I didn’t understand at first.
Why fans of Newell’s Old Boys, Marseille and Athletic Bilbao would travel to Elland Road to watch Leeds United compete in the Championship.
The Whites’ coach, Marcelo Bielsa, previously managed the aforementioned teams but surely that wasn’t enough to cross borders (at significant financial cost) and brave the Yorkshire cold?
In the case of Marseille and Athletic Bilbao, than man they call El Loco didn’t win any trophies.
And yet fans of both clubs worship him like a messianic figure.
He was triumphant on home soil with Newell’s, winning two league titles in the early 1990s.
The club have since renamed their stadium in his honour: Estadio Marcelo Bielsa.
From the outside, the infatuation with this enigmatic coach seems misplaced.
Once you’re inside his sphere, it’s impossible to resist feelings of transcendence.
As a Leeds fan, I have been indoctrinated into the the cult of Bielsa gradually over the last 18 months.
And after our showing at the Emirates in the FA Cup Third Round, it seems the movement has gained more followers.
Again, from an outside perspective, the fascination seems curious — Arsenal beat Leeds 1-0, so what’s the big deal?
The nature of the visitors’ first-half performance exhibited everything that’s alluring about a Bielsa side.
A coordinated press smothered the Gunners to the extent it seemed Leeds had 13 players on the pitch.
Their pre-planned passing patterns (meticulously practised in training to the point of torture) created several eye-catching chances, at least one of which should have been converted.
It is rare, even for fans of Premier League clubs, to see a side that are such a defined product of a specific ideology.
And it’s this uncompromising, unadulterated, all-encompassing philosophy that lures you in.
When you realise the scale and scope of Bielsa’s work (remember that press conference?) it’s inevitable you’ll surrender to it.
It’s only once you see your team improve beyond the realms of what you thought was possible in such a time frame, you begin to understand why Pep Guardiola once called Bielsa ‘the best manager in the world’.
Man City’s decorated tactician subscribes to the cult of Bielsa, as does Mauricio Pochettino, as does Diego Simeone.
Bielsa is often defined by his failures.
His Argentina side lost to Brazil on penalties in the final of the 2004 Copa America, Marseille faded away in the last third of the 2014/15 Ligue 1 season when it looked as if their box-office style would see them crowned unexpected champions, Athletic Bilbao lost in the finals of the Europa League and Copa del Rey in 2011/12.
Last season, Leeds became the first Championship side to ever be top at the halfway point and not get promoted automatically in 2018/19.
What’s lost on some is that these sides (with the possible exception of Argentina) had no business being anywhere near glory; Bielsa’s guidance was the only factor giving them hope in the first place.
For fans who watch their side regularly, be it live or via television, process is often as important as product.
And Bielsa’s demanding tactics ensure entertainment on a weekly basis.
Then there’s the character of the man.
A figure of fastidious morality, he cares little for material possessions.
The 64-year-old currently lives in a one-bedroom flat above a shop and walks the 45 minutes to Leeds’ training ground every morning.
He was appointed in the summer of 2018 and has never been pictured wearing anything other than club-issue tracksuits.
Even at the club’s centenary dinner, when everyone else adhered to the black tie dress code, he posed for photos in casual gear.
While in Bilbao, he handed himself into the police after an altercation with a builder because he was wracked with guilt.
When Leeds were fined £200,000 for Spygate (a cultural misunderstanding), he refused to let the club cover the fine and paid it out of his own wages.
In 2018, he donated over £2million to former employers Newell’s Old Boys, explaining: “From the club who formed me, I received more from Newell’s Old Boys than what I gave them.
“I’m actually paying a debt to Newell’s Old Boys rather than making a gift.”
The more you read about Bielsa, the deeper you venture into the cult.
And as someone who can no longer see the exit, I finally understand why someone from Argentina might consider attending a second-tier fixture in the north of England.
Such journeys are not whimsical jollies, they’re pilgrimages.
I have not yet covered the full breadth of his appeal.
It’s not uncommon for Leeds results to be mentioned on Chilean television, such is the attachment their footballing public still feel for Bielsa after his spell as national team manager between 2007-2011 — again, there are no trophies to justify such devotion.
In the wake of the defeat to Arsenal, ESPN Argentina compared Leeds right-back Luke Ayling’s warm-up to Diego Maradona’s famous pre-match routine in Munich 31 years ago.
I am happy to admit Guardiola may be wrong in his assessment: Bielsa is not the best best coach in the world.
He is unlikely to ever have a trophy cabinet that truly reflects his standing within the game.
What I’ve realised – and perhaps you have to – is that such things are trivial when something greater, something purer, is at stake.
Or at least that’s the believable illusion.
As much as I’d like Bielsa to spend the next 20 years crouched on the touchline of Elland Road, as many clubs as possible should experience El Loco at the helm.
I will make a conscious effort to closely follow whatever club he manages next.
I’ll read articles about them, I’ll watch their games, I’ll turn on goal notifications.
There are few individuals who illicit such feelings – the partial abstraction of club loyalty – and they should be treasured.
Welcome to the cult, you’re going to love it.
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