A few months after moving to Chile to become the national team coach, or so the story goes, Marcelo Bielsa decided to buy a car. Heading along to a showroom, the Argentinian picked out an old make now used only by taxi drivers, the type of car he once drove in Mexico during his time in charge at Atlas and America. The showroom owner told him a new model was now available, with no frills or fancy trimmings. Known for his taste for the understated things in life, Bielsa accepted the owner’s offer and drove away with his unremarkable new purchase, which, thanks to him, has since become one of the best-selling cars in Chile.

That anecdote is typical of the man they call El Loco and underlines the impact he has had in his adopted homeland since guiding the national team back to the FIFA World Cup™ finals for the first time in 12 years. The manner in which they achieved qualification, finishing second in the South American Zone behind Brazil and playing some exciting, attacking football in the process, has brought further praise Bielsa’s way. All that remains to be seen now is whether he can earn the kind of adulation that the people of Korea Republic lavished on Dutch tactician Guus Hiddink after their run to fourth place at Korea/Japan 2002.

Hands across the Andes
In the eyes of many Chileans, however, Bielsa has already become a national idol. Moreover, his achievements with La Roja have not gone unnoticed over the border in Argentina, bringing together two countries that have had their fair share of historical and political differences on and off the pitch over the years. As a mark of this thawing in relations, Chilean fans no longer sing offensive songs about their neighbours on the other side of the Andes and the usual climate of mutual animosity has cooled considerably in recent times.  

Following the debacle of Korea/Japan 2002, when his Argentina side were eliminated in the first round, Bielsa’s recent success represents some kind of redemption. And, for the time being at least, Chile is very much his home.

“Marcelo is very happy. He feels right at home,” said his brother Rafael, Argentina’s former foreign secretary. “He can do things there that he can’t in Argentina, like go to the theatre, for example, the kind of things you can only do in a place where you feel comfortable. He could stay a bit longer in Rosario every now and then, but he always wants to get back to Santiago as soon as he can.”

Bielsa is a popular figure wherever he goes now. Attending a Santiago theatre a few months ago, the normally shy and retiring coach stood to acknowledge the applause of the audience after the actors demanded an ovation for him.

I’ve just been travelling around ... and I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Every conversation I had was a glimmer of hope for all the people who are in pain right now. I hope these people can rebuild what they lost and keep on going.

Marcelo Bielsa on life in Chile after the earthquake

The Argentinian maestro undoubtedly feels more comfortable in the bunker he has had built at the Juan Pinto Duran Sports Complex, Chile’s national team headquarters. When he took on the job in August 2007, Bielsa ordered the complete renovation of the complex, having it converted it into a 5-star residence for the players and having a bedroom and office built for himself. Typically of the man, he spends much of his time there, turning down more luxurious accommodation in the more well-to-do areas of the Chilean capital.

Man of the year
La Roja fans cannot get enough of their saviour. Voted Personality of the Year in 2009 by several media outlets, the Bielsa story has filled thousands of column inches in the country’s newspapers and occupied lots of TV airtime. On top of that, a biography of Bielsa was published at the end of 2009 along with a book of quotes and stories about his life and an account of Chile’s South Africa 2010 qualification campaign. The three publications spent several weeks in the list of the country’s top ten bestsellers.  

Known for his reluctance to talk to the media outside press conferences, Bielsa broke his silence after visiting the areas worst affected by the terrible earthquake that struck Chile in late February. On his return to Santiago, he gave a brief interview to a well-known presenter during a 27-hour telethon held to raise funds for the victims.

“It’s always good to talk. But there’s never been a better time than now to say what you think or feel,” he said. “I’ve just been travelling around Constitucion [a city south of the Chilean capital of Santiago] and I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Every conversation I had was a glimmer of hope for all the people who are in pain right now. I hope these people can rebuild what they lost and keep on going.”

His style of leadership at the helm of the national side has even made him a sought-after speaker. Last November, hundreds of business people and opinion leaders gathered at a Santiago conference centre to hear Bielsa give his views on business management, regulations and principles. Using the football world to illustrate his points, the coach enthralled his audience in a presentation lasting the best part of two hours. 

Asked about the qualities a good leader needs, Bielsa put it thus: “When a leader walks into a dressing room, there's a pause in the chatter, and when he speaks, everyone stops talking. If he cracks a joke that nobody would find funny ordinarily, everyone still laughs.”

It is a description that can just as easily be applied to the disarmingly modest speaker of those words, a born leader now inspiring devotion and admiration on both sides of the southern Andes.