It is safe to say that Marcelo Bielsa, while not exactly unaccustomed to lifting silverware, may have been at least a little rusty on the procedure. Amid the torrents of praise that the Argentine coach has received throughout his career, it is nevertheless telling that prior to the current season his last trophy came all the way back in 2004, when he led an Argentina team containing the talents of Carlos Tevez, Gabriel Heinze, Andres D'Alessandro and a young Javier Mascherano to Olympic Games gold in Athens.
Sixteen long years have passed since that memorable win at the birthplace of the Games, and no less than 22 since ‘El Loco’ took Vélez Sarsfield to Clausura glory for his last club success. And while many may look down on the status of the Championship win that he delivered for Leeds United on Wednesday, the raucous celebrations around the West Yorkshire city prove that this latest crown – and more importantly, the promotion to the Premier League that comes with it – only adds to Bielsa's mystique as one of football's most eccentric, brilliant minds.
Leeds' ticket back to the English top flight following 16 years in the cold – coincidentally, they originally suffered the drop in the midst of financial meltdown, just months before Argentina took the field in the Olympics under Bielsa's guidance – was secured last Friday when promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion lost to Huddersfield. First place in the intensely competitive division arrived the following day with Brentford's dropped points, and the Whites shook off any ill-effects of their festivities to finish the marathon 46-game campaign with two impressive victories.
The latter came at Elland Road, still silent due to restrictions on supporters' presence necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Bielsa and his charges did not pass up the chance to continue their revelling, the coach donning a rather ill-fitting shirt bearing the legend 'Champions 20.' Outside the gates of the closed stadium, Leeds fans earlier feted the Rosario native outside his modest residence on the outskirts of the city, with Bielsa demonstrating the warmness of spirit and approachable manner that along with his dynamic attacking football has made him an unlikely idol in the space of just two seasons.
“He is a genius. One of those people you can say are up there with the best in the world, with Pelé, Maradona or Messi,” ex-Colombia midfielder Harold Lozano, who played under Bielsa in Mexico with América, gushed to Radio Caracol when asked about his former mentor. “That is why he can sometimes come across as misunderstood, but one thing is sure: everything he says, no matter how complex, in the end has a clear message.”
Whether Bielsa will continue to weave his magic in the top flight next season remains uncertain. Like any Premier League newcomer Leeds will need to undertake a hefty investment in new players to compete with the elite, but conditions going into 2020-2021 promise to be far from straightforward. Any side going up enjoys the benefit of a huge increase in income befitting those who form part of football's richest league; this, however, will have to be tempered against the catastrophic loss of revenues occasioned by Covid-19 these last four months and potentially for some time yet to come. El Loco, a perfectionist who borders on obsessive when it comes to planning, rarely tolerates broken promises from his employers and should Leeds be unable to provide the support he believes necessary for the coming season, it would be no surprise to see him end his association with the club before another ball is even kicked.
Such an outcome would be hard to stomach for the Leeds faithful and for the Premier League as a whole, which would undoubtedly benefit from Bielsa's unorthodox presence. One can only hope that, following this enthralling two-year adventure to return the Whites to the promised land, the coach believes they have what it takes to make an impact on the top flight and stays true to the thousands of fans that have accepted him as one of their own since 2018.