Bye-Bye Bielsa: The Governance of Soccer and Chile’s Forking Path

By | November 4, 2010

Recent news reports from South America indicate that the coach of Chile’s national team, Marcelo Bielsa, will be leaving his post with immediacy.  To the casual observer, this comes as a shock.  Bielsa has been credited with restoring discipline and professionalism to a national soccer association known more in recent years for scandal than for footballing feat.  Chile’s positive performance in the World Cup, though terminated in an emphatic loss to Brazil, confirmed a national soccer renaissance, accompanied by the flourishing of local talent like Alexis Sánchez, Humerto Suazo, Matías Fernández, Gary Medel, and others.  Having spearheaded this project, the former Argentine national team coach Bielsa has come to enjoy wide celebrity in Chile.

Instrumental in the hiring of the Marcelo Bielsa and the resurrection of Chilean soccer has been Harold Mayne Nicholls, until today the president of the Chilean soccer federation (ANFP).  Mayne Nicholls has argued passionately for the equitable distribution of television funds among all first-division clubs.  Other recent institutional prerogatives include obliging clubs to invest in youth development rather than focus solely on player exportation, and ensuring clubs’ financial contributions to league infrastructures.  These measures have placed him in opposition to the presidents of almost all major Chilean club teams.  According to an article published by journalist Ezequiel Fernández Moores in the Argentine daily La Nación*, almost all major Chilean clubs are now owned by conservative businessmen or corporate groups who vehemently oppose the policies of Mayne Nicholls.  The recent ascendancy in Chilean soccer of Spanish businessman Jorge Segovia, whom club presidents have marketed as a replacement for Mayne Nicholls, is seen by many as engineered by recently elected President of Chile Sebastián Piñera, who according to Fernández Moores maintains major stock holdings in the Chilean giant Colo Colo.  For their part, club presidents see in Segovia and Piñera sympathizers dedicated to the deregulation of Chilean soccer, allies who will free clubs from the financial obligations described earlier–not least of which is the assurance that television deal profits go exclusively to Chile’s biggest clubs.  In Chile’s national association, as in many others, it is first-division club presidents who vote in and remove the association head.  Their threats to depose Mayne Nicholls came to fruition this week.

A surprising twist came with Marcelo Bielsa’s vow to resign as national team coach were Mayne Nicholls to be sacked.  “I’m friend to no league official, but Mayne Nicholls and I share an ideology,” he said in a two-hour press conference yesterday.  “It’s impossible for me to work with Mr. Segovia.”  True to his word, when earlier today the council of club presidents dismissed Mayne Nicholls to replace him with Segovia, Bielsa reiterated his intention to quit.  Even more surprising was the willingness of club presidents to do away with, perhaps, the most popular soccer coach in the history of Chile.  The crowds protesting Segovia’s election in downtown Santiago and the demonstrations of support outside the association training grounds where Bielsa makes his home have failed to sway the decision to elect Segovia.  So have the 80%+ approval rates Bielsa commands in political-style surveys (themselves a reflection of his cultural importance).

As in Argentina, on display here are not only institutional decisions that appear linked to the highest levels of national government.  We see also reflected in Chilean soccer the country’s wider political dilemma: to adhere to or challenge an economic, political, and social system that–successful though it has been–has its roots in the Dirty War and the dictatorship of Pinochet.  Backed by the majority of Chileans, Bielsa and Mayne Nicholls–hardly icons of the left–chose their path.   Recently elected by his own Chilean majority and enjoying record approval ratings in the wake of the magnificent mining rescue, Piñera and his friends at the ANFP have too.

Further updates to come.

Photos from La Tercera

*Cancha Llena is La Nación‘s sports section, included in the paper but marketed as a stand-alone publication.

“The Chilean Way,” published in Cancha Llena on November 2 by Ezequiel Fernández Moores.

Category: Chile News Soccer Business Soccer Politics Tags: ,

About Jeffrey Richey

I'm a graduate student in the History department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My field is Latin American history and my dissertation is about the popularization of football in Argentina during the 1910s and 1920s. I'm especially interested in football as a means of promoting inter-regional integration throughout Argentina during this period. Issues of region, nation and race are central to my study. In today's world of football, FC Barcelona and Rosario Central are my joy and my sorrow.

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