“My conclusion,” Marcelo Bielsa announced at his press conference this week, was, “I don’t want to criticise Alioski because I like him a lot.”

My conclusion, hearing that, was to feel communion of thought with one of the foremost philosophers of world football. For I, too, have been loathe to criticise Ezgjan Alioski, for I, too, like him a lot. Although the way I’ve usually put it is that I think he’s funny, but as this is as close as I’ll ever be to preempting Bielsa’s thinking, I’m taking it.

“I’m too much in love with my players, so that’s why my opinion is not objective,” Bielsa added later, when asked about Kalvin Phillips’ improvement this season. “Before sleeping, when I imagine us playing against Liverpool, I always imagine us beating Liverpool.”

That’s not quite the level of insight we’ve become used to in Bielsa’s press conferences, but there is a lot there to think about; mostly about Bielsa’s bedtime routine. Alarm clock? Check. Newell’s Old Boys pyjamas? Check. Said good night to Salim? Oops, not yet. (He calls across to the adjacent bed. ‘Buenas noches, Salim!’ ‘Buenas noches, coach!’ answers Salim. ‘Just a few more pages of Das Kapital and I’ll turn out this light!’) Photo of Bamford on the bedside table? Check. Now, eyes closed, and it’s time for Leeds against Liverpool, at Anfield this time I think. Got to give young Jurgen a chance!

I wonder if Bielsa plucked Liverpool from the air because before bedtime the night before he’d been watching James Milner chasing Neymar all over Paris, as Neymar dropped and rolled away from him as if, as Klopp said afterwards, the Liverpool players were “butchers” and Milner was the main machete man. I wonder if Bielsa, in his fantasy matches, ever gets Milner to swap sides. He’d be an ideal Bielsa player: versatile, consistent, passionate about his love for his home town team, passionate about his hate for his team’s historic rivals. Given the choice of Neymar or Milner for his Leeds team of love, Bielsa would pick Milner every time.

Give Milner the choice of Neymar or Alioski to play alongside, and I think James would wince at the video of Gjanni’s dive against Reading on Tuesday night, then pick the Leeds player just the same. The thought process is simple: Alioski is better than Neymar because he plays for Leeds, and Leeds are the best. Even with all our faults, and even with all Alioski’s, Neymar just isn’t it.

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Alioski doesn’t really have much in common with Neymar apart from the diving, but the comparison works in his favour. Neymar is a Brazilian playing Champions League football in Paris, fabulously wealthy, questionably coiffured, exuberantly talented and world famous. He’s everything Alioski grew up wanting to be, if only he wasn’t a Macedonian whose big break came in the Swiss league, who overcame the disadvantages of being a moderately talented full-back to get himself a goal celebration, a hashtag and Max Headroom’s haircut. In fact, even now Alioski is grown up, Neymar is probably still everything he dreams of being, to the extent that he can’t get thirty seconds into a Beginners Guide to The Offside Trap on YouTube before he’s clicked away to ‘Neymar Jr 2019 ● Magic Skills’.

But if Marcelo Bielsa, aged 63, can dream happily every night about Liam Cooper marking Mo Salah, then I can’t begrudge Alioski playing like a blurred samizdat of a comic about Neymar. He’s striving for better, and that’s endearing, whereas what’s most objectionable about Neymar is that he has everything but plays as if he’s got nothing. Paris St Germain efficiently dispatched Liverpool on Wednesday, as you might expect from a team with Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Buffon. Neymar doesn’t need to dive to beat Liverpool because he can do that with his feet and a ball. The time-wasting dramatics were unnecessary, less use than ornament, and as ornament, they were pretty ugly.

What if they had a use, though? That’s where Alioski comes in. His attempt to cheat a penalty out of Mike Dean was ill advised to start with; Dean is an experienced official, the game was covered from every television angle by Sky, and he was really bad at it; even at the other end of the stadium, where I couldn’t see the details, it was obvious that he’d thrown himself down without being touched. He got straight up again and, realising what a mess he’d made of things, tried to play on as if nothing had happened, but it was too late for that. A yellow card and a storm of criticism followed, but not from Bielsa, who likes him.

“I don’t imagine myself at twelve challenging a team-mate because he got a penalty by cheating,” said Bielsa. “When you cheat during a football game you can’t compare it with the morality in the life of human beings and, usually, that’s what we do.” There was about to be more of this from Bielsa, but he laughed and said, “I talk too much,” adding only his conclusion that he didn’t want to criticise Alioski, because he likes him a lot.

Before he stopped himself Bielsa seemed to be heading along a path about morality in football where it can be dangerous, or at least tiresome, to tread. But here we go anyway. Because I think the point was that Alioski’s dive was not ornamental, like a Neymar roll, but utilitarian, because Leeds United hadn’t had a penalty for 56 games and, with every other hope exhausted, we might as well just try cheating. After all, it worked for Brentford; it works for teams every week. Alioski was not accusing an opponent of imaginary violence, he wasn’t wasting time to delay the game. He sensed a chance to win a penalty for his team and he tried to take it. Trying to get a chance for his team to score is what Alioski is on the pitch to do. You can’t defend him trying to do it by cheating. But equally, you can’t imagine challenging a team-mate who does; imagine telling the referee to change his decision and book your winger. And is it comparable to the morality in the life of human beings? If it is, then it’s very small beer, compared to football’s skewed internal morality, where sums the size of hospital budgets rest on points margins and goal differences.

And yet I still curse the name of Gordon Watson, who stole a penalty by diving for Sheffield Wednesday against Leeds in 1992. John Lukic pushed John Sheridan’s spot-kick onto the post but Shez scored the rebound; it didn’t matter, though, because Leeds won 6-1. But it still matters, because I still remember that cheating little git Watson to this day. This is another reason why applying morality to football doesn’t work; because the game’s design makes football fans hypocrites, and the most significant factor directing any debate concerning morals or cheating on the pitch is what shirt the player was wearing.

Another factor is the act. Alioski was pilloried for trying to make a goal for his team. But had Reading been counter-attacking, and had Alioski barged their forward player to the ground on the halfway line, he would have been booked just as he was for diving, but given a rousing round of applause for his professional attitude towards the noble sport of association football. If you try to apply a moral frame to football offences it’s hard to justify the general approval of cheating by stopping a team from scoring, so you win, over the disapproval of cheating by trying to score, so you win. Surely the whole point of football is to score goals, so trying to gain an advantage by winning a penalty is closer to the spirit of the game than hacking down an opponent so they can’t score a goal? When you trip an opponent on halfway, you take the booking as the price of not conceding the goal. When you dive in the penalty area, you take the booking as the price of not getting the penalty. But journalists don’t go into press conferences two days after the game asking the coach’s opinion about players stopping counter attacks by kicking ankles.

So there are three paragraphs that explain how wise Bielsa was to stop himself from saying anything like them, and that make his swift move to a conclusion even more intelligent: “I don’t want to criticise Alioski because I like him a lot.” Bielsa’s intensity is like a fan’s; he thinks his players could beat any team, and lies awake dreaming of it; he loves his players too much to be objective about them. Bielsa thinks that honesty and sincerity are virtues, but recognises what a battering virtues take when it’s a question of a player wearing your team’s shirt doing whatever he can to win the game. Diving and cheating in football is a subject that requires rigorous and sober contemplation in search of effective solutions to a scourge on the game. But it’s better in the abstract, because club loyalty plays havoc with everything in football.

Which is why we love it, and why like Bielsa I could only roll my eyes and laugh about how Alioski thought he was doing the right, honourable and team-spirited thing for Leeds United when he threw himself over the legs of the defender to try and win Leeds their first penalty for 56 matches, and how he just looked ridiculous while he was scrambling back to his feet, hoping nobody had noticed. He’ll never be Neymar, but if he was, I’d hate him. For Alioski the struggle is real, and his motivational collages on Twitter should always get a like. God loves a trier, and so does Marcelo Bielsa. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)

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