Bielsa and Football’s Big Spy Scandal

Image Credit [The Guardian]

Bielsa has been at the centre of the ‘Spygate’ controversy, prompting discussion over whether spying in football is acceptable.

Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United remain the Championship’s biggest story in 2019. On the pitch, Leeds have been devastating at times, setting the pace at the top of the league despite a sizeable injury list.

However, it is off the pitch where Leeds have grabbed the headlines in recent weeks. By his standards, Bielsa had enjoyed a quiet start to life in England. Apart from his bizarre position on the sideline – atop a bucket, for a better angle to view the action – El Loco has been calm, especially compared to his previous jobs. This was the case until Leeds travelled to Derby County on Friday 11th January and a spying scandal erupted.

The scandal – quickly dubbed ‘Spygate’ – surrounded a Leeds staff member who was spotted spying on Derby County’s training prior to their fixture the following evening. Bielsa admitted to it, taking full responsibility for the man’s actions. It is worth noting that ‘spying’ is not strictly illegal or criminal; the man in question was watching training unfold from public land with binoculars.

Image result for bielsa bucket
Bielsa and his famous bucket! Image Credit [DaiSport]
The reaction was a predictable one. Outrage at Bielsa’s affront to the perceived righteousness of English football was followed by counter-outrage in response to this initial outrage. Frank Lampard, the Rams manager, accused the Argentine of being unsporting, disrupting Derby’s preparations and defiling the unimpeachable moral sanctity of the English game. Various commentators, like Martin Keown, and opposition fans, attacked Leeds.In response, Bielsa’s defenders labelled his critics as hypocrites. They argued that everyone in football have used Bielsa’s supposedly ‘deviant’ surveillance methods – from journalists watching England training sessions to get the latest team news to top managers across the Premier League and the lower divisions.

Five days later, El Loco responded to the media. In a hastily arranged press conference amid rumours of his imminent resignation, Bielsa gave a 70-minute Powerpoint presentation on his tactical preparations.

It was extraordinary. Bielsa admitted to not only spying on Derby, but every team in the Championship. He then went on to show this extensive analysis by using Derby as an example in his presentation. He outlined how his team of 20 staff watched every Derby County game since December 2018, in which tactics, formations and personnel were all meticulously recorded to help predict what team Leeds were likely to come up against. This level of preparation is considered common practice across the top divisions and teams in world football. The extraordinary aspect, nonetheless, comes from Bielsa’s startling honesty and challenge to his critics.

After the lecture, the tide of opinion shifted almost instantly in favour of Bielsa. The media loved the story, presentation and Bielsa’s honesty. For Leeds United fans, the Argentine enhanced his legend – especially after it became clear he was not going to resign. Even for rivals, an undeniable respect is now afforded to Bielsa, who not only has Leeds playing fluently on the pitch,but seems to have everyone else squirming off it.

Cian Fox