The return of Marcelo Bielsa or Ernesto Valverde set to decide Athletic Club’s presidential election
We have all been there. Sitting for what seems like an eternity, watching the presentation unfold, PowerPoint page after page of stats and results, seas of numbers on the screen, a voice going over it all in every detail you’ve had since long stopped listening , drift a little now.
Only this was different. It was better: it was Bielsa.
On Monday, Marcelo Bielsa was announced as Athletic Club‘s new coach – if Inaki Arechabaleta is elected president in Friday’s election. Which, for a little while there and for that very reason, it seemed certain he would be. How could he not be? He had Bielsa — Bielsa! — while the other candidates, Ricardo Barkala and Jon Uriarte, had…well, they didn’t have anyone. Not yet.
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Arechabaleta said that when he approached Bielsa to join him in his candidacy for the Athletic presidency, the Argentine coach responded by asking for time. The best thing, he replied, was for current coach Marcelino Garcia Toral to continue and anyway he had to be able to study the proposal. So he did. Marcelino didn’t go on — partly because he knew there was an election campaign coming up and he didn’t really want to be part of it — and here was Bielsa presenting his findings.
He hadn’t been to Bilbao, and there were no interviews, no smiling with a scarf, no handshakes or greetings. No series of questions or interrogations, except the one he did himself. Instead, it was done by video, all charts and graphs. In a room in Bilbao or following her online, they watched Bielsa sitting in front of them, thin, with very short hair, doing what Bielsa does: speaking very, very slowly, guiding them through his analysis. It was like him, and they knew it: Arechabaleta’s proposal was for him to take over for the second time, having been at the club between 2011 and 2013.
The first time, Bielsa had also made a presentation. This one was live: there was the classic connection problem and then Bielsa had to excuse herself briefly to go to the bathroom. This time was pre-recorded, running throughout.
He watched 45 Athletic games last season, he said. 45 athletics matches, 38 B team matches, four C team matches and three U19 matches. He had also looked at all the teams Athletic would face – apart from Girona, whose promotion came too late to be included – and worked out all the details. He went over the number of times each player was involved, talked about the structures, the players and the emotions, the ways to reach them, how his methods had evolved. He talked and talked, for an hour and ten minutes.
He insisted that this team was already good: “They play well, I like them”, he repeated, “and the best would have been for Marcelino to continue”. And yet the promise – except that Bielsa never really makes promises – was that it could be even better, better than this current team under Marcelino and better than the team Bielsa has coached before. This team, he said, would suit him even better than the first one he had.
It’s an attractive idea. That one, after all, had reached the final of the Europa League and the Copa del Rey. At Old Trafford they had beaten Manchester United after producing just about the best performance anyone can remember. There was a connection there, the feeling that this man who did not seem at all in good shape at the beginning finally adapted very well. They had all ended up exhausted, it was true, but it had been a ride. When once asked if Bielsa was really as crazy as people said, Iker Muniain replied, “No, he’s crazier.” But fans loved him for it. In the end, they had sung for him to stay, but he left.
Now he’s back. Or at least he could be, if Arechabaleta wins, and few people would vote against that now. Even with the other doubts surrounding his candidacy, who is the sporting director? which players is he interested in? — or his character, he had Bielsa.
“He is one of the five best coaches in the world, the man most revered by professionals and coaches. And we are talking about a Marcelo for the future, not the past,” insisted Arechabaleta, which does not didn’t help noting that the Marcelo of the past had delivered what he claimed was the club’s best season of this century.
It had revolutionized everything, people were going crazy. Not only there: suddenly, everywhere, everyone was talking about it, about Athletic. That also seemed to end it. Arechabaleta had garnered the fewest signatures so far as a rough indication of support: Fidel Uriarte had 6,041, Ricardo Barkala 4,054, while he had 2,987. But that seemed decisive, almost over. How could you beat that?
Maybe like this? Earlier in the campaign, Mauricio Pochettino’s name briefly emerged as a possibility under Barkala, but now, two days after Bielsa’s presentation, the other two candidates have both announced that their manager will be Ernesto Valverde. If they win, he would return for his third spell at the club, after 2003-05 and 2013-17. He had followed Bielsa last time out, a welcome relief, and enjoyed huge success, taking them to a place in the Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup, Athletic’s first trophy in thirty years. Now Valverde has been offered for Bielsa.
Like Marcelino, Valverde hadn’t wanted to be involved in a campaign that always risks division. He intended to stay on the sidelines, which didn’t mean not becoming the coach, and always available when they needed him. But now he had agreed to join the two candidates who had contacted him. That it was both was for a reason: “It had to be inclusive, not exclusive,” he said.
“My idea was that there was some consensus. I thought the best thing was that there was an agreement on the coach like there was with the women’s team with Iraia,” Valverde said. “I thought it would be the best thing for the club with the coach who was there, Marcelino. But for some reason it wasn’t possible.”
Valverde hadn’t coached since being sacked at Barcelona, after winning two La Liga titles and the Copa del Rey. Barcelona haven’t won anything since; he mostly stayed away. After Barcelona, there was a moment of escapism, of finding his own space – he released a new collection of his photos – and then the pandemic hit. “It’s not that I locked myself in my house, everyone did,” he said.
Valverde is a manager who can normalize tension, pressure, somehow rise above it, an ease in him that is part of the reason he has achieved so much. After Bielsa, he brought much-needed air, breathing space – and success.
A win ratio of 47.89% (more than anyone this century: Bielsa’s was 38.1%, Marcelino’s was 37.33%, Garitano’s was 41.57%) . That fourth place, followed by seventh, fifth, seventh (after which Athletic finished 16, 8, 11, 10). And a destruction of Barcelona in the 2015 Super Cup.
There’s something admirably down-to-earth about him, not a hint of ego, which may not have always helped him. There is no sales pitch, quite the contrary; no willingness to go out when it suits him either. Larger works were rejected because he felt it was not right. He couldn’t be more well-liked in Bilbao, but sometimes it can seem like people don’t talk about him enough elsewhere, perhaps partly because neither does he. Since Barcelona, the offers that have come have not always convinced; this is not a manager desperate to work anywhere.
But Athletic is nowhere, that’s all. From the outside, it’s not always appreciated but it’s a huge club. “What Athletic means to Bilbao, Biscay, I’ve never seen anywhere,” he says.
And so here they are again. There’s more to discuss – including the huge damage done to Jon Uriarte’s campaign after his proposed sporting director Carlos Avina was sacked following the spread of sexist, racist and homophobic tweets he wrote – but now it almost feels like a straight line head to head and between two men whose reputations could hardly be higher.
Now they have to choose. With Bielsa’s announcement, it seemed done. With Valverde, that’s not the case. Ironically, perhaps the thing that goes against him the most is the very fact that he is in two nominations, “his” split vote.
Either way, Athletic have a man they love back. But will it be the same?
“The sequels were never good,” Valverde said when he returned last time out. “Well, apart from The Godfather, Part II.”