Marcelo Bielsa, Chile's 'Madman' World Cup Coach


Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

One of the most compelling figures in this World Cup is Marcelo Bielsa, the coach of Chile, a team with no star players—certainly none from Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, or Real Madrid—that flew under the radar during the pre-tournament build-up.

But fly they did. Bielsa and his youthful, effervescent team finished second in the Darwinian South American qualifying campaign behind only Brazil (and scored 32 goals, just one less than the regional giants).

Bielsa is an Argentine, from Rosario, where he was a mediocre player (by his own admission) for the quaintly named club Newell's Old Boys, which he later would coach to silverware. Just last year, the club re-named its stadium after him. Up and over the Andes, they, too, are obsessed and enthralled with him—have been ever since he took over in 2007 after the Chile team disgraced itself during the Copa America in Venezuela when they trashed their hotel rooms. Bielsa immediately cleaned house and imposed his ideas: freewheeling on the field, strict off of it.

His nickname is "El Loco," the madman (not to be confused with another great South American El Loco, Rene Higuita, the anarchic Colombian goalkeeper of the late '80s and early '90s). But he's more eccentric than mad (he doesn't give one-on-one interviews, and it's been said he sleeps at the training ground), more professorial than dictatorial.

He's a tactics geek and has been known to sequester himself while studying hoarded game video. While the obsession with tactics—the T-word—sometimes implies a stifling of creativity—something Italy and Serie A is accused of, often unfairly—Bielsa uses positional schemes to enable opportunity. "Attacking football is the simplest way to victory and success," he has been quoted as saying.

The most stunning thing about his Chile team is their formation: 3-3-1-3, meaning three defenders, three midfielders (who are required to do a ton of work), and a creative playmaker in front of three attackers. This is bold. Maybe it's the start of a revolution: Nuevo futbol total or futbol nuevo.

He's a paradox, Bielsa: a tactician obsessed with attacking soccer; a free thinker who's also a disciplinarian; a man in the most public eye who wants to be left alone, with his game videos. My friend Alberto Fuguet, the Chilean novelist, filmmaker, and leader of the anti-Magic Realism "McOndo" movement, doesn't like soccer, not one bit. But he is, like the rest of his country, fascinated by El Loco and suggests he wants to be the J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon of futbol.

Or, if we're lucky, perhaps Ralph Ellison, with this World Cup as Bielsa's one masterful, undeniable achievement, even if it's his last.

Will Bielsa's ideas work? By the time you read this, Chile's first match, against what should be a plucky Honduras team, will be (almost) over. The next two games are against pragmatic Switzerland (where the infamous catenaccio defensive system, usually attributed to the Italians, was originally founded) and Spain, the best team in the world right now. If Chile do advance to the next round, they would likely face Brazil, which, in its current form--expert in executing the speediest of counterattacks—can exploit the spaces Bielsa's formation, indeed his philosophy, leaves in defense.

Bielsa's first World Cup adventure ended in utter failure when his heralded Argentina team didn't get even get out of the group phase. Ah, how grandiose dreams often (usually?) lead to grandiose failures. (If only the fatuous self-help industry would level with us.) How idealists often end up alone.

What's certain is that this World Cup needs, and fast—today would be nice—oomph, fluidity, and sure, goals. Marcelo Bielsa, and his thinking, may unshackle this tournament and maybe, on the highest and widest frequencies, re-shape the sport.