Marcelo Bielsa is the antidote to English football's stuffy hypocrisy
If we cannot enjoy a football manager spying on an opponent, then we have lost all sense of what is right, wrong and funny
English football does a number of things well. England is a country which loves football and this is reflected in the fanatical style with which supporters follow their teams. Whether it's fanzines, podcasts or YouTube fan channels (regardless of your position on them), English football fans are passionate about the teams which their communities are built around.
The English game should be praised too for its intensity on the pitch. Matches are often played at break neck speed, and it provides a thrilling - if not always technically competent - viewing experience.
As with anything in life though, there is no good without the bad.
For all of English football's qualities and despite the Premier League's current position as a worldwide export, there remains suspicion of anything different, particularly when it comes from foreign shores.
The increasingly international nature of English football - at all levels - has made this less frequent, but occasionally still newcomers from overseas are viewed like a mysterious shipment destined for six-month exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.
Few imports are as mysterious as Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentine coach rocked up on British shores like a rock star. Articles were written about his obsession with football, his eccentric commitment, his unusual routines and his influence on some of world football's best managers.
This week, he was in the headlines for slightly different reasons. Prior to the Friday evening match between his league leading Leeds United side and Frank Lampard's Derby County, it emerged that a member of Leeds staff had been caught spying at Derby's training ground.
After the initial commotion and confusion, Bielsa admitted that - yes - he had deployed a member of his staff to go and get a closer look at what the Rams were doing.
Had you missed the actual story and skipped ahead to the reaction, you would be forgiven for thinking that Bielsa had gone full Moe Szyslak and entered Derby's training pitch with a crowbar intent on incapacitating Harry Wilson.
He was accused of "cheating", of bringing the game into disrepute and, here's probably the best one, of "breaking the moral code". The reaction has, frankly, been exactly what you would expect from English football: hyperbolic and reactionary in equal measure.
Journalist Henry Winter described Bielsa's actions as "showing a complete lack of respect for his peers". Henry Winter has also admitted in a recent book he wrote that he had spied on England training sessions in the past, something raised by Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville on social media.
One former footballer admitted that he had lost respect for Bielsa for "breaking the moral code" of football. That former footballer is this man, seen here taunting a fellow pro for missing a penalty. All done within the moral code of the game though, I'm sure you'll agree.
Another former footballer and current pundit was the one who mentioned the word "cheating" regarding spygate. That same former footballer has previously defended diving - which, for the record, is also fine - as just another measure used to win games.
Thankfully, people with a sense of proportion and humour have also spoken out, while a host of examples prove that what he did is not uncommon.
Aside from Neville's comment, Ireland international Jon Walters praised the Argentine for admitting what he had done, and added a touch of perspective, saying that he knew of worse that had happened in football, both by teams he has played for and against.
Fair play to Bielsa for not trying to hide what he’s done. I know of worse that has happened for and against! Let’s not pretend it doesn’t go on! https://t.co/eKYyK2XHC4
— Jonathan Walters (@JonWalters19) January 11, 2019
It was revealed this week that in December, TSG 1899 Hoffenheim discovered a drone controlled by a Werder Bremen coach attempting to observe their training session.
The response of Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann? "I'm not really angry at the analyst doing his job. It's commendable if they're doing everything they can, trying to spy on the opposition."
This December, Hoffenheim caught a Werder Bremen scout spying on their training with a drone. Werder apologised. Hoffe coach Nagelsmann: "I'm not really angry at the analyst doing his job. It's commendable if they're doing everything they can, trying to spy on the opposition."
— Raphael Honigstein💙 (@honigstein) January 12, 2019
What these sensible reactions allude to and what the more over-the-top ones painfully miss is, quite simply, that football is just a game.
It is a game with millions of pound on the line, but it is a game nonetheless.
What Bielsa did, or ordered his member of staff to do, was not illegal, nor did it hurt anyone. He did not pay a member of the paparazzi to go out onto the street and take photographs of a down-on-their-luck former England international to catch them in a compromising position, but instead simply sought to gain an advantage for his team.
Gaining an advantage in any way possible is often praised by pundits and journalists alike as what differentiates the great managers from the good or bad, so why have Bielsa’s actions caused such offence?
Is it because Bielsa is not British? While simplistic, that is a possibility. English football has long considered itself the gatekeepers of the modern game, even at times when its neighbours on the continent consistently proved themselves more capable of bringing the game into the future. Football on these isles has always been resistant to change from elsewhere, so that could be partly the reason for this reaction.
Another, more likely reason, is that Bielsa's behaviour fractures the veneer of politeness, and decorum, that many believe remains in English football and British sport as a whole.
It is the veneer that somehow makes diving worse than breaking someone's leg with a high tackle, that leads some to cast rugby as a sport played by gentlemen and football one played by thugs despite the facts showing that this is simply not the case, and it is the veneer which - unfortunately - means many would rather discuss acts such as this than important issues genuinely damaging the game.
Bielsa doesn’t have time for that veneer. And if people took a moment to dismount from their high horses and view the game with a little less seriousness and a little more humour, they'd realise that it is exactly the sort of thing which makes this game what it is.