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Bielsaball for the People
Monday, 21st Dec 2020 09:13 by Lucas Monk

In the wake of Manchester United’s routing of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, the knives of the mainstream English footballing press are well and truly out for the Argentine.

“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

The man who penned the words quoted above was an American writer called Jack London, who for much of his career expressed fierce support for radical politics, trade unionism, workers’ rights and socialism. He died at the age of forty in 1916, three years prior to the foundation of Leeds United Football Club. Now, if you are no literature bore, this is likely the first you have heard of the man, but think about his words. Reflect upon his words. Return to them once you have finished reading this article.

Yesterday saw Leeds United suffer a bruising 6-2 defeat at the home of their fiercest rivals. The Whites were trailing by two goals after three minutes, courtesy of Scott McTominay’s double. By the 66th minute of the match, Daniel James had put the Red Devils 6-1 ahead.

Leeds attacked from first to last. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 4-1, 5-1, 6-1, 6-2. The score, the scale of the supposed humiliation, mattered not one jot. They kept going, kept rolling the boulder up the steep hill with no fear that it may roll back down and knock them off their feet once again. To supposedly neutral and impartial observers, this was absurd. There was no rationale for it.

To my mind, it is rather simple. Those players believe in what Marcelo Bielsa is asking of them. They believe in him and his ideals implicitly. So do I. So too, I should imagine, do the vast majority of Leeds supporters.

You see, what many of these vacuous rent-a-gobs in the media appear to misunderstand is the very nature of Bielsaball itself. It is no mere style. It is no mere tactical approach. Bielsa is a socialist, as was London. Through the eyes of the pair, life is an opportunity to find happiness, to seek pleasure, to appreciate the beautiful and the odd, to forge new bonds with others. It is at the most fundamental level something one lives. Bielsaball is if nothing else a wonderful expression of this.

With this in mind, that the most fervent devotees of the Premier League - and by extension exorbitant transfer fees, obscene financial doping and the rampant commodification of the people’s sport - are so contemptuous of Bielsa and his philosophy is no surprise. It could be that to complain about this is akin to complaining about the weather. It may well be a futile exercise. On the other hand, the opinions of the likes of Chris Sutton, whose experience of football management consists only of a distinctly underwhelming spell in charge of the gargantuan Lincoln City, appear to hold a certain sway. Therefore, I feel obligated to challenge them. They are dangerous people. The luminous lucre appears to have blinded these people, to have obscured the truth from their jaundiced view. They thus peddle all manner of folderol and it is deeply harmful to the sport.

Whenever Leeds lose a match, this word naive keeps cropping up in the columns of the likes of Chris Sutton. Leeds are hopelessly naive. Bielsa is hopelessly naive. They will suffer relegation unless they tighten up and become more compact. This is their way of stating that they perceive Bielsa to be an idiot. That they perceive you to be an idiot. These are the gatekeepers, these guardians of the beautiful game, and the best they can do amounts to saying that you and I and Leeds United at large do not deserve nice things. To be naive would be to believe such deadening and defeatist platitudes.

English football thinking is antediluvian. The likes of Chris Sutton “just know” that Bielsa is a mad idealist who will get Leeds relegated. They “just know” that the sensible course is to play like Burnley or Newcastle, to put every man behind the ball and pray that your illustrious opponents do you no harm, rather than trying to do them harm yourselves. Back in the day, many journalists and managers and pundits - the English football establishment, no less - “just knew” that black footballers “lacked bottle” or that long-ball was “the right way to play the game”. People like horrific racist coprolite Ron Noades and Wing Commander Charles Reep are no extinct species. Idiots still exist. It just so happens that the effluent they spout is more palatable in today’s supposedly wokeified world.

Could Leeds United achieve more if they adopted reactive tactics, as do Burnley, as will West Bromwich Albion under Sam Allardyce? Who knows? Who cares? To even pose the question is to miss the point as horrendously as Luke Varney missed that open goal against Southampton in 2012. For Bielsa, even if such reactive tactics were more optimal, it would still be wrong to embrace them. The means are arguably more important than the ends.

Now, English football’s chattering classes are no intellectuals. They spout a lot of nonsense. They still think formations are rigid structures that teams never deviate from during the course of a match. They are, though, surely not so stupid as to believe, as did Wing Commander Reep, that the long punt upfield is football’s deus ex machina. To my mind, when these people tell Leeds United to tighten up, be compact and play it safe, what they are really telling Leeds United to do is to get back in their lane and stop rocking the apple cart.

Premier League, Premier Greed. The likes of Chris Sutton do very well out of peddling their nonsense to the football-loving masses of this country. It is not at all in their interest for somebody like Bielsa to have arrived at Leeds, to have educated us, to have awakened all of us to the reality that we were being mugged off for decades, that there is and always has been an alternative. To view football as one might view life, as an opportunity to do and feel amazing things.

Take Burnley’s football. It is dour and defensive and cynical and sanity-sapping. Their supporters should despise it, but they do not. It works. It keeps them in the league. Indeed, the likes of Chris Sutton praise Burnley for it, even when the Clarets have taken yet another arrant hammering from Man City (whereas Bielsa’s Leeds took a point off them at the first attempt). They failed, but they failed in the right way.

Let us look at Burnley’s football from the Bielsa/London perspective. It is essentially reactive, in that Burnley are more happy for others to do things to them rather than doing things themselves; adherence to it therefore is often rather like flinging oneself to the feet of the opponent and begging for mercy (quite naive, no?); it bores everybody to tears; the only real purpose it serves is to satisfy the interests and the egos of the wealthy businessmen on the Burnley board. From this perspective, a melange of cynical, self-interested people are mugging the ragged-trousered Burnley diehards, and the latter do not even know it.

Bielsaball is the antithesis to all that. Bielsaball is for the people. What it understands is that football truly belongs to the people, that it means the world to them, that it often means most to people who turn to it to escape the deadening humdrum of their daily lives. What it seeks to achieve is to entertain the people, to expose them to emotions like hope and joy, to capture their imagination. It says no to the idea that one has to be cynical and nasty and to know their place to get by in the world, a particularly noxious idea that poisons not only football but life itself.

Bielsaball does the sport, and those who truly love it, justice. So to the likes of Chris Sutton, the answer is no. Marcelo Bielsa will not change and nor will Leeds United. The philosophy that has brought hundreds of thousands of supporters the world over unbridled joy and a fabled old club back to the top is here to stay.

Come the end of the season, Bielsa will not only have kept this club well clear of relegation, he will have taught millions that football is something that we should enjoy. That this is a radical view is a sad indictment of the extent to which football has deserted its values and the people to whom it truly belongs, you and I, but it is the only honest course.

It may be that at some point the spark of Bielsaball burns out in a brilliant blaze. Whether it does or whether it does not should not be a matter of concern. We will have lived rather than existed.

Photo: Action Images

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