Marcelo Bielsa dismissed it as a “small gesture” but on Saturday night the impact of his £3m donation to Newell’s Old Boys spoke for itself. The Argentinian club unveiled a new training facility at their home in Rosario, paid for with cash from Bielsa’s pocket and designed with the help of architects in his family.
The five-story complex has been dubbed the ‘Jorge Griffa Hotel’, honouring a stalwart of Newell’s who acted as Bielsa’s assistant in the 1990s and inspired their remarkable scouting system, but the name of Leeds United’s head coach was beamed onto the side of the building on Saturday, in a message reading: “Gracias Marcelo Bielsa.”
Newell’s, who Bielsa supported, played for and managed to two Argentinian titles, have joined the 21st century with a project which provides sleeping quarters for their players, rest areas, new dressing rooms and vastly improved facilities for video analysis. Bielsa wanted to help fund the construction and, according to those close to him, put up almost $4m to meet the cost of building work, a sum in excess of his annual salary at Leeds. His sister, a qualified architect, is reported to have drawn up the plans free of charge.
Bielsa explained last month that the donation was repayment for the opportunities and guidance Newell’s had given him at the very start of his career. “From the club who formed me, I received more from Newell’s Old Boys than what I gave to them,” Bielsa said. “I’m actually paying a debt to Newell’s Old Boys rather than making a gift.”
Newell’s invited Bielsa to be attend the official opening of the complex over the weekend. Leeds’ trip to Wigan Athletic on Sunday prevented Bielsa from travelling. But the 63-year-old, who coached Newell’s between 1990 and 1992, sent a nine-minute video message to the gathering in Rosario, expressing his gratitude and humility over the decision to name their stadium after him nine years ago.
What had previously been known as El Coloso del Parque - ‘The Colossus of the Park’ - became Estadio Marcelo Bielsa in 2009. Bielsa said the acknowledgement was “one of the happiest days of my life” but insisted the honour should have gone instead to Griffa, the 83-year-old who Bielsa describes as “a master for me”. Griffa turned out at Saturday’s opening to formally cut the ribbon.
“From 1992 until now, I've had very few opportunities to communicate with Newell's fans,” Bielsa said in his video message. “The last time this happened was when they designated my name to the Coloso del Parque.
“That day I remember as one of the happiest of my life. To feel loved, and for this to be expressed by 40,000 people of which I feel one amongst them, has been an emotion which is hard to explain.
“There are occasions in which you can't express what you feel because the intensity of it overcomes you. At that moment I knew I didn't deserve the distinction I was being awarded. I’ve lived in close proximity to the last 50 years of Newell's (history) and in my opinion, the most important and influencing person in that period was Jorge Griffa. I knew with great clarity that it was him who deserved the recognition I received.
“As time went by I understood, or reached the conclusion, that all my professional career and a great part of my personal development I owed to Newell's and Jorge. In that respect, I honestly believe that all I have received is a lot more than what I gave, or what I offered.”
Read Marcelo Bielsa's video message in full:
“From 1992 until now I've had very few opportunities to communicate with Newell's fans. The last time this happened was when they designated my name to the Coloso del Parque. That day I remember as one of the happiest of my life. To feel loved and for this to be expressed by 40,000 people, of which I feel one amongst them, has been an emotion that is hard to explain.
“There are occasions in which you can't express what you feel because the intensity of it overcomes you. At that moment I knew I didn't deserve the distinction I was being awarded. I’ve lived in close proximity to the last 50 years of Newell's (history) and in my opinion the most important and influencing person in that period was Jorge Griffa. I knew with great clarity that it was him who deserved the recognition I received.
“As time went by I understood, or reached the conclusion, that all my professional career and a great part of my personal development I owed to Newell's and Jorge. In that respect I honestly believe that all I have received is a lot more than what I gave or what I offered.
“In one way or another each one of us has received an education. In general it prepares us to stand out and generate some kind of material prosperity: ‘rich and famous’ like in magazine sections. I my particular case an important part of life has already gone by and you understand from that how we have lived. What was really worth it are the emotions we remember and the relationships we built. I don't exaggerate when I say that every day I remember a moment I lived during the 20 years I spent at the club. Players, colleagues, staff members, football players who never made it, fans, friends, matches, anecdotes, meetings, gatherings. It's an infinite amount of memories.
“Excluding my personal life, nothing makes me more emotional than every day when I recall Newell's. With respect to the building of relationships, the conduct, the behaviour and the decisions we make are linked to the values we receive and incorporate forever. I know this is not a law but the better we are, the better the world we create. Of course Griffa taught me how to understand football. He was a visionary and there wasn't an aspect of the game he didn't master or doesn't master. However, what I thank him for the most are the normalities he transmitted to us when he showed us the way he lived.
“I link in this way the normality of the decisions we make and the conditions we access according to the way we behave with the relationships which guide our development and the education we receive.
“During 10 years, daily, I would wait until 7pm to go to the office Jorge had in the Parque to listen to him talk. Few things that are said today about our sport were not told to me by Jorge in his own way 40 years ago. What I remember is his influence, aside from methods or systems, and his generous character as a teacher. Teacher with a capital T.
“He transmitted to me his unconditional love for football and his decency that survived in a world full of vices, and the idea that the task must be done in a professional manner even if you receive nothing in exchange. In other words, do things in return for nothing - just for the pleasure of seeing the results of the efforts you made, just so we can measure what we are capable of.
“During 20 years, he was the true builder of Newell's institutional profile: to form young players, to obtain valuable sporting results and only transfer them when it was possible to replace them. To this day, Newell's are viewed as the brand he designed. Any recognition of his work will be insufficient, considering his legacy.
“But the construction of the building (the new training complex) was a choice that was aimed at increasing and providing new tools which would help improve the preparation of our footballers. In an industrialised football, like the current one, where economic power is reserved for very few clubs, one way of remaining competitive is to attract amateur or professional players and prestigious coaches by seducing them with the infrastructure and the organisation.
“Just as an example, I wish for Newell's to continue growing and provide access to a similar hotel to this one, built in Bella Vista, which hosts young players and allows them to receive their school education there. Another idea is to build a perimeter walk, with walls that depict the history of our club so that new generations know about it. Another proposal is to modernise the dressing room of the professional team, which is also in our training centre. There are designs and existing projects to realise every one of these possibilities.
“Newell’s fills its stadium with 40,000 people every time they play. They have Bella Vista and a history and tradition which authorises the club to aspire to the best. Griffa has already indicated the path that is necessary for us to walk again.
“Finally, I thank Jorge one more time for all his legacy. I would like to extend my gratitude to all those who made this work possible, especially to the many who did it without any (financial) interests. I also want to say thank you to the anonymous Newell's fans who are the true builders and owners of the passion that gathers us.
“Everyone of us who participate in this business, which football has become, is replaceable. The only ones who are irreplaceable are you, the fans, the ones that don't ask for anything in return, just emotions. Thank you very much.”