Argentinian tactician Marcelo Bielsa was elevated to the status of national hero in Chile after guiding La Roja to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, their first appearance at the world finals since France 1998. The man they call El Loco took it all in his stride, however, having grown accustomed to achieving unlikely goals during the course of his illustrious coaching career.
Born in Argentina’s second-largest city of Rosario, Bielsa rarely shone as a defender with his hometown club of Newell’s Old Boys. It was only after he retired as a player that he began to make a real impact in the game, taking charge of La Lepra in his first coaching job and winning the league championship with them in 1991 and again in 1992, when they also finished runners-up in the Copa Libertadores. From there, it was on to Mexico for stints with Atlas and America prior to a return to Argentina to win the 1998 Clausura with Velez Sarsfield.
A spell in command at Espanyol in Spain was followed by his appointment as Argentina’s national coach, a job in which he would experience all the highs and lows that football can bring. It all started well enough as his Albiceleste side sauntered through the qualifiers for the Korea/Japan 2002. But then came disaster and their first-round elimination in a tournament they had been widely tipped to win. Heavily criticised by the Argentinian media, he stayed in the job until 2004, standing down just weeks after his U-23 side had won gold at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004.
Out of the limelight for the next three years, he was lured back to management by the Chilean FA, who presented him with their vision for the future of the national side. Following extensive negotiations, El Loco eventually decamped to Santiago in August 2007, his brief being to secure qualification for South Africa 2010.
Moulding an entertaining, attack-minded side, Bielsa achieved his mission in style. Not afraid to take the game to the continent’s heavyweights, the young and ambitious Chileans secured their first ever FIFA World Cup qualifying win over Argentina and followed up with valuable away victories in Peru, Paraguay and Colombia to finish second in the CONMEBOL Zone on 33 points, just one behind Brazil. In the process, Bielsa won the adulation of his adopted country and once again earned the recognition of the international footballing community.