At the Euro, Marseille Still In Love With Argentine Marcelo “El Loco” Bielsa

Photo by Samindra Kunti

As Iceland and Hungary mingled along the Boulevard Michelet in the vicinity of Marseille’s curvy and gracious Stade Velodrome, in the southern part of the French city, not so far from the old port, a van depicting a life-sized portrayal of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa stood solemnly opposite the Virage Sud shop of Marseille’s club boutique. The shop was doing brisk business, but the tribute to Bielsa was telling of the local fans’ love for the Argentine coach.

Franky Naegellen, 44, who works at the shop, owns the Bielsa Mobile. “I have been a fan of L’OM since the great era under Bernard Tapie. I became very passionated about the club.”

Marseille is a city out of turn with the rest of France, a contemporary concoction of the good, the mad, the bad, and the outright dangerous. In a city of crazy contrasts, the local club Olympique de Marseille is a perfect fit. When Bielsa arrived at L’OM, a newspaper’s headline read: “Un fou chez les fadas” (“A madman joins the nutcases”). El Loco is often – too often perhaps – portrayed as a crackpot genius, who wanders around naked in the Pampas in a reclusive search for perfection.

In 2014, Bielsa arrived in Marseille untouched by the previous politics and battle lines at the quagmire that is L’OM. Olympique de Marseille boasts a rich history of scandals, with the club presidents always in an unsavory protagonist role. In the 70s, Marcel Leclerc threatened to withdraw the club from the French league; in the 90s Bernard Tapie was involved in a major match-fixing scandal and current president Vincent Labrune’s management has repeatedly come under fire, not in the least for his treatment of Bielsa.

The fans had nothing but admiration for Bielsa. “For us Bielsa is a cult,” explains Naegellen. “He is saint – Saint Marcelo. At L’OM itself, the reception he got was mixed. What he did with his personality, his rigor and the limited means at his disposal trumped all expectation.”

“It is his personality that enchants,” explains Naegellen. “Then there is the attacking folie. At game level, it was just extraordinary, azimuth attacking, touched by the light, mythical.” He funnels some melancholy into his eulogy for the Argentine and admits that “Now that he has left, Marseille has hit rock bottom. It has become the Titanic.”

“Marseille has hit rock bottom. It has become the Titanic.”

Bielsa’s methodology is indeed unsurpassed. The Argentine dissects opponents in excruciating detail through infinite hours of video-analyzing: how they recuperate possession, how they build up play and transition forward. He then breaks those moves down, pinpoints where possession can be regained and demands constant collective pressing from his players. They must also think in terms of shapes and patterns. At the end of the season his players are physically and emotionally drained, but sticks to his philosophy.

But he hadn’t counted on Labrune’s interference with transfer policies and other sportive matters. El Loco left in dismay after his first season. He seemingly failed to understand that soccer, local politics, and, at times, the city’s netherworld are deeply intertwined when it comes to Olympique de Marseille.

“He is a genius, who sacrifices his life for soccer,” says Jan Van Winckel, who was Bielsa’s right hand and de facto assistant at Marseille. “He has expanded a unique methodology. If you analyze a game with him, you soon enough realize that he is one of the very best. He sees what others don’t. He told me that the trick is to observe the game, while noticing everything beyond one’s focus, which is often the ball. I often sat on the bench watching our games, watching the output of Bielsa’s genius – delivering the most beautiful game in the world.”

To honor Bielsa, Naegellen conceived the Bielsa Mobile, or, if you like, “La Van Bielsista.” Last summer he bought the old van for a small price and, together with a graphic designer, he tuned the vehicle into a fitting tribute to L’OM’s previous coach. The van was painted in the black and red after the colors of Newell’s Old Boys, the club where Bielsa played and first coached. The Argentine is still deeply attached to the club from Rosario.

“Saint Marcelo looks a bit mystical.”

The painting doesn’t depict Bielsa’s archetypical expression, according to Naegellen. “We wanted to connect both Newell’s Old Boys and L’OM, because they are cornerstones in Bielsa’s career,” says Naegellen. “An expression is complex, but Saint Marcelo looks a bit mystical.”

The van is always parked in front of the boutique. As Naegellen, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Olympique de Bielsa,” ambles away from the van, he frowns in dismay. “I just read a rumor that Bielsa may be going to Lazio Roma,” Naegellen exclaims. “That would be really bad news!”