Within 48 hours of Marcelo Bielsa being sacked, the 66-year-old was rocked by a wave of emotion. There were tears and hugs with the crowd who turned out to see him leave the Leeds United training ground for the final time. It was all they could do to keep him from disappearing without a goodbye.
When he finally left England, Bielsa left quietly and later than expected, with his booking delayed by COVID-19 regulations in his native South America. He and his wife Laura have organized a short vacation in Brazil, a break for him after three and a half incomparable years in Leeds. After that, he was back home in Maximo Paz, south of Rosario in northern Argentina, to think about what’s next.
For Bielsa, there will certainly be job offers in the coming weeks and reports in his part of the world indicate Colombia want him as their next head coach after sacking Reinaldo Rueda, their 12-month starter, on Monday. In the meantime, he is likely to keep his lawyer and keep his distance from the public eye. So far, fitness trainer Benoit Delaval is the only Bielsa staff member at Leeds to speak publicly about his dismissal.
In Yorkshire, it was hard not to wonder when or if anyone would hear from Bielsa.
Luke Ayling, one of the players who has thrived the most under him, spoke for many people when he said that “the saddest thing (about Bielsa leaving) is not knowing if we see you again”. Which raised questions for the fans he also left behind: how best to thank him for giving Leeds the time of their lives? How to reach a man who was content to fade into the background and lock himself in?
A month ago, a group of supporters studied the possibility of publishing a message to Bielsa in an Argentine newspaper, with the aim of attracting his attention and saying their article. The band wasn’t looking for individual publicity, and when it came to writing the ad itself, they didn’t want their name on it. They would contribute to cover the costs and let the message speak for itself, hoping that the news would reach him.
Last weekend it appeared in La Capital, Rosario’s largest daily and a publication as close to home as any for Bielsa.
For a cost of just under £350, the band released a full-page advert in Saturday’s edition featuring a tribute that has been making waves across Argentina and beyond. Saturday was a good time to post: cheaper than Sunday, the most expensive day to print a newspaper ad, and the day after an Argentine league match between Newell’s Old Boys and Patronato in Rosario.
“Saturday is the day people take to the newspaper for sports news,” says Jamie Ralph, a longtime Newell fan who runs a dedicated Twitter account for the club and helped organize the announcement in La Capitale. “The fact that Newell was playing at home the night before meant that many fans would buy it on Saturday and see the message next to the game report.
“We had been telling Leeds fans about it for three or four weeks before and now seemed like the best time.”
Through a mutual appreciation of Bielsa, Ralph and his friend Nicolas Bloj had become intermediaries for Leeds supporters who developed an interest in Newell’s and traveled to Rosario to watch them play. The connection between Newell’s and Leeds has grown to the point that, according to Ralph, at least one Leeds fan has been seen at each of Newell’s league matches this season. Bloj got in touch with La Capital to start the conversation about securing advertising space and agreeing on a price.
“The repercussions have been enormous,” says Bloj. “When I say huge, I mean (the announcement) was talked about by every major newspaper, sports program and radio show in Argentina.”
La Capital has printed an accompanying article explaining the message and the process of its publication. The newspaper’s comments indicate that no other online piece in her story has gone viral in the same way. The official FIFA Twitter account was one of many to respond to a tweet about it on Saturday morning.
The message to Bielsa was discreet and a little enigmatic, mainly in Spanish but published under the English title “Thank you Marcelo”. There was no mention of Leeds United by name. The text of the ad also did not include Bielsa’s last name. But to him, and to anyone in the know, the references were obvious:
“We were in sunny August 2018, mesmerized by football we didn’t know was possible.
“And we felt something again.
“You reminded us that football can be beautiful and a team can be greater than the sum of its parts. Side before self.
“And you gave us so much more than football. You got us through a pandemic and brought us together when we were all apart.
“You have shown us that integrity and decency matter, in good times and bad.
“You have embraced our fears and turned our despair into hope and our footballers into heroes. You have made us all better.
“You have restored our pride, given us joy and created precious memories that will last a lifetime.
“And it was magnificent, Marcelo. And it will always be beautiful. Thank you.’
Ralph double-checked the text with the group that wrote it when the first draft of the message arrived.
“I wanted to make sure they realized there was no mention of Leeds and that they didn’t do this by accident,” he says. “Also, there was no ‘Bielsa’ – only ‘Marcelo’. But they had given it a lot of thought and they knew what they were doing. They knew he would understand and they knew that the people who followed Bielsa and Leeds, or who had been involved in that climate, would understand that too.
“The only thing they didn’t want was for their names to be matched or for the attention to fall on them as individual fans. They wanted the message to have the impact, which it really does.
Radio 2, a Rosario station, invited Ralph and Bloj to their flagship Monday morning show to talk about it.
“People outside of Rosario don’t know much about La Capital,” says Ralph. “But on the weekends, it was talked about all over the world. The guy who sold the ad has reached out to say the news article is the most viral in the paper’s history. It brought them so much traffic and attention.
In the UK, supporters began looking for ways to acquire copies of Saturday’s paper.
Bea Baguley, an England-based Leeds fan, had considered getting one for her partner Jonathan and asked on Twitter if any other fans would like to send one of Rosario. By the end of play on Monday – a deliberate limit set after a deluge of interest – she had pledged to ship nearly 250, with the help of a friend in Argentina. “And that doesn’t include people who want more than one,” she says. “I’m an accountant by trade so I’m pretty good at organizing things, but the response has been much bigger than I expected.
“I’m seven months pregnant, so I warned my husband that he might end up posting them when they arrive!” We’ve been inundated with requests for them, which I guess isn’t surprising when you think about it. The message was lovely and probably one of the nicest things that could have happened after (Bielsa) left.
“He has done so much for us. I’m as much a Bielsa fan as anything these days.
Bielsa has not publicly responded to the announcement, but it is believed he at least received a picture of it. “He’s known for reading all the papers cover to cover, and he has family and friends in Rosario,” Ralph says. “It went all over Argentina, so it was only a matter of time before someone told him about it.”
It was gracias, et adios, to a light that will never go out.
(Main graphic — Photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)