, no longer expect anything other than stereotypical denunciations. But Bielsa, who continues to inspire coaches of the calibre of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino, deserves better than the mockery of the football phone-in establishment.
Leeds fans no longer expect anything other than stereotypical denunciations
Sporting: Marcelo Bielsa ordered his players to allow Aston Villa to equalise in a crucial game