'Impossible for it to end well' - Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa on real problem at heart of Premier League's Brazil, FIFA and Raphinha row

Fewer games, more investment in grassroots and cheaper tickets – the cure to football’s ills sounded so simple as Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa held court yesterday.

Saturday, 11th September 2021, 6:42 am
CALLED UP - Leeds United winger Raphinha was due to make his Brazil debut during the international break but did not join up with Tite's squad. Pic: Getty

The subject of the international row engulfing Premier League clubs, including his own, was the on-ramp but Bielsa’s thoughts went much further down the road to the very future of the game he loves.

First, to Raphinha and whether or not the Brazilian will be available against Liverpool tomorrow.

As of yesterday’s 1pm press conference, Bielsa was unable to offer a conclusive update but good news did emerge hours later.

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“The position on whether he plays will depend on what the club transmits to me,” he said, betraying at least that Leeds were yet to decide on whether or not to heed the five-day FIFA suspension, put in place for all Premier League Brazilians who were not released for international duty – at least all but Richarlison.

Everton’s ‘good relationship’ with the Brazil Football Confederation was apparently enough to make the Toffees exempt from FIFA’s intervention, making it quite literally one rule for one and another for everyone else.

Although Leeds’ majority owner Andrea Radrizzani said the player himself had made the decision to stay put, Leeds, along with 18 top-flight counterparts, entered into a pact to keep at home players bound for red-listed countries, in order to avoid the quarantine period upon their return.

The result was an inevitable league versus confederation battle, the victims of which were players like Raphinha whose Seleção dream remains unfulfilled and on hold.

The uncertainty, Bielsa said, had no impact on Leeds’ preparations for Liverpool, another dog in the fight, but while Brazil's football authorities appeared to back down last night, this fight may well go on into the next international windows.

Government quarantine exemptions for players returning from red list countries could be one road to redemption but as Bielsa pointed out, there remains one glaring issue that only football itself can fix – the number of games being played in order to generate money.

“The principal problem is that there are more games than can be absorbed,” said Bielsa.

“So the justification for there to be so many games and so many competitions is that football is very expensive, due to how much the players cost, how much they earn.

“When we talk about playing less, that is a truth in the middle. There being a lot of games doesn’t point to earning more to pay those who interpret the game, but with there being more games the industry of football gets more, so what we have to do, clearly, is play less.

“Those who receive honours in participating should earn less so we play less.”

Spending more on developing players than buying and paying elite players would, Bielsa believes, generate lots of good players, presumably removing the need to pay huge sums to a select few.

“My position is to pause the inflation of football, how much it costs and to play less, so the game can be better,” he said.

“Reduce the cost to go to the stadium so there are more spectators and invest more in the foundations so there can be a lot of good players.”

His blow to the capitalist nature of the modern game delivered, Bielsa went on to champion the spirit of the 3pm blackout, a ‘magnificent measure’ in his eyes that protects the English football pyramid.

Returning to the subject of the international row, he expressed understanding of the clubs’ position.

“If a player leaves his club for 10 days, he comes back one day before the league,” said Bielsa.

“When he comes back he can’t play that game [so] he didn’t leave for 10 days, he left for 21 days.

“So for the four weeks in the month there will be three weeks he can’t play for his club. If there’s international breaks in September, October and November in those three months he’s going to participate for three weeks.

“When you face that reality it is impossible to think nothing is going to happen.”

And as a former manager of both Chile and Argentina, he understands the position of the confederations.

“The national teams have to maintain that feeling that football wants to represent their country,” he said.

“When I worked in the national teams we would play one game in every international break, then we started playing two and now three. It’s a need.

“I can’t imagine how we can resolve this because if you listen to the arguments of the owners of the players they have reason. And the managers of every nation, the least they can hope for is that the regulations are met.”

What the game is left with, therefore, is football versus football. How can football possibly win?

“This is completely deformed,” said Bielsa.

“Imagine that a coach receives a player after he has flown 20 hours and he has to play Sunday, Thursday and Sunday again. It’s impossible to do anything other than pick their place, so we have to play no matter what.

“It’s impossible for it to end well. It ends up making the play between teams worse. To ignore the preparation and rest that is needed for the spectacle of the players is absurd. To ignore the effect on the players, the game and hours of flying, will end up injuring any player.”

In a week when the idea of a biennial World Cup has been given the full PR blitz from former players and managers, even if they do claim a desire to cut the number of games, Bielsa’s words sounded timely and yet too late.

Football has long since set its course, led down a path by the promise of riches.

The pandemic, we were told, was going to hit clubs hard in the pocket. It struck so violently that only £1.04bn of Premier League money was spent on new signings this summer. So while player welfare does form part of the argument for not sending players to Brazil, clubs really need their best players to win matches. Wins bring lofty finishes, prize money and cash from European involvement. Good players sell. They make for matches broadcasters will want to pay for.

Yet the matches being played are all the worse for it, Bielsa believes.

“Football is going to waste in such a way that every time it will become less attractive,” he said.

“What I notice is that football is less protected in its essence. The industry is taking the product and every time it interests less people. They have to look for spectators all over the world because one country is not enough, let alone one city.

“They justify it by saying that those in the spectacle earn a lot of money, which also has logic, because who are they supposed to pay?”

“There are other paths, to play less, invest in the grassroots, create cheaper tickets.”

He sees a glimmer of hope in Germany, but convincing everyone getting rich from football that the route to better football is fewer games and less cash is a hopeless task.