How Argentina’s Olympic gold earned redemption for Marcelo Bielsa
When Marcelo Bielsa finally celebrated success with Argentina at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he marked it in the most Marcelo Bielsa way possible: by resigning and heading off to spend three months locked away in a convent.
“I took the books I wanted to read,” Bielsa said. “I did not have a phone nor did I have a television. I read a lot and I don’t think anyone reads as much about football as I do. I lasted three months before I started talking to myself and answering back and then it was time to go.”
In truth, he could be forgiven for needing a little time to decompress. Up until that point, Bielsa’s time as manager of the Albiceleste had been nothing short of a nightmare.
“Nothing goes right in Argentina anymore”
Appointed in October 1998, Bielsa’s first big test came at the 1999 Copa America – a tournament that’s best remembered for Argentina’s farcical 3-0 group stage defeat to Colombia in which Martin Palermo contrived to miss three penalties.
Bielsa, for his part, was sent to the stands after contesting one too many decisions with the referee. Yet there was no debating the manner of their eventual exit with an understrength Argentina outgunned in a 2-1 quarter-final defeat to a Brazil team boasting Ronaldo and Rivaldo in their pomp.
Even so, things looked good going into the 2002 World Cup, given the way Bielsa’s Argentina had romped through qualifying finishing 12 points clear at the top of the South American standings.
What followed remains their worst-ever showing at a World Cup, with Argentina dumped out at the group stage thanks largely to a defeat suffered at the hands of bitter rivals England.
Fans across the nation wept after staying up until 3:30am local time to watch Bielsa’s team, who had been among the favourites, bow out following an ineffective 1-1 draw with Sweden.
Coming at a time when Argentina was in the midst of its worst-ever financial crisis, it had been hoped that the World Cup would provide the nation with some much-needed respite. Instead, it deepened despair.
“Argentina really, really needed at least one good thing to happen to us,” one fan lamented. “But nothing goes right in Argentina anymore. We had such high expectations. And now we have only the economy to think about again. What a disaster.”
Yet if the fans reacted badly to the shock exit, it was nothing compared to Bielsa. “I feel a great sadness and disappointment,” he said. “To be favourite is a presumption prior to playing. Afterwards, you have to confirm that in practice and we didn’t.”
In private, his reaction was even worse. Juan Sebastian Veron recalled how the Argentina manager began banging his head against the changing room lockers after the game.
“It was the saddest thing seeing Bielsa crying,” Veron said. “He wasn’t able to talk to us for a long time. His words were short, his sentences brief. He said he felt a very great disappointment and we all started crying.”
In the aftermath, Bielsa was criticised in the press for relying too heavily on Veron, who had just completed a torrid first season at Manchester United, and for sticking rigidly to a 3-3-1-3 system that left room for only one striker.
Hernan Crespo was the main casualty, benched in favour of Gabriel Batistuta, despite finishing as Argentina’s top scorer in qualifying with nine goals.
After Batistuta had bagged an impressive nine goals across the previous two World Cups, most felt more could have been done to accommodate both men. That Argentina went on to score just twice vindicated that viewpoint.
Yet for all of the criticism garnered in the wake of the World Cup collapse, Bielsa retained the faith of the Argentinian Football Association thanks, in part, to his imperious record in qualifying.
However, the knives were out once again after the 2004 Copa America final in Peru and a game Argentina undoubtedly should have won.
A youthful Albiceleste had twice led Brazil in Lima, only for the tournament’s best player, Adriano, to come to the Selecao’s rescue with a brace that included a 93rd-minute equaliser.
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Robbed at the death and mentally shot, Argentina went on to lose on penalties, leaving Javier Zanetti lost for words at the final whistle.
“There are things that can’t be explained in soccer,” he said. “That’s what happened against Brazil, we can’t explain what went wrong.”
In truth, Bielsa had little time to ruminate on what could have been. A month later, he was heading to Athens for the Olympics. Argentina arrived in Greece as the firm favourites to win gold in the men’s soccer tournament – but the pressure was on.
An Olympic Achievement
While treated as an inconvenience by many across Europe, the quest for gold in Olympic football was something of an obsession in South America. And though the World Cup had undoubtedly usurped it in terms of importance, it was once the only international title to elude both Brazil and Argentina.
With the Selecao absent from that year’s Olympics men’s soccer, Argentina had an opportunity to steal a march on their great footballing rivals and gain a modicum of revenge for their Copa America capitulation.
Yet history was not on their side. Twice previously, Argentina had reached the gold medal match only to fall at the final hurdle with their most recent loss coming in Atlanta back in 1996 against Nigeria in a game they twice led before losing to a last-minute Nwankwo Kanu goal.
To add to the pressure, Argentina were going in search of their first gold medal in any event in 52 years, with their last having come in the men’s double sculls at Helsinki 1952. They had subsequently sent 1076 athletes to 11 Olympics without another gold.
Knowing what was at stake, Bielsa drew heavily from the squad that had narrowly missed out on Copa American glory, Roberto Ayala, Kily Gonzalez and Gabriel Heinze were the three overage players.
Heinze’s inclusion gave the Manchester United-bound star a chance at redemption having been one of two players to miss a penalty against Brazil at the Copa America.
The other to miss, Andres D’Alessandro, was one of a glut of exciting young attackers – along with Carlos Tevez, Mauro Rosales, Cesar Delgado and Lucho Gonzalez. A young Fabricio Coloccini, then of AC Milan, joined Ayala and Heinze in defence with Javier Mascherano offering protection and River Plate’s German Lux in goal.
The future West Ham duo of Tevez and Mascherano would prove the stars of the tournament. Mascherano, then of River Plate, marshalled the midfield to fine effect while Tevez, who was starring for Boca Juniors, led the line so impressively he reduced Javier Saviola to a bit-part role.
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Of the 19 players who would represent Argentina at those Olympics, 12 would go on to feature in at least one World Cup.
Approaching the tournament in his familiar style, Bielsa had Argentina on the front foot and pressing high up the pitch from the off in their opening match against Serbia and Montenegro.
It couldn’t have gone much better either with Tevez bagging a brace in a sensational 6-0 win that set down a marker. Rosales was another standout performer, scoring one and setting up two while D’Alessandro racked up two assists and there were goals for Delgado, Kily and Heinze.
Tevez was on the scoresheet again a few days later when Argentina secured their place in the knockout phase with a 2-0 win against Tunisia. And though the Albiceleste barely got out of first gear in their final group game against Australia, they did enough to keep their 100% record intact with D’Alessandro getting the only goal of the game after just nine minutes.
Any suggestion Bielsa’s team might be taking their foot off the pedal was quickly quashed in the quarter-finals against Costa Rica, with Argentina running out 4-0 winners in another impressive display.
While Delgado opened the scoring, it was Tevez who took centre stage again. Still only 20, he lived up to the hype in his homeland with a sensational hat-trick that took his tally to six for the tournament and had Argentina within sight of a medal match.
The semi-final showdown with Italy was the biggest match of the men’s Olympic tournament so far. While the Azzurri had stuttered through the group phase, they had a squad brimming with talent.
Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Gilardino all started for Italy and would go on to win the World Cup two years later. A young Giorgio Chiellini also got his first taste of tournament football at the Olympics.
Yet despite that pedigree, Italy were no match for Argentina in one of the most impressive displays of the Bielsa era. This was the Albiceleste at their clinical best, attacking in numbers and at speed.
It took Tevez just 16 minutes to open the scoring with an acrobatic volley that came after some lovely build-up play by D’Alessandro and Rosales. Argentina then pounced again in the second half as Italy chased the game with Lucho slamming home a second to finish off a neat counterattack before Mariano completed the scoring with a fine team goal.
The final pitted them against Paraguay, who had beaten Brazil to a spot at the Olympics. Oddly, the first all-South American final in 76 years was played at a half-empty Olympic Stadium in Athens at 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday with FIFA president Sepp Blatter among those in attendance.
Not that the eerie scene mattered that much back home, where millions tuned in hoping to see their 52-year wait for a gold medal end. Thankfully for Bielsa and all of Argentina, they got their wish.
Tevez was the star of the show yet again, scoring after 17 minutes to send them on their way. While the score stayed the same, Paraguay rarely threatened to get back into the game and the result was all but sealed in the final 20 minutes after Argentina’s opponents were reduced to 10 and then nine men.
At the final whistle, the players collapsed to their knees, in a mix of joy and relief.
“A great worker and a great person”
For Bielsa, this was, at last, some form of vindication for his methods. Much maligned in the Argentinian media, he had delivered something no other Albiceleste manager had ever done – and something Brazil still had yet to achieve themselves.
Though the Selecao would eventually go on to claim gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, no other nation has come close to matching the style and dominance of Argentina in Athens.
The Albiceleste scored 17 goals across six games and conceded precisely zero, goalkeeper Lux going 540 minutes unbeaten in a feat never matched before or since.
In Tevez, they had the tournament’s top scorer and a star in the making, a man who proved the undoubted difference with eight of Argentina’s 17 goals.
For Tevez, though, winning was about more than enhancing his own reputation. “I am happy for Bielsa,” he told reporters after the final. “He has had so much criticism and he deserves this. He is a great worker and a great person.”
After all the pain, the disappointment and the personal anguish, Bielsa had found a way to write himself into the history books for Argentina.
“To be champion of the Olympic Games is quite an achievement,” he said. “There are other elements that fit in professional football, the feelings of instability and constant analysis. But what has just happened, it is something that fills me with happiness.”
Yet within three weeks he was gone, announcing his resignation in a hastily arranged press conference. “I realised the amount of energy which is absorbed by the various tasks which are involved in being coach of the team… and that I didn’t have this energy any more,” he explained.
It would be nearly three years before Bielsa returned to the dugout with Chile and a national team stint that helped rebuild and repair any of the residual damage done by his time with Argentina.
By Jack Beresford