Bielsa, Spygate & the So-Called ‘Etiquettes’ of Football

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dylan Tuck
Culture Editor

“I know that not everything that’s legal is not right to do. You have many things that are legal, but not right”. The words of Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa might have more of philosophical tinge to them than you’d commonly expect from a football head coach, yet his morals have been called into question an awful lot of late.

To give some context to the situation, for those unaware, earlier this month, prior to a match against fellow Championship promotion-chasers Derby County, Leeds manager Bielsa admitted to sending a member of his coaching staff to stand outside of the Rams’ training ground and watch Frank Lampard’s training session in preparation for their meeting on the weekend. The spy was caught, and thus brought to light one of the more ridiculous sporting stories of recent times.

Fans, pundits, ex-professionals, the football know-it-all sat sipping a pint of Stella down your local –everyone had their say on the matter. The general consensus was all pretty much the same; Bielsa is a disgrace, it was a horrendous misjudgement of common sporting etiquette, decorum and downright against British behavioural standards. Opposition manager Lampard called it “cheating”, Martin ever-the-disgusted-by-something Keown said he’d be “embarrassed if he was Bielsa”, while Times writer Henry Winter said it showed a lack of respect –despite his press team showing the same apparent indecency in leaking the England team back in the Russian World Cup, as Gary Neville delighted in pointing out later on Twitter. The point is, many condone Leeds and largely Bielsa for his behaviour, but is he actually in the wrong?

Think of it this way. Imagine the circumstances are exaggerated, and your team are preparing to face their fiercest rivals, and what does your head coach discover out of the corner of his eye but a rival coach set peering into the training ground through a pair of inconspicuous binoculars. How would you feel? Angered? Most likely. Cheated? Perhaps. But the real question begged by this is what effect would a minute detail of a poor-sighted spy aiming to see a group of footballers practising warm-ups and set-pieces actually have on the following game of football? Unless a mighty gust of wind sent a paper with the confirmed formation and tactics floating over to the feet of said spy, you’d estimate it’d have very little. And that proved to be the case for Leeds – it had absolutely no impact, as they ran out convincing 2-0 winners simply via virtue of being the better team.

Returning to the quote this article opened with, Bielsa clearly dwindles on the border of right and wrong in the eyes of many, but the importance of said quote is the bizarre conference it emerged from –an hour-long press call in which the manager addressed the media with a PowerPoint presentation showcasing the sheer amount of detail he and his coaching staff put into analysing teams prior to playing them. It was almost unbelievable, not just the quality and depth of the detail that he puts into his pre-match understanding of his opponents, but that he actually called the media in to simply to show off his smarts. In the most ‘El Loco’ of fashions, he showed his obsessive relationship with the sport he loves, his genius and dedication to the game, and also his crazed mentality. Bielsa knew every detail about every player, had watched every Derby game from the 2017/18 season, analysed every tactic, formation, change in play, position – the lot. It was an uncharacteristically open invite to the football world and media to understanding the sheer amount of work managers do (perhaps not all as in-depth as their Argentinian counterpart) that many had never seen before.

Yet, the point Bielsa was trying to make was this: I know I am not trying to get an advantage. I already have the information. Why do I do it? Because I think I’m stupid”. He knew he had all the data he needed, it was his anxious mind that forced his hand into trying to get more information – and hilariously, the one thing he didn’t need to do led to the biggest controversy.

In a typically British way, this whole ‘Spygate’ storm has been completely blown out of proportion, and interpreted by many as a foreign coach with a lack of understanding for ‘British values’, when really this sort of thing happens all the time across the World – even Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino confirmed it’s a commonplace in their home country of Argentina. It wasn’t an illegal move, it was just an uncommon one in British football. Does that make it right? Well, that depends on your own disposition of moral codes in football, but the fact is that it does happen. Bielsa went on to admit that he’s done it wherever he’s been, and to every club, he’s faced in England – but yet, we heard no fuss from him doing the same during his time at Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio, nor Lille. Perhaps Brits inherently love the drama of a scandal, and that follows with a strong sense of upholding morals that are supposedly ‘better’ than those from elsewhere across the world. Cheating is most definitely wrong, but sending a spy to confirm what you already know, isn’t exactly cheating –so the ethical argument technically has no ground. At best, it was a pure exhibition of some finely-tuned, albeit unintended, winding up people who love getting riled-up over miniscule events.

Bielsa’s conference-cum-presentation was a defiant middle-finger to the portrayal of the manager as an inconsiderate cheat with a lack of decency. He instead took his chance to entirely showcase his genius and obvious infatuation with the game, and that his mistake wasn’t the act of sending in a spy –but believing that was even a necessary act. Leeds, by all accounts, will likely get promoted and Bielsa will be a massive factor in that –this overly discussed issue of spying, will not be, at all.