By quitting as Chile coach, Bielsa showed he won't sit on the fence
Chile has been rocked by the resignation of coach Marcelo Bielsa
Bielsa quit when Harold Mayne-Nicholls was voted out as AFNC chairman
Fans have protested by creating a website to petition for Bielsa's return
The incredible fall of the most successful leadership in Chilean football in the past half century took place last week. Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the chairman of the National Football Association (AFNC) was voted out; in his place the Spanish businessman, Jorge Segovia, owner of a football club now stands. Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine manager they call "El Loco," who had set hearts alights with his romantic vision of soccer, quit his post as national manager, having already forewarned that he "could not and would not work with Mr. Segovia."
In Chile, neighboring Argentina, and much of the Spanish Americas, the many levels of political intrigue and subtle nuances of business interests have dominated the sports pages and other sections of the press for the past few days. But there is a sense in which what's happening in Chile is relevant for all; soccer does not exist in a vacuum. It is a game which awakens deep emotions and passions, and a spectacle which generates massive revenues. Where love and money meet.
Under Mayne-Nicholls, Chile's national soccer turned into an example of how things could be done well. Its facilities and methods became the model its South American neighbors aspired to. State of the art installations combined with a huge respect for the manager's freedom and right to work as he saw fit, saw the country at the receiving end of the world's praise during the 2010 World Cup. Mayne-Nicholls headed the FIFA committee to inspect England among other candidates to host the 2018 WC. In May this year he was awarded "businessman of the year" accolades by the newspaper El Mercurio and the management consulting firm Ernst & Young.
But as Mayne-Nicholls himself put it in a speech last week, some of his actions turned into a sore "stone in the shoes of the most powerful." He fought -- and achieved -- a distribution of the TV revenue among the football clubs which the bigger clubs saw as disadvantageous. Chile's clubs were turned into private companies owned by shareholders some years ago, emulating the English model, for instance, as opposed to the nonprofit membership run system which is still by law the structure in Argentina. The main shareholders in the bigger clubs, and Chile's president Sebastian Piņera is one of them, joined forces to first erect and then elect a suitable candidate to oppose Mayne-Nicholls. This turned out to be Jorge Segovia.
One illustration of the contrasting views of Segovia and Bielsa is their appraisal of the role of the soccer fan. Whereas Bielsa spoke candidly of the importance of the fan, the indispensable nature of the fan for the game of soccer, Segovia shrugged off such relevance stating that "the fans don't vote." Segovia won the election with the vote of the executives, while the fans turned in masses to protest; their laments went viral on the web, and a website named "17 million madmen" has begun the task of accumulating virtual "signatures" to petition Bielsa to continue in the post.
How to manage modern soccer is the challenge facing all nations which hold the game dear. The club versus country dichotomy is neither new nor peculiar to Chile. There are many examples of how the one can harm or disadvantage the other and few of how to reconcile the conflicts between them in the modern age. It is not a simple black and white distinction; clubs matter more or national competition is more important ... rather, there is a delicate balance to be sought, and we are all in the learning curve.
Chile's modernization of soccer has a lot to commend it, and we know that bankrupt clubs are a drain on any industry. Yet Bielsa's gripe with Segovia has been couched in terms of methodology, and under the addition on not knowing the man, supported with examples of ways in which the treatment of players has fallen short of Bielsa's own ludicrously high standards.
He has come under criticism for this. A biography of the man published this month in Buenos Aires is subtitled "the last romantic" -- perhaps a perfect summation of the contrasts by which we like to define soccer anyway: romantics versus pragmatists or attacking versus defending -- but for many the running of the business of soccer cannot be adequately sustained by romance and passion alone.
Some feel Bielsa overstepped his remit by getting involved in perceived judgments of the political. His cold reaction to the hero's welcome the team received after the World Cup, and his visible lack of interest in president Piņera's effusive reception, were seen by many as unfriendly to say the least.
But Bielsa's unswerving commitment to ideals, albeit in terms of lineups and tactical drawings, is the kind of romantic and noble purism of days gone by which the men of football rarely show these days.
Piņera may be an opportunistic president who retains his shares in one of the biggest clubs in the country in order to remain linked to popular sentiment. In the same way that the president of France has to question the shenanigans of France's Football Association after a particularly chaotic performance at a World Cup, or that Chelsea Clinton had to be seen cheering with Bill when the U.S. hosted the tournament in 1994. Democracies elect leaders who appeal to the most voters, and soccer's popularity will be ignored by those seeking such mass appeal at their peril.
The relationship between soccer and politics has been rocky in Chile too, as in most countries where the sport has mattered and had to coexist with harsh realities. Under General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, those deemed enemies of the ruling class were executed in the main football stadium. The USSR asked to relocate a match due to take place there in 1973, but FIFA refused and Chile qualified automatically while the Russians were eliminated by default. The overwhelming positive impact of soccer can also be observed though, and more recently one of the trapped miners who captivated the world with their heroic story of survival emerged from the life-saving capsule to perform keepy-uppy tricks -- the miner's rescue, incidentally, was watched live by more viewers than the World Cup.
Chile's relationship with soccer is by no means over, and the country deserves to continue the fantastic work started by Mayne-Nicholls and Bielsa, even under a different leadership. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Bielsa's committed stance is the refusal to sit on the fence: many managers in the modern game do not bring philosophical principles to bear when taking on a job. In Chile, the expression for those who are neither one thing nor another is ni chicha ni limonada. Not so Marcelo Bielsa.