“And what is an authentic madman? It is a man who preferred to become mad, in the socially accepted sense of the word, rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honour.”
– Antonin Artaud
In the summer of 2014, Olympique Marseille announced the name of their new manager – Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa became the club’s first Argentine coach and the year that followed was perhaps among the most exhilarating periods for the supporters and players of the club. In almost no time he had won over the Marseille Trop Puissant and the Commando Ultras 1984, the most loyal and partisan factions of Marseille fans.
Bielsa’s tactical acumen, his stubborn desire to win, his off-field eccentricities and confrontational attitude which is evident in the teams he builds, is unlike any other manager of today. And Marseille is unlike any other French city.
Romantic, exotic Marseille, with its hidden coves and creeks, and the sea lapping at the foundations of ancient towers and citadels, is also the setting of countless crime stories in French noir. Situated by the Mediterranean Sea, it is a multicultural and multiracial city with a unique mixture of the French Provence and the Maghreb. In its multiculturality, it is perhaps more cosmopolitan than Paris in the north of France. Yet far from la belle vie of Paris, it is a city that has become synonymous with corruption, economic stagnation, political patronage, organised drug syndicates and drive-by shootings.
Cédric Fabre in his short story “Joliette Sound System” wrote, “The only time Marseille stops being a disaster zone and the capital of delinquency, it's thanks to Olympique de Marseille even if it only lasts as long as a match. It's not just an outlet; it's the place's collective unconscious, its moment of glory.” Olympique Marseille is one of the most successful clubs in France and the only French outfit to ever become champions of Europe – an honour which came in 1993.
Yet in recent years things haven’t gone smoothly for the Marseille loyalist. Financial irregularities and a match-fixing scandal surrounding then-president Bernard Tapie meant that the club nosedived into a period of decline and stagnation immediately after their Champions League win in 1993. The slight relief offered by Didier Deschamps’ side lasted only a couple of years. When Bielsa signed on, he became the club’s 36th manager in only 28 years.
With him, he brought the tempestuous winds of change to the coastal city. A man with a reputation for being a tactical mastermind, Bielsa introduced a 3-3-1-3 formation – and sometimes a 4-2-3-1 – to the team. After a slow start to the season, by Christmas that year, the likes of André-Pierre Gignac, Michy Batshuayi, and Dimitri Payet were comfortably perched on top of the league table and France was gripped by the fever of what we refer to as “Bielsista”.
To an outsider, the relentless running, hard pressing and the players covering almost every acre of the pitch might seem chaotic. Yet there is a method to this madness – a method in which Bielsa makes his players practice session after session. Bielsista is perhaps best understood through the magnum opus of François Topino-Lebrun, the great artist of the French Revolution who hailed from Marseille – The Siege of Sparta.
Painted in 1799 for a neo-Jacobin organisation, the work is a call-to-arms to defend the republic. Amidst the chaos of war and the tremendous sense of motion depicted in the painting, if one observes closely one also finds a sense of regularity – the Spartan hoplites stand side-by-side as single units even in the heat of battle, the archers take aim together and if one looks closely, the entire arrangement can be divided into regular rectangles. Bielsa’s teams share this quality – they are cohesive, move in tandem with each other and trace precise geometric patterns on the pitch. Their relentless and fast movement and refusal to give up even an inch of the ground is the result of an almost Spartan ethic of discipline, hard work and perseverance.
Hard work and perseverance is not new to Marseille. The city has a distinctly working class character – it is, after all, a city of immigrants, artisans, industrial workers, sailors and dockworkers. Neither is hard work foreign to Bielsa. His teams are famous for their work ethic and one only need watch video clips of their training sessions or highlights and replays of their games to understand that. While Bielsa himself meticulously maintains files and video tapes on each of his players, not to mention opposition teams, he requires his players to prepare detailed dossiers on their opponents.
Bielsa, perhaps like Spartan generals of yore, is an exhausting coach to work with, not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. He demands a level of dedication and effort that is difficult to fulfil. Yet his players develop an understanding of the game and the intricacies of tactics and strategies, few can boast of having. As tough a general as he might be, he is also a kind and fair man who has managed to earn the respect and gratitude of his players in whichever club he has managed.
During the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, the city – then known as Massilia – sided with the latter – a decision that would condemn it to the back pages of history forever. Today, Marseille is often referred to as the “forgotten city of the Republic”. Yet what is the French republic without Marseille? In 1792, at the height of the French Revolution, it was volunteers from Marseille on the march to Paris, who sang a stirring song calling French citizens to take up arms in the defence of their newly-formed republic – a song that we know today as La Marseillaise.
Marseille is a city that has managed to avoid the gentrification of Paris, perhaps because unlike in Paris where most of the working class residential areas and public housing projects are in the suburbs, away from the city proper. In Marseille, there is no ghettoisation of any community. Neither does Marseille, unlike the rest of the country, pretend that France is race-blind. It is against Paris Saint-Germain that Marseille plays what is known in France as Le Classique – a tie that has come to mean far more than a footballing rivalry – it is north against south, province against capital, the rich elite against the working class enfants terribles, it is also a tie that Bielsa has lost both times although the second match was a breath-taking 2-3 affair at the Stade Vélodrome.
One of Marseille’s most famous sons, poet and dramatist, Antonin Artaud once said, “With society and its public, there is no longer any other language than that of bombs, barricades, and all that follows.” And Marseille if anything is a city of confrontation – her streets have anti-establishment graffiti, her public buildings carry posters of anarchist and communist rallies on their walls, and her local rappers and hip-hop artists sing of racism, police brutality and poverty.
Perhaps what most endeared Bielsa to the Olympique Marseille faithful is his confrontational attitude. It is evident in his approach to the game and the attitude of his teams. Most tellingly it is evident in how he goes about his press conferences. Never shying away from any questions, sometimes they last for hours in which he explains his thinking in detail – a sort of sermon for any student of football tactics and strategies. He also fields each and every question from the reporters assembled at these conferences whether they are from a local daily or a TV giant.
It has often been a cause for wonder how an Argentine coach from Spain – a complete outsider – won over the hardened Marseille faithful in a matter of weeks. Yet it is perhaps not surprising – Marseille, after all, is a multiracial, multi-ethnic city with a significant immigrant population. Perhaps they fell in love with him because they identified with him in a way they hadn’t with any other manager in recent years. His tactical intricacies and the relentless motion of his teams reflect the sense of motion and dynamism in the neoclassical paintings of Topino-Lebrun. His ethic of hard work, fighting spirit and his confrontational, no-holds-barred approach to the game were already features of life in Marseille that existed beyond the football pitch.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell speaks of the monomyth of an archetypal hero that exists in all cultures – a hero who ventures out from the common world and goes on an epic journey in which he wins a decisive victory and gains some power or message which he then gifts to mankind after his return. Coming from a family of lawyers and politicians, Bielsa, however, chose the world of football. A well-travelled coach, his thoughts and ideas of the game has influenced a generation of football managers most notably Pep Guardiola. He is perhaps football’s Hero and his message is that of Bielsista.
His romance with Marseille, however, was not to last. In August 2015, just a year after he took up the reins at Marseille, to the shock of the entire footballing world, El Loco suddenly announced that he would be leaving the club. He did the only thing fans had urged him not to do ever since relations between him and the board slowly started turning sour – not leave. Yet his legacy on the club will surely live on.