The Quest for Happiness
Marcelo Bielsa’s management has always examined his own soul
“I am a specialist in failures, but let me tell you that I do know successful people who are not happy in their lives and, conversely, I do know unsuccessful people who are happy in theirs.”
“Marcelo Bielsa is the best coach in the world,” said Pep Guardiola in a press conference in February 2017, when the Argentinian was appointed by French side Lille. “I truly don’t know how many titles he has won throughout his career, but that fact is not as important for me as his influence on the players he has worked with. My admiration for him is huge because he always improves his players.”
Guardiola and Bielsa had only met once without cameras being present. It was in 2006, when the former Barcelona midfielder had just called time on his playing career after a spell with the Mexican side Dorados de Sinaloa. Aged 35, he decided to become a coach. He remembered back then a piece of advice given to him by a former teammate at Roma, the great Argentinian striker Gabriel Batistuta. “Pep, whenever you decide to become a coach, I strongly recommend you to talk to Bielsa – you will not regret it.”
Batistuta had been coached by Bielsa with the Argentina national team between 1998 and 2002 and even now, when asked about him, he maintains that he was the best coach he ever had. “And I had many coaches in my career, you know, but he was the one who really made an impact on me.”
The encounter between Guardiola and Bielsa has been sufficiently documented, reconstructed in the media since the former became a world-class manager. However, a small detail of that 11-hour meeting in 2006 has remained largely unremarked upon: when Guardiola visited Bielsa at his home on the outskirts of Rosario, the Argentinian was voluntarily unemployed and had been away from football since 2004.
He was engaged in finding results in another field at that moment – he was pursuing happiness.
Bielsa had unexpectedly left the Argentina national team after winning gold in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, in the middle of the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup. He remained frustrated with Argentina’s shocking elimination from the 2002 World Cup in the first round. (He still is.)
“I have realised that I have no longer the energy required for the task,” Bielsa admitted in a press conference.
“Don’t you think it is a poor explanation for the papers to put tomorrow in their headlines that the national team coach resigned because he didn’t have energy?” a journalist inquired.
‘What do you suggest?’ asked Bielsa.
“Well, a headline.”
“Well, you can put, ‘Grave disease makes him have no energy.’ That would be more effective, yes. I recommend this headline to you. If this were the headline of the paper tomorrow, I would buy it for sure.”
His frustration and even embarrassment were so unbearable, so intolerable after unexpectedly leaving the national team, that he spent three months locked in a monastery.
That is a literal truth: ashamed and overwhelmed, still under systematic attack by the sensationalist but also by the serious, well-respected media in Argentina, he hid himself from the spotlight in a convent, lived with nuns and shared their daily routine for three months.
As Bielsa himself recalled, “I only brought some books I wanted to read while living at the monastery. I had neither TV nor a mobile phone. I was happy for a moment indeed. But I lasted three months in there because I had started to talk to myself and I felt that I was going crazy locked in there.”
Unhappy though he was at the time, Bielsa, as he would explain later, was seeking an answer in the monastery – he wanted (and was determined) to discover the key to happiness.
The former Argentinian tennis player and 2004 French Open champion, Gastón Gaudio, met him in Chile in 2010. There, Bielsa told him that he had already discovered five ways to be happy in life: 1) being a giver, especially with people you do not know; 2) being a believer and a religious man; 3) being in love with your family; 4) probably being successful in your career, and 5) he did not know exactly what this fifth key was, as Gaudio laughingly explained in a radio interview in Buenos Aires, but he was still looking for it.
“My family is an unhappy family. And my brother Marcelo is then unhappy. I think that is why we are always seeking for perfection and are ethically inflexible.”
Marcelo’s brother, Rafael Bielsa, interviewed in November 2019 by Buenos Aires-based paperPerfil.
Bielsa was born and raised in a traditional, aristocratic family in Rosario.
His grandfather Rafael was a renowned lawyer who rejected an offer to become a judge in the Supreme Court. A street in Rosario and another in Buenos Aires are named after him.
Marcelo’s father Rafael Pedro, who died in 2014, was also a well-known lawyer in Rosario. Although he bought Marcelo his first ball when he was a kid, he was not passionate about football. Interviewed by El Gráfico in 1998, he even admitted that he had never attended a match involving a team coached by his son. “It is because I like football but not modern football – I liked old football.”
His mother Lidia, who died in 2017, was a teacher. When Marcelo was at school, she wanted him to study hard for at least two hours per day after coming home from school. Marcelo already had some unusual habits, like getting dressed in a shirt and tie the night before school and sleeping like that because he didn’t like to get dressed in the mornings. But at the same time he had attitudes common in Argentinian children, like the desire to play football in the streets 24 hours a day.
He therefore masterminded a sophisticated plan. He told his mother that he studied better, more efficiently, when his sister Maria Eugenia played the piano beside him. Music relaxed him and made him more focused and sharp, he explained. When Marcelo was sent upstairs to study, Maria Eugenia, who is now a prominent minister in the Argentinian government, joined him. As long as the piano went on and on, Lidia thought that her son was studying. What she did not know was that Marcelo had sneaked out through the window with a ball and was going to meet his friends and neighbours in the street.
Rafael, Marcelo’s brother and the current Argentinian ambassador to Chile, has said about her, “She had the sweetness of the 2.0 mothers but also the roughness of the mothers of those times. From her viewpoint, things in life should be achieved by working very hard. That is the only way.”
No wonder that Rafael asked Marcelo, or simply ‘Marce’, on December 2018, “Now that you have been there for four months, what about Leeds? Do you like the city?” “I don’t know, I have no idea, because I have never been there, but I will someday,” Marcelo replied. He had been working very hard, as he had been taught by his mother, without even a glance at the city.
And it’s no wonder that Bielsa referenced her in the letter he wrote when he accepted the Fair Play Award given to him by Fifa in 2019. “I want to mention my mother, who always knew what was right and what was wrong.” Bielsa got the award because he had ordered his Leeds players to let their opponents Aston Villa equalise after scoring while an opponent was down injured.
His sense of duty is rigid even with smaller, seemingly meaningless details. He has not given exclusive interviews in 20 years but feels that everyone who asks him for an answer should be given one. Like Ignacio Fusco, who is a well-known TV anchorman in Argentina working for TNT Sports. He wrote Bielsa an email once asking him for an interview. Unexpectedly, one night, Bielsa called him, as Fusco told TheBlizzard. “Hello, it is Marcelo Bielsa speaking. I am calling you, Mr Fusco, because I must – because this is the right way to address a request like yours. However, as I am sure you are aware, I do not give exclusive interviews. I truly hope you understand my decision. I would not like to bother you anymore. Please, Mr Fusco, have a good night.”
It was also during his boyhood that he discovered another thing. Addressed at home as ‘Niño Marcelo’ by the maids and living surrounded by books (his grandfather had written 13 books about the law), playing football in the streets with other kids was like discovering another planet.
There he discovered poverty.
“What do you think about poverty?”
One of the five questions Bielsa asked his new players when he joined Lille in 2017 to get to know them better.
The first key of happiness discovered by Bielsa, “being a giver, especially with the people you do not know”, has seemingly guided him throughout his career.
When he joined the Chile national team in 2007, he used to ask the driver hired by the FA, Edgar, to take him to the poorest neighbourhoods in Santiago, like La Pintana or La Legua. As his assistant Gabriel Aravena once recalled in an interview with the Argentinian magazine Don Julio, “Marcelo used to come back to the Chilean training camp, where he was living, in a bad mood, devastated about what he had seen in those neighbourhoods. ‘I feel bad,’ he always told me while going sadly to his room. He seemed in pain.
“He wanted to know everything about poverty and how poor people actually live. It saddened him that there were people with nothing in life, you know, people living like that.”
Bielsa became obsessed.
Driven by Edgar, he started to visit public hospitals and talk with sick people, and to go to poor neighbourhoods and talk with their inhabitants as an anthropologist. He wanted to understand them.
He even became worried about the inhabitants of the barrio of Villa El Salitre which surrounds the Chile training camp, a complex called Pinto Duran. While riding his bicycle every morning, he used to ask the people of Villa El Salitre what they needed, if he could be helpful in any way, if they were happy in their lives. Happiness, again.
Back in 1998, Bielsa was already worried about happiness in life while coaching the Buenos Aires side Vélez Sarsfield. He was terrified every time he had to fly and one day he addressed the goalkeeper José Luis Chilavert during strong turbulence on a flight to Jujuy, in the north of Argentina. He said to him, “Listen, Chilavert, may I ask you if you are happy in life?” But Chilavert and Bielsa himself were millionaires. They were not poor like the people he spoke to in Villa El Salitre.
One day Bielsa stopped by a humble fruit and vegetable store owned by a man called Mario Riquelme. He parked his bicycle outside, went in and selected some fruit. When Mario recognised him, he told him that he was very welcome in his store and that he didn’t have to pay for anything.
“No way,” replied Bielsa. “I do not accept it.”
He took out his wallet and, as Mario wouldn’t tell him know how much it was, threw down the notes he had, took the fruit, rushed out, got on his bicycle and rode frenetically to the Chile training camp not realising that Mario was running behind him waving the notes. When Bielsa arrived at the main door of the camp, Mario caught up with him.
“Please, Don Marcelo,” a panting Mario said.
“You are very persistent,” Bielsa told him. “Well, come in, I will show you the training camp.”
When the Circle of Sports Journalists of Chile recognised him as the best coach in 2009, Bielsa was away in Mexico. But he commissioned a friend of his to be at the gala in order to receive the award. So, when the award was announced, Mario, the owner of the fruit and veg store in Villa El Salitre, received it on behalf of Bielsa.
Mario was a “sencillo” (an ordinary, simple person), as Bielsa would call him.
He admires the sencillos. Like the maids who called him Niño Marcelo when he was a kid. Or the chefs, cleaners and all the employees at Chile training camp from 2007 and 2011.
“Every time Chile won a match, Don Marcelo gave all these employees 100 or 200 dollars from his own pocket,” Marcos Muga, the official football federation photographer, has said. “He used to go to them himself and paid them. He used to say, ‘Nobody recognises the work of the sencillos but they make their contribution to this’. I remember him saying that all the time.”
Once, while working with the Argentinian national team, he was told that an employee of the football association had been burgled. He did not even know him, but he bought several domestic appliances and sent them to this employee’s home.
He was no longer in Chile but in Spain when he was leaving the hotel where Athletic, his team at that time, were waiting for a Copa del Rey match against Oviedo. He was about to get onto the bus when he saw a kid seemingly eager to meet the players. Bielsa went directly to him.
“Young man, young man, come,” Bielsa said, according to the Bilbao-based paper El Correo. “Come here, come here,” he insisted when the kid seemed hesitant.
“Hi,” the kid murmured when Bielsa approached. Athletic’s manager took out two tickets and handed them over.
He told him, “Please take these two tickets but these tickets are not for a rich person to enjoy them –those rich people can buy tickets for themselves.”
“You are very young and you are premature millionaires. You have no problems, it does not matter to you too much what happens next because everybody has taken care of that. You can allow yourselves to laugh.”
Bielsa addressing Athletic players after being defeated in the Copa del Rey final by Barcelona in 2012.
At Marseille, Bielsa predicted that Benjamin Mendy would become one of the best left-backs in the world. But from his viewpoint, Mendy still needed to understand some tactical concepts. Bielsa prepared some videos for him to explain, but Mendy was largely uninterested, losing concentration after a couple of minutes. Bielsa was seemingly satisfied nonetheless.
One day, however, Mendy did not drift off. “It was then that Bielsa told me that he needed me to pay attention when I wanted to, that he would not impose on me,” Mendy recalled. “That is how I learnt what he wanted from me.”
But that was not the main lesson he was taught by Bielsa.
One day, after a training session, Bielsa told Mendy in front of all his teammates, “You can choose to become the best left-back in the world. But by choosing that you would be taking time away from your wife, from your friends, you will be quitting parties and fun. You have a big problem – very, very big problem. You have a lot of money but you do not have time to enjoy the money you have got and what the money can give you in terms of happiness. I know it because I have seen it many times throughout my career. You would like to buy time with all the money you have. You would pay for time as any person would do if given the chance. So, being successful in your job does not imply at the same time that you are going to be happy. And that is a choice you should make. I want him [Mendy] to know that. But you can choose not to be the best left-back in the world, and what would be the problem with that? There is no problem at all.”
The dilemma, after all, is simple in the world of Bielsa – it is between being the best and unhappy, or not striving so hard, accepting ordinariness and finding happiness.