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SPORTS | 17-05-2023 23:22

Bielsa appointment is a coup for the Uruguay – can he drag them into this century?

Ignoring Argentine dominance of the world game just keeps getting harder...

A Marcelo Bielsa press conference is invariably fertile ground for fans of deadpan, slightly surreal quips. On Wednesday, the man known as ‘El Loco’ did not disappoint, enchanting listeners as he was introduced as the new coach of the Uruguay national team.

More than 300 journalists were present in Montevideo to hear what Bielsa had to say about his first job since leaving Leeds United a year ago. He had a sobering message to deliver. “I think the expectations here are out of proportion,” he warned, while at the same time noting that Uruguay “can fantasise [about winning the World Cup] and have enough about them to feed that fantasy.” He also expounded upon his deep admiration for Uruguay, pointing to the time he arrived in the nation's capital to spend a romantic weekend away with his wife and ended up staying two months. A positive start, then, and if he can keep it up both on and off the pitch there is no reason why Bielsa cannot join the great José ‘Pepe’ Mujica as Uruguay's most beloved eccentric, somewhat grouchy old men.

The appointment of the Rosario native is clearly a coup for the Celeste, who are looking to overhaul a team long on talent but which has let itself down through timid play across the last decade under Óscar Tábarez and Diego Alonso. The World Cup in Qatar demonstrated the Uruguay with eloquence: equipped with the players to unveil an expansive, intense attacking game the nation instead retreated back into its spiky shell, relying on the myth of the hard-tackling Garra Charrúa and crashing out with a whimper in the first round.

Bielsa at least has the knowledge and personality to drag Uruguay into this century, though it remains to be seen how he takes to international coaching a full 13 years after bringing an end to his extremely fruitful partnership with Chile. On a wider note, his appointment continues a startling domination of CONMEBOL benches on the part of the reigning World Cup champions. No fewer than seven of the confederation's 10 members boast an Argentine as head coach, a number that could be even higher had Gustavo Alfaro and Ricardo Gareca not walked out on Ecuador and Peru respectively towards the end of 2022. And there is still one job open: could Brazil take the plunge on a neighbour and make it a crazy eight?

 

A foot in both camps

Indeed, ignoring Argentine dominance of the world game just keeps getting harder. Saturday sees Javier Mascherano begin his do-over at the Under-20 helm as they kick off the World Cup in Santiago del Estero against mysterious Uzbekistan, the start of three weeks of elite youth football across the nation.

Only slightly older, Lautaro Martínez and Julián Álvarez are also flying the flag. Both World Cup winners found the net midweek to send Inter and Manchester City through to the Champions League final, to be played next month in Istanbul. And because absolutely everything here is black and white, debate has begun in earnest over which brilliant young striker is more brilliant than the other. Julián has proved a sparkling addition to City's already shining all-star team, adapting with ease to the English and European game; while so important has Lautaro been to Inter's fortunes that it is hard to see them anywhere near this showpiece game without his all-round talents and (notoriously absent in Qatar but now back with a vengeance) knack for finding the net. 

In summary, this column holds both aces in the highest esteem and, rear end planted firmly on the fence, hopes they can both impress in Istanbul – while the real winner is none other than Lionel Scaloni and his embarrassment of riches at centre-forward. 

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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