Brilliant, bombastic Bielsa can cap career with Copa América triumph

Estimated read time 5 min read

Marcelo Bielsa and Uruguay feel like the perfect fit. A maverick manager for a talent-laden team. Both are odd, and definitely outliers, but in an endearing and captivating way that makes them beloved by soccer hipsters.

With a population of just over 3 million, surely Uruguay shouldn’t be this good. Seated on a cooler during a match or actually calling up a fan after promising him he’d check to see if security would allow him to open one of Uruguay’s Copa América training sessions, surely Bielsa shouldn’t actually work as a manager.

There’s something else Bielsa and Uruguay have in common: even their biggest backers have to admit that it has been too long since they actually lifted a trophy. Now, Bielsa’s Uruguay are hoping for a first Copa América title since they won the trophy on Argentinian soil in 2011 – a feat that would break the deadlock with La Albiceleste for most titles at the tournament.

While Bielsa enjoys tremendous respect in Latin America and beyond, everything that’s popular receives pushback. The easy go-to for Bielsa’s critics is a lack of silverware at the top level. Before winning the English Championship and securing promotion with Leeds in the 2019-20 campaign, the last time he’d won a competition was in 2004. While that Olympic gold was a triumph, Argentinians are more likely to remember Bielsa’s team finishing second-best to Brazil at the 2004 Copa América a month prior in Lima.

What Uruguay hopes will be a six-match tour through the US started on Sunday night with the South Americans coming out of the gates looking like the best team in the tournament – albeit one that was wasteful with its scoring opportunities. Los Charrúas eventually beat Panama 3-1 in Miami, a scoreline that more or less reflected how Bielsa and his team were able to dominate.

With a huge cohort of players at top European clubs, including Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde, Liverpool’s Darwin Núñez, PSG’s Manuel Ugarte and Barcelona’s Ronald Araújo, plus players based in Latin America who fit perfectly with the style Bielsa wants to play, including Sunday’s opening goalscorer Maximiliano Araújo of Toluca and Flamengo duo Giorgian de Arrascaeta and Nicolás de la Cruz, the squad look like a favorite for the tournament. Luis Suárez is also in the squad, and will provide problems coming off the bench.

Darwin Núñez was at his chaotic best in Uruguay’s opening game win over Panama.View image in fullscreen

Beyond the personnel, Uruguay have already proved they can get results under Bielsa. They beat Brazil in Montevideo to cap October’s World Cup qualification matches and kicked off November’s matches with a stunning 2-0 win over Argentina at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires.

Still, Bielsa has resisted the idea that his squad may be a favorite in this tournament. Whether it’s a mind game or simply his genuine opinion, he says that Argentina are clearly a contender thanks to their status as world champion (and a certain forward who can still make a difference at major tournaments), while his own team need to prove each game that they deserve to be in the conversation.

“I always have the idea that it’s much better to go along showing what you aspire to rather than anticipating it and saying it beforehand,” he said before the Panama game. After the contest, he bemoaned a 15-minute stretch when Panama he said, respectfully, were clearly inferior, but controlled the game and had the better scoring chances.

On the one hand, it was just a blip in a dominant performance to open the tournament. On the other, it’s the type of detail Bielsa knows will need to be sorted out if he’s ever going to lift the Copa América.

Known for his intensity, it’s tough to imagine the 68-year-old truly at rest. No one coaches forever, though, and this may be Bielsa’s last opportunity to lift a trophy.

Don’t be misled. If Bielsa’s thoughts are on his legacy, he’s definitely not letting on. When a reporter in Miami asked if this could be a Last Dance situation, Bielsa simply replied: “I can’t imagine the future.”

But while Bielsa refuses to think ahead, it isn’t difficult for outsiders to consider what 14 July could look like if things go right. Bielsa will have to balance his ideas of play, of intense pressing, of demanding more running from his players, with the reality that many of them arrived in the US after a long club season and will be playing at three outdoor venues in the group stage where highs will touch at least 90F (32C).

Yet, the coming together of two odd ducks could finish with Bielsa actually smiling, celebrating with his coaching staff as his players lift the trophy.

  • This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. With Jonathan out in Germany enjoying Euro 2024, he’s entrusted a series of guest writers to guide you through Copa América. He will return on 15 July to look back at both tournaments.


You May Also Like

More From Author