What is known about Marcelo Bielsa’s career as a player?

Bielsa was once a player for Newell’s Old Boys but retired at the age of 25


Marcelo Bielsa is best known as a trailblazing coach whose style of football is admired around the world. Bielsa started his coaching career at his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys, where he was a player in the 1970s. It is well-known that his playing career came to an end then he was 25 partly due to injury, but what else is known about Bielsa the footballer?

Let’s take a look at some details that are not widely known, like his position, squad number at Newell’s, other clubs he turned out for, and the little known story of El Loco representing his country Argentina.


What position was Marcelo Bielsa as a player?

Bielsa was a defender who was has been described as “rocky” and “temperamental” on the football pitch. 


Bielsa’s career as a player for Newell’s Old Boys

Bielsa started his footballing career in the youth academy of Newell’s Old Boys, the club he supported as a boy. In 1974, the year Newell’s first won the Argentine Championship, 18-year-old Bielsa, who was yet to make his debut for the club, was called up to the Argentina u-20 squad for the 1974 South American u-20 Championship which took place in Chile. However, without seeing a minute of action, Bielsa watched his teammates finish 4th, losing in the semi-finals 2-0 to rivals Brazil. Two years later, 20-year-old Marcelo Bielsa made his debut for Newell’s Old Boys on the 29th of February 1976 in a league match against River Plate, who were the defending champions from 1975. River Plate, who boasted the talent of Daniel Passarella that day, were the victors winning 2-1.

The Newell’s team that lined up with Bielsa included two other players who like Bielsa would go on to coach Newell’s: Mario Zanabria and Américo Gallego. Gallego brought glory to La Lepra by winning the championship as manager in 2004. 

A picture exists from that day which shows Bielsa challenging River’s Alejandro Sabella. Both would go on to manage Argentina in their later careers, and both would also represent Leeds United; Sabella as a player (1980-1981) and Bielsa as the Yorkshire club’s manager.

After his debut against River, Bielsa would only play three other matches for Newell’s.

A week after his debut, he started against San Lorenzo (a 1-1 draw) and in December 1976 he started against Talleres, a match which ended in a defeat for Newell’s (1-3). His final game for Newell’s came in July 1978 when he came on for Armando Capurro three minutes from the end against Gimnasia La Plata. Bielsa was on the winning side for the first time ever with Newell’s (3-1), but it would be the last time he ever pulled on the red and black as a player.


What was Bielsa’s squad number for Newell’s? 

Bielsa wore the number 2 shirt for Newell’s, which is traditionally a centre-back’s number in Argentina. 


What other clubs did Bielsa play for?

In 1977, Bielsa along with two other Newell’s teammates, was sent on loan to Instituto, a club in the city of Cordóba. He played 16 times for Instituto but it was an unhappy time with the team struggling to pick up many points and finishing the season 8th in a league of 10 teams.

Bielsa was appointed as the penalty taker of the side but missed the only penalty awarded that season (against Godoy Cruz). Reports from his time at Instituto say that Bielsa became annoyed at the team’s performance and was starting to lose his joy for playing football, shutting himself away in his apartment to listen to tango music. He also started to learn about how to run a newspaper and magazine kiosk. He would soon open a kiosk business with friends as his football career started to dwindle.

Bielsa eventually made the decision to terminate his contact at Instituto and return to Newell’s. Following that final appearance as a substitute against Gimnasia in 1978, Bielsa signed for Argentino de Rosario, a small club in his hometown that played in the fourth tier of Argentine football. It was at Argentino that Bielsa would score his only goals as a player.

Starting as a striker, instead of his usual defensive position, a 24-year-old Bielsa grabbed a brace in a 2-1 win against Candombero. With Argentino finishing 6th in the division at the end of the season, Bielsa had an offer to continue his career at the Buenos Aires-based club Platense but the man who would become known as “El Loco” was struggling with a knee injury and had enough of playing football. He retired as a player but with strong dreams of becoming a football coach. And the rest, as they say, is history. 


Believe it or not: Bielsa played for Argentina

Yes, it’s true. In fact, Marcelo Bielsa played more games for his country than he did for Newell’s Old Boys. When previously asked about his career as a player, he told the media that he was ‘bad, very bad’ but history will show that he did represent his country. However, the turn of events that led to Bielsa playing for Argentina is anything but straightforward.

In a bizarre turn of events that characterised the disorganisation of Argentine football in the 1970s, AFA (Argentine Football Association) sent a team of youth players from Newell’s Old Boys, led by Jorge Griffa, to represent Argentina in a pre-Olympics qualification tournament in Brazil in 1976. The Association, under pressure from FIFA, had to name a squad for a tournament that they had no interest in participating in. Instead of sending stars like Kempes and Ardiles, national team manager César Luis Menotti asked Jorge Griffa to take his team of talented players from Newell’s, who had recently tasted success at youth level, to Recife to try and qualify for the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Marcelo Bielsa was amongst the players that were sent and he found himself pulling on the blue and white of Argentina despite being an unknown youth at Newell’s. Amazingly, the young Newell’s/Argentina side finished third despite having to play against full senior international sides like Chile and Colombia.

Although finishing third meant Argentina didn’t qualify for the Olympics, Bielsa played in every match and even impressed enough to be named in the Team of the Tournament.

The disappointment of failing to help Argentina qualify for the Olympics in 1976 would be forgotten by 2004, when as manager of Argentina, Marcelo Bielsa took his country to a goal medal in the football tournament of the Athens Olympics. 

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