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The Inconstant Gardener?

Friday 18th January 2019
Is Marcelo Bielsa football's George Smiley?
Is Marcelo Bielsa football's George Smiley?

In a 1966 interview with the BBC, novelist John le Carre expressed his "dislike" for James Bond.

I'm not sure that Bond is a spy. I think that it's a great mistake if one's talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me he's more some kind of international gangster.

Le Carre thought Ian Fleming's character lived for the violence and would have entered the employ of anyone who could supply him with nerve-gas pens, flame-throwing cigarette lighters and bulletproof Armani dinner jackets as well as keeping him in the lifestyle to which he was accustomed. The man who created master spy George Smiley left the obvious unsaid. If you're always dressed in a tuxedo and either driving around in Aston Martins, frequenting casinos or sleeping with billionaires' wives, word spreads. People soon know who you are. A spy is meant to go unnoticed. Smiley was a pudgy, myopic bureaucrat who left the sleeping around to his wife. People rarely paid him any attention until it was too late.

If Le Carre decided to venture into football writing, it strikes me that Marcelo Bielsa would suit him as a protagonist. While everyone knew that Bielsa was an eccentric genius when it came to football tactics, few realised he was also a spy until one of his operatives managed to get caught peeping through a hole he had drilled in a fence to observe Derby County training.

The UK media branded the affair 'Spygate' which should tell you that no football writer has a future in screenwriting. The term is borrowed from an incident in the 2007 NFL season when the New England Patriots were caught illegally videotaping New York Jets coaches' hand signals to players in-game. The parallel is obvious. Nor do I begrudge the usage from some misguided sense of {cough} Patriotism. American writers adapted so many great television shows and films from British originals over the years, All in the Family, The Italian Job, The Office, et cetera. Turnabout is only fair play. Still, if English football writers couldn't come up with an original term, it leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling the entire field in which I find myself is, in fact, some sort of daycare centre to keep us occupied while the real writers turn out meaningful work. I don't know whether to order a martini or a splash of whiskey in my Rosy Lee.

Bielsa is certainly Le Carre's kind of spy. Male pattern baldness, dark-framed specs, a bit of a spare tire around the waist, that habit of drifting in and out of the public eye at unexpected moments. The Argentine accomplishes his goals in an entirely cerebral fashion. No jumping from planes or running across rooftops for him. He probably found his [former] employee's use of a common, everyday drill to penetrate Derby's security too 007 for his taste.

His reaction to exposure caught everyone off guard. Rather than deny or deflect, he called a press conference in which he treated unsuspecting reporters to a 70-minute lecture on exactly how he prepares for matches and spies on every opponent. How's that for transparency? Among Le Carre's 24 novels is one called The Honourable Schoolboy.

The novelist views espionage as an internal struggle to remember and defend one's ideals rather than become consumed by the adversarial process. In revealing his methods, Bielsa shows his dedication to his craft is more important than obtaining results. Make no mistake, the objective is to win. You cannot produce ideal football if you allow the opponent to dictate terms but his ultimate goal is to play a beautiful game.

During the press conference, the Leeds manager mentioned a post-match visit from Pep Guardiola, then at Barcelona. The Manchester City boss has called Bielsa the world's best coach. In this encounter, the Argentine shared his scouting reports, prompting Guardiola to say Bielsa knew more about Barca than he did. Despite his host's extensive scouting, Pep won the match 3-0. The Imperfect Spy doesn't mind. It's all part of the process.

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Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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