For a country that has known its share of idols with feet of clay, Chile’s current romance with its national soccer team’s head coach is particularly intriguing.
Spurning the limelight, the interviews, and anything that even faintly smells like the trappings of fame, Bielsa when in Chile leads the life of a hermit, a hermit trapped in a city of six million.
And yet, in their own way, Chile and Bielsa have formed a bond which Chileans can only hope lasts beyond this 2010 World Cup. Feeling far less pressure than when he coached his native Argentina, Bielsa has shown in his own inimitable way that he likes it in Chile, traveling the length of the country offering seminars on leadership, reading books on Chilean history, or simply chatting up schoolchildren who want his autograph.
Meanwhile, the Chileans, thirsty for success as always, are so grateful for the wins the workaholic Bielsa has wrought, that they never miss a chance to let him know they love him, even if they barely see him on TV.
The devastating earthquake that shredded Chile in late February, tightened the bonds between the Argentinean and Chile.
He traveled to Constitucion, one of the cities hit hardest by the earthquake and by a subsequent tsunami, and then during a fund-raising telethon, he broke his own rule about no one-on-one interviews to send a message.
“Every conversation I had was a breath of optimism about your [people’s] future. These people will rebuild what they lost, for sure,” he told TV personality Mario Kreutzberger.
Of course, Chile’s infatuation with Bielsa started far earlier than the day when the earth began to shake.
A team that had qualified to the 1998 World Cup on the shoulders of superstars Ivan Zamorano and Marcelo Salas, had fallen on lean times, with a last-place finish in the 2002 qualifiers under inexperienced coach Juvenal Olmos and a revolving door of coaches that had ended with 1998 World Cup coach Nelson Acosta resigning in disgrace in 2007.
Acosta’s players had trashed their hotel rooms during the South American Championship known as Copa America, held in Venezuela that year.
Bielsa, himself persona non grata in his homeland after earning a first-round exit in the 2002 World Cup, had earned a bit of respect back, winning the gold in the 2004 Olympics.
He had resigned a month later, still besieged by criticism over the 2002 flop. By 2007, he had not coached in three years, when Chile’s pro soccer association president Harold Mayne-Nichols came calling.
Three months prior to the start of the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, Mayne-Nichols had his man. Against international critics’ predictions of a mismatch, Bielsa signed with Chile.
Three years later, Chileans would love nothing more than to hear Bielsa say he will stay and lead Chile to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Mayne-Nichols said he will try to get Bielsa to stay and Bielsa has said he will not talk about a contract extension until after the 2010 Cup is over.
In the meantime, the Chileans are enjoying the many fruits of Bielsa’s labor. Forget the first-ever World Cup win against Argentina, the first win in 48 years in a World Cup finals, the first win 28 years in Paraguay and the first win in 25 years in Lima.
Above all achievements, Bielsa has bathed his team in the cleansing waters of humility, leading by example (he did not cash in his paychecks for over a year, living in austerity off his own savings), and putting together a young, ego-less buch that has remained squeaky-clean, tabloid-free and playing some of the best soccer the planet has seen during this World Cup.