Free hugs

Paradise belongs to Marcelo Bielsa (but not Raphinha)

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
An image of Marcelo Bielsa and Raphinha, glaring intently in opposite directions

Landing in Las Vegas is what I imagine landing on a different planet must feel like. By the time I wake up towards the end of my flight from London, we’re surrounded by dusty brown mountain ranges, the vast expanse of the desert, and no sign of civilisation. If the pilot announced we were about to land on Mars, I’d believe him, at least until I spot a huge LED advert flashing in the distance, a beacon for the Las Vegas strip.

I’m staying in an Airbnb south of the city, right next to the airport, in a neighbourhood called Paradise. On the opposite side of the airport is the Allegiant Stadium, where Uruguay are playing Brazil the following day in the quarter-finals of the Copa America. But to get to Paradise, I first have to get through customs and immigration, where the official is refusing to let me through. The more I tell him about why I’m visiting the US, the less he believes. Why would someone from England come here to watch soccer on their own, and why would they be following Uruguay? It’s a long story, I tell him. He has all the time in the world; I’m the last person in the queue and he’s clearly enjoying how the more intense his questioning gets, the more uncomfortable I become. Who am I staying with? Why am I planning to visit so many different places? Surely I know someone out here, why aren’t I telling him who I know? “Look, there’s this guy called Marcelo Bielsa, right…”

Much to my relief, he gets bored when I start trying to explain how there’s a fanzine and podcast about Leeds United called The Square Ball and he waves me through, unimpressed and uninterested. I don’t look back.

It’s night when I leave the airport and still 42 degrees outside. A week earlier I’d been walking up hills in the Lake District in the pissing down rain. I’m not cut out for this. My 36 hours in Vegas are going to be about survival and little else. When I leave the Airbnb the next morning to find somewhere to watch the England vs Switzerland game, I close the door behind me and burn myself on the handle. The taxi driver tells me that temperatures could reach record-breaking highs this weekend.

Unable to escape my identity as an Englishman abroad, I find an Irish bar in the Mandalay Bay casino, where Lennox Lewis once knocked out Hasim Rahman to regain his titles as world heavyweight champion. The England game is like every other England game. The most interesting part of the experience is a robot that zooms around the bar collecting empty plates and glasses, playing Irish folk music out of a speaker on its way. An American couple are sitting next to me, eating breakfast and feigning interest at the TV screens, wondering why neither team seems interested in trying to score a goal. As the match goes to penalties, I tell them they’re about to finally watch something exciting. They smile, and immediately leave.

In the afternoon I meet up with some Leeds fans, Kate and Paul, to watch Thomas Christiansen’s Panama face Colombia in the day’s other quarter-final. Kate lives in Australia and is celebrating her birthday by travelling around the States so she can finally watch a Bielsa team in the flesh, having lived on the other side of the world during his time at Leeds. She’s flying back to Melbourne the following day, and has diverted her trip to squeeze in one final game. Likewise, Paul lives in Canada and had never seen Bielsa’s Leeds live. Paul’s girlfriend Shania joins us later. She wouldn’t describe herself a Leeds fan but has learned enough to know she should avoid the colour red. She once went to watch Leeds at a fan meet up in Vancouver with Paul and was relieved to discover the bitterness of following United isn’t unique to her partner. “It turns out you guys are all cold,” she says. “You’re psychopaths.”

The bar is packed with Colombia fans. A guy called Luis, who is there on his own, asks if he can sit at our table. He’s a part-time soccer referee and has been officiating tournaments on the West Coast so he can combine his work with following Colombia. He’s in Las Vegas because he was expecting Colombia to finish second in their group behind Brazil. When the two teams met in the group stage in Santa Clara, Luis was silently pleased when Raphinha banged in a free-kick to give Brazil the lead, and secretly gutted when Colombia equalised to top the group and secure a quarter-final in Phoenix, Arizona instead.

As Colombia kick off against Panama, Luis crosses himself in between sips of vodka and cranberry juice. It seems to work. Colombia are 3-0 up at half-time and eventually win 5-0. Christiansen glumly argues with the referee at 4-0 down, looking heartbroken. As Luis leaves the bar, we make loose plans to meet up again in Charlotte ahead of the semi-final. He says that even though he supports Man City, when he visits England he wants to go to Elland Road.

It’s a fifteen minute walk from the bar to the stadium. As soon as we’re outside I can feel my lips burning. The air is thick enough to chew. In the queue to get into the ground I use up all my remaining energy trying not to pass out. Thankfully, inside the stadium the roof is closed and the aircon is on full blast. It’s a new ground, the home of the Las Vegas Raiders NFL team. I’ve never been to Tottenham’s new stadium, but I expect it’s a similar vibe — i.e. the phone signal is good. So good, in fact, that while a young Brazil fan sitting next to me shrieks every time Real Madrid’s Rodrygo touches the ball, his mum plays TikTok videos on her phone.

Supporters are mixed throughout the stands. There are Brazil fans to my right and Honduras fans to my left. The yellows of Brazil and Colombia are difficult to differentiate, with so many others like Luis having bought a ticket for the wrong game. Uruguay’s support is by far the most vociferous, although everyone unites in booing the announcement of the 55,000 attendance (there are far more empty seats than the official attendance suggests) as the president of the governing body, Conmebol, is shown on the big screen, presumably as a protest at the extortionate cost of tickets that has priced thousands more out of the tournament. Before the match begins, two fans kitted out in Uruguay shirts and draped in flags Facetime their family.

As the game is about to kick off, Raphinha seeks out Bielsa to give him a big hug. During the first half, he’s playing on the same touchline as his former coach. “He helped me get to the national team and helped me get to Barca,” Rapha previously said of Bielsa. “If it wasn’t for his teachings, as a group or individually, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

For the opening ten minutes, Bielsa sits on a water cooler with his legs crossed, the handles raised into a makeshift backrest, looking like the calmest person in the stadium. Then the referee starts blowing for free-kicks, and Bielsa has little interest in hiding his frustration, yelling from the touchline and pacing up and down his technical area as the match descends into foul after foul. There are 41 in total, more than any other game at the tournament so far. Brazil’s 17-year-old phenom Endrick, making his first international start before he begins his debut season at Real Madrid, is pushed and shoved and kicked, both on and off the ball. Melees between the two teams kick off sporadically. Lucas Paqueta is booked — in Las Vegas of all cities that was surely worth a bet. Darwin Nunez misses an easy header. Raphinha misses a one on one seconds later.

With ten minutes left, VAR decides a yellow card awarded to Uruguay’s Nahitan Nandez should have been red. I didn’t see the challenge, but when the Honduras fan next to me watches a replay on his phone of Nandez crashing into the ankles of Rodrygo, it’s difficult to argue with. It’s 0-0 at the end of ninety minutes and with my eyes stinging from sweat, suncream, and sleep deprivation, I’m grateful there’s no extra-time and it’s to be decided on penalties.

Bielsa has been here before. At the 2001 Copa America, his Argentina side were seconds away from beating Brazil, only to concede a 93rd-minute equaliser and lose in the shootout. Reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores with Newell’s Old Boys could have been his crowning glory, but they were beaten on penalties by Brazil’s Sao Paulo. I wonder if he’s already resigned to his fate.

Bielsa continues pacing his technical area in between penalties, stopping to watch, hunched over, as each one is taken. Uruguay score their first three, Brazil miss their first and third. The ref has to keep separating the two teams, with Brazil unhappy about Uruguay’s celebrations at each of their misses. Jose Gimenez has a chance to send Uruguay through to the semi-final, but his spot-kick is saved. Fuck. This is where it goes wrong. Brazil score their fourth, putting all the pressure on Manuel Ugarte to win it for Uruguay.

I didn’t know how I was going to feel following a country other than my own at a tournament I’ve never paid much attention to previously, but when Ugarte sends Alisson the wrong way to win the tie for Uruguay, I jump into the air, shouting get the fuck in without even realising, celebrating harder than I have for anything England have done this summer. Bielsa allows himself a fist pump and some hugs with his coaching staff, then ignores his players dancing around the pitch while he finds Brazilians to shake hands with, and Raphinha to embrace one more time. Just as I’m about to leave, a Brazil fan walks past me with tears in her eyes. I can’t lie, it makes me even happier. Shania was right all along. We’re a cold set of bastards. Even in the blazing heat of Paradise. ⬢

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