Forget Spygate, Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United deserve to win FIFA Fair Play Award

Tom Carnduff explains why Marcelo Bielsa deserved to win the FIFA Fair Play Award
Tom Carnduff explains why Marcelo Bielsa deserved to win the FIFA Fair Play Award

The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019 took place on Monday night, with the stars of world football sharing an evening to celebrate their achievements.

There was little surprise when it came to the top categories. Lionel Messi claimed The Best FIFA Men's Player while Megan Rapinoe won the Women's equivalent.

Jurgen Klopp was named The Best FIFA Men's Coach after winning the Champions League with Liverpool. Again, bar the usual tribalistic grumblings, this wasn't exactly a shock, nor was it undeserved.

However, in among the major awards, Marcelo Bielsa picked up the FIFA Fair Play Award. The panel judged that his decision to demand that his Leeds team allow Aston Villa to score in their April meeting was an act that stood out from the rest.

It was a bit of a shock. There were no whispers that Leeds were up for this award - instead, the news was broken on social media during the ceremony itself.

Explaining the award, FIFA said: "The Argentinean coach and his team ultimately sacrificed promotion for his team to uphold the values of fair play – instructing his Leeds United team to allow an equaliser after his side had gone 1-0 up with an opposition player down injured."

As with anything relating to Leeds, Twitter was full of reaction to the award. Many expressed shock, referencing the infamous Spygate incident from January.

There were the jokes as well, myself included. Leeds United, the actual Leeds United, winning an actual award from the actual FIFA for fair play? Surely not.

Whatever your opinion on Bielsa's Leeds may be, one thing ought to be clear: the decision by FIFA to give Leeds this award is nothing but the correct one.

Leeds, chasing the promised land of the Premier League, took the lead in a game against a promotion rival and willingly gave away an equaliser in the interest of fair play.

I don't think they should have done it. Mateusz Klich scoring while Jonathan Kodjia was down injured, having hurt himself attempting to tackle a Leeds player, is not worthy of stopping play; Leeds did nothing wrong in the first place.

But there is no doubt that it was an act of incredible sportsmanship. Everyone can say that they would have done the same, but in the moment, with chaos across the pitch, to do so is quite something.

The players clash after Leeds take the lead
The players clash after Leeds take the lead against Aston Villa

Yet Bielsa's justification is seldom remembered, considered or referenced. Instead, Spygate is spoken about.

Remember when Leeds watched training from a public path accessible to anyone? That has seemingly tarnished a figure that English football should be grateful to have.

It probably comes down to what is a modern phenomenon across top-level punditry - laziness.

Rather than assess a situation level-headedly, it's easier to say something that receives more clicks or reaction. "Well Marcelo Bielsa is a cheat so how can he win a fair play award?"

Easy, he's not. In fact, he's quite the opposite. You could tell how much the Spygate situation affected him. He'd spoken in the months before about his feeling of 'being a guest' in England - holding opinions on how things could be done differently but feeling he is not in the place to say so.

The legacy of Spygate is one in which nothing else matters. The multiple acts of good completely disregarded for one that was perceived as bad - and I hold the opinion that certain statements wouldn't have been made had Bielsa been an English coach.

A Leeds fan pokes fun at 'spy-gate'
A Leeds fan pokes fun at Spygate

If you don't believe Bielsa deserves to win an award based around fair play then consider the following.

Consider when he took his Leeds players to pick up litter in his early days at the club to help them understand the value of the cost of a ticket to a regular fan.

Consider the dossier of every formation used in every Sky Bet Championship match during the 2017–18 season in order to prove his "exceptional talent" in order to gain a work permit.

Consider the more than £2m he spent from his own personal money to fund a new training facility at Newell's Old Boys in Argentina - saying it was "paying a debt" to the "the club who formed me."

Consider the fact he lives in a small one-bed apartment and walks 45 minutes each way every day to Leeds' Thorp Arch training ground - rejecting offers of lifts from journalists because "I like to walk."

Consider the money he spent in buying a phone, a laptop, a TV and a car for a raffle for Leeds' day-to-day workers at Christmas - giving it all away to those who worked in the canteen and on the training pitch and elsewhere.

Above all that, consider the fact that he is a normal person. A manager and an exceptional one, but ultimately a man with no interest in the celebrity status that his achievements bring.

"The facts are those which everyone could see," Bielsa said of the Aston Villa incident at the time.

"What happened happened and we behaved as we behaved. That's all I can say about something which is very clear."

When asked if he had instructed his players to allow Villa's equaliser in the interests of fair play or simply to help restore order, Bielsa continued: "I don't understand the difference. I don't see any difference.

"What happened happened and we reacted the way we reacted. You make a difference between fair play and the circumstances of the game, but for me it's the same.

"English football is known around the world for its noble features of how we play."

While the incident in January, and indeed throughout the first-half of the season, led to this belief that Bielsa is a person with a blatant disregard to English values, the game against Aston Villa is one of many which demonstrates quite the opposite.

Bielsa's career hasn't brought the level of trophies that it should have. His genius hasn't been rewarded with accolades. His work has often been away from the brightest of spotlights.

The way he conducts himself has always been high in the priorities list. Never a bad word on officials, never targeting individual players and never looking to bring the game into disrepute.

For Bielsa to be commended for that attitude is the correct call - and there will be many hoping he can end the long wait for team success when the season concludes in May.


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