Thursday, 15 July 2010

Should he stay or should he go?

Endless meetings, endless speculation and still no decision about the continuance or otherwise of Marcelo Bielsa as head coach of La Roja. The wait goes on.

All the signs pointed to a decision being made on Thursday but, following a four-hour meeting, the National Football Asssociation (ANFP), led by President Harold Mayne-Nicholls, declared that there was 'nothing new to report.' Some meeting.

From Magallanes in the South to Arica in the North, fingers were being crossed that El Loco would extend his tenure and lead the team to the next World Cup in Brazil. True, the national team had fallen to the next hosts in the Round of 16 but there was an almost universal feeling that the team had made great strides in South Africa and had presented a highly favourable view of Chilean football to the watching world.

Over the past week, Bielsa's every step has been tracked in the hope that it would give some clue as to his future. A trip to his native Rosario: did this mean that Bielsa was back with his ex? A return to Santiago: was the romance back on? He even walked proudly through the main exit of the airport, surely a signal that this man of the people was ready to embrace his adoring public once again??

The jealousy, the suspense, the agony. How much longer could El Loco give his faithful the silent treatment?

Should he stay or should he go? What is best for Chilean football? What is best for Bielsa? And most importantly, do the two coincide? As ever more questions than answers.

Let's take a look at the evidence. Bielsa's team qualified in some style for this year's jamboree in South Africa, finishing only a point behind Brazil, 5 ahead of Maradona's Argentina and some 9 points ahead of eventual semi-finalists, Uruguay. A 4-2 win away to Colombia was one of the many highlights in La Roja's 32 goal campaign.

Expectations were high for the World Cup proper and the final assessment must be that the campaign was a success. Two opening wins against Honduras and Switzerland that were, despite the 1-0 scorelines, fairly comfortable. Then came the ultimate champions, Spain. No-one could say that Chile was outclassed in this game and with a little more composure and 11 men on the field, things could have been different.

But no matter, qualification was secured to the next round for the first time since 1998. No mean achievement in itself, as was testified by the joyous parties in Plaza Italia and beyond.

Unfortunately, as 12 years ago, Chile's opponents were Brazil and this meant the bandwagon came to a sudden and shuddering halt. Bielsa has come under fire for his naive approach to this game. No disgrace in losing to Dunga's men but was the gung-ho approach the right one? Would it have been better to marry the attacking instincts of the team with a degree of midfield and defensive solidity? Maybe, but after watching the negative, anti-football tactics of Holland in the final, a commitment to the spirit of the beautiful game can only be applauded.

As Bielsa said himself after the match, 'Right or wrong, we tried to impose our methods within the idea of some noble play.'

So to the future. Copa America next year, the small matter of a World Cup Brazil in 2014. Just what's possible? Can this team improve further?

A glance at the current Chilean squad makes for happy reading. Of the 23 men in La selección, only 2 are over the age of 30 and 17 of them are 27 or under. Jewel in the crown, Alexis Sanchez, is a pup at 21. This is a team that has yet to reach its prime and in four years time they will have the experience to match their undoubted skills.

But, but, but...does Bielsa want to stay? He has been linked with positions as far afield as Japan, Mexico and Australia. Is he a careerist football coach, using each position as a stepping stone to bigger and better things? Or does his heart now truly belong to Chile?

Only he can know the answers to these questions but in football, as in any walk of life, there is a right time to say, 'My work here is done, it's time to walk away.' He might feel that, for all its potential, he's taken this team as far as it can go. Fresh challenges are always attractive suitors.

Time to nip this one in the bud right now. Let's put it in writing to Chile's adopted son:

Dear Senor Bielsa,

You're not going to find anyone else like us. It's time to come home for good. Shut the door behind you and let's start dreaming of 2014.

Yours faithfully,

La Marea Roja

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