Marcelo Bielsa walked among us on Monday.
From the first photo, the sightings spread, from Briggate near Whitelocks to the Corn Exchange, to an Under-23s match at Barnsley, back to Five Guys in Leeds.
Next to him on the table in Five Guys was a bottle of Corona beer, and it’s hard to stick with an idea of coincidence. Leeds United’s training ground had just been closed to all but essential players and staff, and amid worrying reports from Italy, worries were growing here about the Covid-19 coronavirus. So Bielsa came and walked among us to show that it will be okay; clad in simple black Adidas sportswear, he was like the Bradford Jesus Man, who for decades until he died in 2015 was a daily reassurance as he walked the BD postcodes in sandals and a brown robe.
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As long as Marcelo Bielsa is okay we’ll be okay, and as long as football matches get played, everything will be okay. That’s how it feels while a bright spring day makes fiction of the idea that a deadly virus is spreading asymptomatically from person to person, when the only clouds on our horizons are the prospects of Leeds United’s games happening without us, or not happening at all.
Leeds fans have joked about this scenario for years; that on the verge of promotion back to the Premier League, a new World War, a nuclear attack, or a meteorite crashing into West Yorkshire would intervene. I don’t think anyone had a global coronavirus pandemic on their cosmic conspiracy bingo cards, but whatever the stripe of the disaster befalling the planet, our imperative remains the same: don’t let it win. Complete the fixtures and get Leeds promoted, preferably with us all there for the party.
We have to accept that association football has done something to our brains for that to be the first impulse of so many of us. It’s not only delusion, although many of us are still in the very British phase of thinking jokes will make all this go away, that although there are thousands of families around the world and several nearer home already suffering the pain of suddenly losing loved ones to this new and baffling disease, we can still drink tea and carry on until it all blows over; without a doily for our cuppa, we can put the mugs on a single sheet of stockpiled bog roll, chuckling to ourselves while we wait for news not from the hospitals, but from the Football League.
Marcelo Bielsa is perhaps a useful example in this situation, although not necessarily a good influence. In one way, it feels like the postponement and possible cancellation of his regular press conference is a disservice to the nation of Leeds fans; just as it felt reassuring to see him out drinking a Corona at the start of the week, his fireside sagacity would be very welcome against the weekend’s gathering gloom. We’ve learned to appreciate, as the people of Chile did before us, that Bielsa’s wisdom extends beyond the traditional boundaries of football into society, politics, ethics, morality. In an era when intelligence has been more effectively inoculated against than any virus, Bielsa’s is the leadership we welcome. He projects more authority than most political leaders, reflected in the viewing figures for his addresses to the population.
Not only is Bielsa wise, but with his ability for detailed analytical insight, and for transferring thought into actionable plans that get astounding results — there may never have been six weeks of better work at Leeds than Bielsa’s in summer 2018 — it’s easy to imagine that, if he transferred his skills, Marcelo Bielsa could solve the coronavirus crisis by the middle of next week, before turning his attention to curing cancer, ending famine and solving the climate emergency. With a beer in one hand and a dolphin in the other, bueno.
But that’s the other way to think about Bielsa: because he doesn’t solve things. Toning down the hyperbole, the evidence that Marcelo Bielsa could have made a significant impact on public life is written in his family tree: his grandfather was a judge and a scholar; his mother was a teacher and his father a lawyer; his brother is a politician, his sister is an architect turned politician, working on government housing policy; his wife is an architect specialising in the impact of urban agriculture on climate change.
Marcelo stands alone among the Bielsas for applying the family aptitude for political, social and environmental concerns to a life spent perfecting the science of teaching young men to kick a ball into a bag. In a Victorian drama he’d be the disappointment, the black sheep, the cad who frittered his talents, choosing a life exercising in a leisurely pastime over one of serious business.
While his sister analyses the problem of social housing in Argentina, Marcelo spends the first day of the working week strolling around town in his trackies, eating burgers and drinking lager, watching a game of footie live and maybe a couple more on the telly. Once upon a time a slouch like that would be written out of the wills of such a distinguished family. Cure Covid-19? He can’t even dress properly.
Victorian values were established in a time before association football was played, and we shouldn’t underestimate the game’s role in overturning them. For from an outcast, Marcelo is the pride of the family, the Bielsa who attracts the most love and respect, who despite his unserious job has nonetheless helped to transform societies by helping national teams win games of football. He is elevated not in spite but precisely because he has applied every skill he has to sport.
It’s a point that, last weekend, it felt like Bielsa was about to prove once and for all, to himself if nobody else. And he would be proving it on our behalf, too. Perhaps because of the work of the rest of his family, few in football are more keenly aware than Bielsa that his chosen job is a glorified hobby, that his status is based on the distorted value society places on association football. Try asking Bielsa if he thinks his work is more important than a doctor’s, and I suspect his answer — and his anger — won’t subside for an hour or more.
But that doesn’t mean he thinks his work has no value, or that our disproportionate love of football is wrong. Football is a way, he often says, of bringing joy to people without the means to acquire it from other parts of the life they’re offered. Promotion for Leeds, and the happiness it would bring, would be proof of that, a justification of Bielsa’s contribution to society, perhaps even for the way so many of us put football before so much else.
The midst of a coronavirus pandemic is the time to ask whether trying desperately to secure a way of watching people playing a game, or gathering outside a stadium instead, isn’t an absurd, reckless response to a health crisis. The unrivalled joy of a promotion party in Leeds would go some way towards explaining why we football fans reckon it’s worth it. You can tell football fans that we’re wrong when something else as simple brings as much happiness to as many people.
But we football fans also need to reckon with the fact that our favourite game is a sideshow when the stakes of public health are so large. We have our priorities, and we have our justifications, and we have Marcelo Bielsa as proof of a life of goodness in the game; we’re not wrong to hope the Cardiff game goes ahead as planned, that we can watch Leeds beat Fulham and Luton at Elland Road next week, see Liam Cooper lift the Championship trophy in a couple of months. But let’s not kid ourselves about the consequences. If Leeds United play without us, or don’t play, or don’t go up, it’ll be okay. They’ll play again and we’ll be able to go and watch. There will always be a game to look forward to.
And we should remember, while imagining Marcelo Bielsa taking on Covid-19, that hundreds of scientists, thousands of his intellectual peers working in medicine, already are. I wonder how many of them could reverse our thesis, and apply their disciplined analytical minds to solving football; many of them might exceed Bielsa’s life’s work if they turned their hand to it. We’ll never know. And right now is probably not the right time to ask them: ‘But really, putting the test tubes down for a minute, what do you think about the football?’ ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)