The Square Ball Week: Football Makes You Worse

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

“Football makes you worse,” said Marcelo Bielsa this week. “If not, football doesn’t accept you.”

He was speaking at the end of a week that offered plenty of evidence we could use, in Bielsa’s phrase, to verify this.

Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United won FIFA’s Fair Play award, justifiably, for letting Aston Villa score against them last season when there was no need. Rather than praised for the worldwide recognition of their positive sporting example, Bielsa and Leeds were mocked for it. Now, some of those doing the mocking face serious criminal charges after an incident near Derby the next night. Others who mocked will now be condemning the footballers involved in that incident, while staying ignorant of their role in perpetuating a football culture that makes the behaviour they’re condemning more likely.

The FIFA award is meant to celebrate positive examples in a game where those can be hard to find. The example of Leeds was laughed at by English football pundits. Then those same pundits wonder why our role models don’t set more positive examples. Dean Saunders was voluble in his opinions about Leeds United and spygate, allowed to pontificate on what is morally acceptable in English football. He’s not currently available to give his opinion on events involving Derby County.

Leeds United have been where Derby are now, and perhaps invented it, a sub-section of the Wikipedia page devoted to ‘Doing a Leeds’. It’s an interesting moment, ahead of visiting Lee Bowyer’s Charlton Athletic this weekend, to remember how the arrests of Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate, then Michael Duberry, then Tony Hackworth, reverberated throughout the club, the city, the country. A week earlier, Leeds were in the unusual position of being football’s new darlings, leading the Premier League into the new millennium, thrilling television viewers as they beat Manchester City in the FA Cup. The players were given a night off to relax, and within a week, the team were no longer anybody’s darlings. The events of that night were the beginning of the end.

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The end for that team, but perhaps the beginning of a new, unpleasant chapter in English football. There had been violent and drunken incidents before, but in retrospect the group assault on a student in Leeds city centre — of which Bowyer was cleared, Woodgate convicted of affray, and that Woodgate’s associates were given long prison sentences for — was a confluence of money, class, race and morality that sounded a new bass note in the game, one that is often still heard when rich young footballers risk getting boozed up in the presence of the general public.

Peter Ridsdale always insists that, with him as chair, Leeds United’s policies were sound; it was the rest of the world that went wrong and destroyed his house of cards. But he always focuses on the financial catastrophe. Arguably the club’s bigger mistakes were cultural.

Footballers had been rich before, but few in George Graham’s Leeds team had the multi-millionaire status that was thrust upon the much younger players in David O’Leary’s. The perhaps apocryphal wage given to Seth Johnson was close to £2m a year, and he wasn’t even a star player. The stars were all like him, though, by design: boosted by the success and popularity of the players graduating from Thorp Arch’s academy, Leeds set out to buy graduates from every academy they could: Eirik Bakke, Danny Mills, Michael Bridges, Darren Huckerby, Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane and Seth Johnson were all 22 or younger when they signed for Leeds; Duberry was 23. Leeds tried, but failed, to get Frank Lampard and Keiron Dyer to join them. Joining Leeds gave them instant wealth and status in a city, and a game, enjoying a late-1990s boom. Never had so much money been given to so many young footballers by one club at one time, or to footballers so ill-equipped to deal with their responsibilities.

There were gestures towards leadership in the form of Nigel Martyn, David Batty and Lucas Radebe, but the captaincy was taken from Radebe and given to 22-year-old Ferdinand, while Peter Ridsdale and David O’Leary seemed desperate to be thought of as among the lads rather than in charge of them. The tone was set from the top.

Leeds United was a party, and happy to present itself as one, until the partying tore the club apart. It wasn’t only the incident on Mill Hill; by the time O’Leary and Danny Mills were trading insults in the newspapers, United’s relative lack of success had left an emotionally immature group, used to having success handed to them whenever they asked Peter Ridsdale for it, blaming each other now it was all going wrong.

Football hasn’t done much since to mature, even as its riches have increased, and so we arrive at weeks like this, when the game — as embodied by its pundits, many drawn from that era — stand over their colleagues who are now in the gutter, shaking their heads and wondering where it all went wrong. Meanwhile Marcelo Bielsa — one person not from that culture, with his head full of sense and above the parapet — is regarded as a freak.

Gary Neville, supposedly one of English football’s more thoughtful commentators, recently assumed Bielsa would have the same communication problems he had while coaching Valencia, when he was using a translator. “I couldn’t communicate to the players and we talk for a living,” he said. “Every team talk was fifty minutes because it had to be translated by the person next to me. If you see Bielsa’s interviews, they’re hard to watch!” he chuckled. That’s where football culture is pitched in this country: if it’s foreign and takes fifty minutes, it’s boring and should be laughed at.

So Bielsa’s assessment of how the game has affected him over thirty years will have been lost on Neville and those like him, because it came near the end of this week’s forty-five minute press conference, long after the point where it became too difficult. “Nobody who is thirty years in football is doing the right thing all the time,” said Bielsa. “You cannot avoid this. Football makes you worse, if not, football doesn’t accept you. I have behaved [in my past] in ways you can point to as incorrect.” It’s obvious how that relates to this week’s events, but one of the ways football makes you worse is that it tells you not to listen to boring foreigners and their lecturing dirges.

There’s a clip of Bielsa at Marseille, translated and uploaded to Twitter by Juani Jimena, when he’s talking to a group including Benjamin Mendy in a training session. He’s telling Mendy that he could be the best left-back in the world, and Mendy is laughing, not taking him seriously. “He already knows he will be a millionaire,” says Bielsa, but unless he learns from his more experienced teammates, “There is no certainty that he will be the best.”

“Being the best, it takes away happiness,” says Bielsa. “It takes away hours with your wife, it takes away hours with friends. It takes away parties. It takes away fun.” The potential to be the best, says Bielsa, gives Mendy a “Very, very big problem. You have money. But you don’t have time to enjoy that money, and to enjoy what money gives you in terms of happiness,” because of the work involved in becoming the best. “So success, it takes away the possibility of being happy. But that is a choice … If you choose that you don’t want to be the best in the world, what is the problem?”

It’s a choice that Bielsa presented to the Leeds squad last summer. He could make them the best footballers they could be, but he would also stop them from enjoying themselves. Thomas Christiansen struggled to get Kalvin Phillips to give up chocolate cake; Bielsa asked him to swap chocolate cake for twelve-hour training days and daily weigh-ins. Bielsa has, in a way, ruined Kalvin’s life. But he has helped him to a vastly increased wage, status, and future Premier League career.

If you’d said Liam Cooper would become a Scottish international at 28, you’d have been as disbelieving as Jack Charlton was, when while near the bottom of Division Two Don Revie told him he would be an international. Charlton made his England debut just before his 30th birthday, and won the World Cup when he was 31, but not before he fought back, throwing teacups and taking off his jacket, against Revie’s new training regime. I’m not suggesting Liam Cooper has thrown a protein shake at Marcelo Bielsa, or that he’ll win the next World Cup. But he hasn’t become a Scottish international without making the choices Bielsa gave to Mendy, a choice Howard Wilkinson once gave Leeds United. Do you want to have a nice time, or do you want to win?

It’s perhaps why Bielsa has a reputation for burning out his players, just as Wilkinson had a reputation for boring them: because he confronts them, wealthy young men like Mendy, and makes them choose to let him ruin their lives. But perhaps we can also see, by comparing Leeds United’s performances in the Championship this season with Derby County’s, how positive the force can be when a squad collectively submits to Bielsa’s instructions. And perhaps we can see, in the shape of Richard Keogh’s shattered knee, that footballers are more than capable of making choices that ruin their own lives. So even if it means staying off the chocolate cake and Peronis, and leaving a team dinner on time for an early night ready for training, why not let someone like Bielsa spoil your fun, when he’s much better and more practised at spoiling it than you?

Research suggests, according to Bielsa, that if “a group of players are better human beings, in the long term, they are going to be a better team … being honest and a good person allows you to think you will have a better performance than if you are a bad person.” This explains Bielsa’s reaction to the spying controversy, nearly ten months ago. He hadn’t thought he was cheating. He was aghast at the failure of his integrity. He confessed to watching Derby and more at the first opportunity; he phoned Frank Lampard directly, before the story was public, to explain. Then he explained in detail why he had done it, while promising he would stop immediately, then paying the enormous fine personally. And yet the FIFA award, that Derby’s Mason Bennett tweeted was taking a “Liberrrrtttyyyyyy”, was described throughout the media as being awarded ‘despite Leeds being caught cheating.’

“The media,” Bielsa said this week, using the translated term ‘press’ but speaking more broadly, “is first to say what is good and what is bad. The media educates people. A ten-year-old goes for four hours to school, but after school spends six hours with his laptop.” Bielsa left what that child will see on their laptop unsaid, but I expect they’ll soon be able to fill some hours learning that those lads at Derby have made their mistake and everyone should move on; that Derby are, as promised in their statement, ‘supporting their rehabilitation’ back into their team; reading the sympathetic interviews with Richard Keogh, reliving the horror night that, potentially, has ended his career. The lessons being that lads are lads, and mistakes were made, and that is that.

Asked about winning at all costs this week, Bielsa said, “You can choose to play with any style, and you won’t win every time,” therefore, “What makes football beautiful is the beauty of the way you play.” Asked about the pressure within football to get results, Bielsa said, “What is important is the message we give to supporters.” Accepting FIFA’s Fair Play award, Bielsa said the decision he was being praised for was made in that moment against Aston Villa thanks to the positive influences he has had in his life, from his mother, from Newell’s Old Boys, from the collective he works with at Leeds: he made the decision he thought they would want him to. He said he wanted to share the award with the people of the world who make praiseworthy decisions every day, but who don’t get credit, because they don’t have the status football gives.

“I think, in the world, there are a lot of people doing the correct thing, even if they have another path to choose,” said Bielsa. “I think the FIFA prize has this message for society.”

And, in a pub on the outskirts of Derby this week, all you could hear was laughter. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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(photo by Lee Brown)