Some readers may remember a couple of Herald pieces in recent years highlighting the grip Catholic football managers seemed to have assumed over the Premier League, with one winning team after another being coached by a man reared in the faith and often devoutly practising it as well. This run has just been interrupted with the triumph of Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp, who, while not a Catholic, nevertheless speaks very openly about the part Christianity plays in his life and career.
Down in the Championship, though, things are stirring. Leeds United have come out on top and will return to the Premier League next season following a 16-year exile. They are managed by the Argentinian, Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa is a legend in football coaching circles, at whose feet some of the greats of the modern era come to learn and whose career has taken him from his home country to Spain, France, Italy and now west Yorkshire. He is one of the most talked about figures in the game, variously portrayed as charismatic, kindly, and obsessive. A new biography is titled The Quality of Madness: one of Bielsa’s nicknames is “El Loco”.
Moreover, Bielsa, now operating in God’s Own County, also appears to be a devout Catholic. A story frequently told about him concerns a trip he made with his wife to the St Clare Convent in Guernica while he was in charge of Athletic Bilbao, back in 2011. In a subsequent match, he draped a sign with the words “Poor Clares” from the bench. One of the officials had it removed, but Bilbao still won the game. Mother Maria Teresa Gerrikabeitia, the convent superior, told CNA that their visitor seemed to be “a very religious man of great faith”. More recently, a touching video has emerged of Bielsa stopping his very modest car while leaving Derby County’s ground to get out and give a celebratory hug to a severely disabled fan.
Marcelo Bielsa may, at some point, follow in the footsteps of the likes of Mancini, Mourhino, Conte and several other Catholics in claiming the Premier League title. But what, if anything, lies behind this pattern of success? In my previous articles I have sketched a few theories: an ease among members of a universal Church in leading teams composed of players from multiple ethnic backgrounds, perhaps; or a peculiar form of Catholic guilt that will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of the collective exaltation that comes from the beautiful game beautifully played? Or maybe it’s just a trick of football history. Something to ponder as the 2020-21 season unfolds.