The rise and fall of El Loco

“Judge me as a savage, I will never forgive myself. The constant changes have to do with my concern about respecting my workplace’s interest,” said the man affectionately known as El Loco, and one would have expected Athletic Bilbao to be proud of Marcelo Bielsa for defending the club, but they weren’t. It was the beginning of the end. Now, like last season, his future is up in the air and a man who was once tipped to replace Pep Guardiola could find himself shown towards the exit and it seems that not too many are bothered about it either.

Last year he led the Basque Country outfit to the Copa del Rey Final and the Europa League Final only to find that Atletico Madrid and Barcelona hadn’t read the script and destroyed the fairytale that everyone was desperate to see have a happy ending.

And when the team came back from their summer holidays, the wheels really came off. First, Bielsa attacked a builder who he said had done an inadequate job at the club’s training ground, Lezama. What was the most surprising of all is that Bielsa handed himself in to the police for his crimes. He said he was defending the club’s honour but the club’s board were quick to distance themselves from his actions. An emergency meeting was held and whilst they decided to keep El Loco, he was on shaky ground. Then the problems in the dressing room started.            

Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente wanted out. Bayern Munich came in for Martinez but he would make headlines a few months later when he broke into the training ground late one night to recover some of his possessions. Llorente, despite begging for a move, would be forced to stay, but enough damage was done so as to see a player who was once adored by fans given the worst insult that a Los Leones player could be called – a Spaniard. On the training pitch, both Coach and striker had many falling outs as the previous season’s top scorer was banished to the bench. It took a strain on the team and they started the League poorly but this time there was to be no upturn in fortunes. They also failed to sign replacements for both Martinez and Llorente. Benat Etxebarria couldn’t have made it any clearer that he wanted to join his boyhood club but Bielsa seemed reluctant. Just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, they did.

Someone leaked a dressing room recording of Bielsa taken from after the Copa del Rey Final but if this was an attempt to make the Coach look bad, it failed terribly as he came out with a stronger reputation, yet it just poured further misery on his side’s season. Add in the fact that this was the final season to be played in the famous San Mames ground and one can see why fans are so disappointed with their Coach and players.

Rumours have started about possible successors and one being mentioned is Athletic B Coach Cuco Ziganda. Bielsa has even voiced his approval of the former Osasuna and Athletic forward by praising the Coach and his team: “They play attacking football, practical, simple, easy to observe and assimilate, where the needs of the game are absorbed naturally, with good treatment of the ball, dynamism and there is a relationship between what the player can do and what the Coach is proposing.”

Ziganda has managed Osasuna, leading them to the UEFA Cup semi-final in 2008, but was sacked after a poor start the next season. He was also at the helm at Xerez, who had just reached the top flight for the first time in their history but was let go after just a few months, only winning seven points. Now, at the Athletic B team since 2011, he has said that he would be happy to manage the senior team but has no problem remaining where he is.

As for Bielsa, the Coach is refusing to get drawn into conversations about his future. This week he said he would only speak on the upcoming matches. Should he leave, La Liga would lose a real gem and there would be a few clubs willing to give him a way back in. Should he stay, he will need to resolve and repair the damage that has been done this season. The big question is that at 57 and with other clubs interested, is he up for the challenge?