Argentina and Chile, separated only the majestic Andes, make up one of the fiercest rivalries in South American football. That said, over the years a very small number of gifted individuals - Marcelo Salas, Marcelo Espina and Claudio Borghi to name a few - have managed to bridge the divide and achieve iconic status among fans of both countries.
Now, it is the turn of Marcelo Bielsa to try and make the transition. The coach who held the reins of the Albiceleste between 1998 and 2004 took charge of the Chilean national team this month as the squad gear up for the start of the South American qualifiers for South Africa 2010. Read on as FIFA.com brings you the story of this football fanatic who has never been afraid to follow his convictions in dealing with players or the press.
A man of character
Born in the Argentinian province of Santa Fe in 1955, Marcelo Bielsa has demonstrated strength of character throughout his life. Even as a youngster, he showed a willingness to go against the tide, opting to support Newell's Old Boys instead of neighbours and eternal rivals Rosario Central, the team his father passionately followed.
His second and even more decisive break with tradition came at the moment of choosing a career. Born into a family steeped in politics and law, El Loco (the Crazy One), as he came to be known, upset the apple cart by dedicating himself to the beautiful game, a sport that still enthrals him to this day. His vocation was in stark contrast to that of his older brother, Rafael, who would go on to become chancellor and then governor of Buenos Aires province. "I come from a family of professionals, but they never objected to my choice of vocation," says the coach. "I wanted to become a footballer, and so I did - albeit a not very successful one, although I did play for Newell's first team," adds Bielsa, who, after hanging up his boots at the age of 25, went on to qualify as a Physical Education teacher.
Perhaps it was this move that cemented the Argentinian's preference for wearing sports clothing - even today he can rarely be seen in a suit. With his distinctive gait and impenetrable gaze, this married father of two teenage girls still keeps a close eye on his waistline, jogging regularly, opting always for mineral water and treating himself to just the occasional few sweets.
As for the coach's other interests, he remains an avid reader and collector of football videos, and is kept busy by his passion for countryside living. In fact, since stepping down as Argentina coach in September 2004, he has managed to combine these pursuits almost completely out of the public eye. Until now that is.
Dealing with the press
Just as he did during his time at the helm of Argentina, Bielsa still refuses to grant exclusive interviews, explaining: "Every section of the media should get the same attention from me, from the capital's most prominent TV channel to the smallest newspaper in the provinces." Understandably then, the press conference has become his preferred method of communication.
Such is the coach's passion for his chosen sport, that he has been known to field every last question from the assembled media during these gatherings. And if the talk turns to the intricacies of the beautiful game, a three- or even four-hour press conference is not out of the question. That said, as Bielsa has confessed on more that one occasion, it is only those journalists whose work he respects that he really connects with.
Mad about the game
A fanatic of football videos, Bielsa leaves nothing to chance when it comes to match preparation and is clear about his preferred footballing style. "I feel good when my teams spend more time attacking than defending," says the coach, whose working methods can be anything but conventional. More that once, the 52-year-old has checked pitch measurements by pacing them out before deciding on a particular formation.
The Rosario-born tactician has even surprised some of his former charges with his unusual methods, such as allocating separate training times for different parts of his squad. "Sometimes we wouldn't see any of the strikers, because he'd have them training at a different time, and it was the same with the midfielders. He's an innovator, and one of the people who I've learned most from during my career," says former international Roberto Ayala.
Three years ago, saying he had "insufficient energy" to carry on, the extroverted tactician stood down as national team coach after leading Argentina to their first Olympic Football title. Now, after a complete break from football, the Argentinian is back, this time at the helm of La Roja, whose fortunes he hopes to revive with his inimitable brand of hard work, honesty and passion.
As fate would have it, his first official assignment (friendlies aside) pits him against his native Argentina in Buenos Aires for Chile's opening qualifier for South Africa 2010. It is a thrilling prospect and one that could go a long way towards winning over the fans on the Chilean side of the Andes.