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Masters of Reinvention

For the coaches of Honduras, Chile, Spain, and Mexico, just getting to the World Cup is a victory over the past

Vicente del Bosque, seleccionador de España, levanta el trofeo entre sus compañeros de equipo después de ganar la Copa Mundial de la FIFA 2010.

Vicente del Bosque, the coach that led Spain to win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. — SRDJAN SUKI/epa/Corbis

En español | Four coaches whose teams made it to the World Cup in South Africa are already winners regardless of their ultimate fortunes on the field: They are back at the top of their game after having been ousted—even ostracized—by previous teams. For Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, 55, Colombian Reinaldo Rueda, 53, Mexican Javier Aguirre, 52, and Spaniard Vicente Del Bosque, 60, this World Cup is truly a second chance at redemption.

For Bielsa and Rueda in particular, making it to South Africa is a bittersweet victory, having come to the Chilean and Honduran national teams, respectively, as exiles unwelcome in their own homes. Each, one might say, has already achieved redemption, reinventing their careers as well as their personal lives. So much so that the Honduran Parliament resolved to grant Rueda citizenship in that nation, whatever the outcome of the tournament in South Africa. Similarly in Chile, Bielsa is loved and revered even after his team failed to make the quarterfinals.

Reinaldo Rueda – His Nine Lives

Popular wisdom holds that soccer coaches have more lives than a cat, and Reinaldo Rueda is a case in point. Born in Cali, in southeastern Colombia, Rueda never excelled as a player and seemed destined for the junior leagues. He then decided to refocus on academics. He earned a degree in Physical Education, became a soccer coach, and left for Germany to pursue graduate studies in Cologne.

Reinaldo Rueda

— © GUSTAVO AMADOR/epa/Corbis

While in charge of Colombian soccer's junior divisions, Rueda earned recognition for his perseverance, leading his country to third place in the 2003 Junior World Cup. Fame and success followed, and he coached all rungs of Colombian soccer, from the Under 17 to the Under 23 teams, finally assuming direction of the adult national team. But a bad showing left the team out of the 2006 World Cup, and Rueda's luck did an about-face.

Fired despite coming within one point of the championship, in January 2007 he was presented with an opportunity to vindicate himself at the helm of the Honduran team. But Rueda would still make good use of his remaining lives on the road to the 2010 World Cup. He used one up on a highway in Annecy, France, on December 11, 2009, while scouting locations for the team before heading to South Africa: in a major accident, a car smashed into the back of the truck he was riding. "We were going along without incident in the truck and, all of a sudden, we felt a crash and panic took over," Rueda would later say to reporters. "God and the Virgin saved our lives," he told the Colombian daily El Tiempo.

Marcelo Bielsa

— EPA © Corbis

Marcelo Bielsa – A Perfect Love Affair

Honduras's head coach was safe and sound, but Colombia mourned the loss of a master. In a similar vein, Argentina would rue the loss of Marcelo Bielsa, nicknamed "El Loco," or "The Madman" because he demands work, discipline, respect, and sportsmanship. Bielsa has showed his unwillingness to compromise on those values since winning his first title as coach of Newell's Old Boys, his hometown team in Rosario, north of Buenos Aires.
It was 1991 and Bielsa, 35, was having the time of his life coaching his beloved team following an unsuccessful stint as a player in the same club. After securing the championship, Bielsa convened the team at the local church to give thanks. Half the roster didn't show, and the coach quit the next day, unfortunately for Newell's and the city. From then on, he was known as "Bielsa the Madman."

The anecdote paints a perfect picture of the man: methodical, obsessive, and strict, Bielsa trained with such legends as Jorge Griffa and César Luis Menotti. A man of few words with the press who keeps his distance with the public, Bielsa opts for wearing track suits and is not wont to celebrate victories or lament defeats. Soccer, for him, is measured by effort: "In his work Bielsa is relentless: he collects videos, obsessively watching plays over and over, and holds to the conviction that the team is more than any one individual," says journalist Nibaldo Mosciatti, press director of Bío-Bío, one of the most listened-to radio stations in the Chilean capital of Santiago. "Bielsa brought audacity to Chilean football: in other words, [he instilled the idea of] playing to win by the team's own merits rather than by the failures of its rival," says Mosciatti.
In his country, Argentina, people thought otherwise. Criticized by the Argentine press after a disastrous World Cup effort in 2002—when his team was eliminated in the first round—and in constant conflict with the Argentine soccer leadership, Bielsa retreated in 2004 to a family ranch in Rosario. There his wife and two daughters visited him and often found him analyzing videos and studying plays. His exile lasted until the Chilean Federation paid him a discreet visit in March 2007 to offer him a job. Bielsa left his family in Argentina and moved alone to the Federation's headquarters in August 2007. Resisted at first, partly because of the classic Argentine-Chilean rivalry, Bielsa salvaged a team in free fall and delivered a remarkable season capped by a victory over Argentina, a victory seen on the other side of the Andes as payback for offenses received.

By then, Marcelo Bielsa had become a celebrity in Chile. Songs, interviews, books, and genuine adoration for his work had turned him into a successful man; his relationship with Chile was also a perfect example of mutual admiration, a perfect love affair: Bielsa had changed the face of Chilean football, but at the same time Chile had changed Bielsa. "In Argentina my passion for soccer is exacerbated. It's not that I'm a moderate Argentine; quite the contrary: I am a man of extremes," he told Spanish journalist Cayetano Ríos to explain why he's so attuned to Chile, a country he considers moderate in its approach to the sport; where, he says, soccer is simply a game, nothing more. “For me soccer is everything. I think soccer, I speak soccer, I read soccer, and you cannot live like that forever.”

Rafael Bielsa, the coach's brother and a former Argentine foreign minister, explains the relationship more precisely: "There are a number of values in Chilean society that match up with his," he wrote in his book, Una luz de almacén, in reference to his brother’s comeback. "What in Argentina was [perceived as] harshness, there [in Chile] it is [perceived as] dedication to work; what in Argentina was [seen as] haughtiness, [in Chile] is [seen as] unpretentiousness, humility."

Vicente del Bosque

— Getty Images

Vicente Del Bosque - Man of La Mancha

Chile is Bielsa’s "signature team," say Spanish experts, a phrase that applies equally well to Spain, coached by Vicente Del Bosque. Del Bosque enjoys almost absolute support among Spanish fans, partly because there's also an affront to settle on his behalf.

It was the heyday of Galactic champions Real Madrid, which Del Bosque had led successfully since 1999. His accomplishments as coach in that period are impressive: in four seasons he won two League titles, two European Championships, two Super Cups and one Intercontinental Cup. Yet in June 2003, one day after Real Madrid won its twenty-ninth local title, club officials fired him, citing a lack of discipline within the team and the coach’s inability to control superstars like France’s Zidane, Portugal's Figo and Brazil’s Ronaldo.

The decision relegated Vicente Del Bosque to the sidelines. He had offers to coach teams in and out of Spain, but they weren’t a good fit. From Real Madrid he went to the Turkish club Besiktas, where he lasted only one season. He then rejected an offer in 2006 to lead the Mexican national team, and, the following year, he joined the Cadiz FC coaching staff, resigning shortly thereafter. His dismissal from Real Madrid dogged him, a stain on his record salvaged only by an offer to coach the Spanish national team in 2008. "Vicente Del Bosque is from Salamanca, that is to say, a tough Spaniard from Castilian Spain, authentic and frank. An upright, trustworthy man," says Antonio Caño, Washington, D.C. bureau chief of the Spanish daily El País.
"As a player he was creative, and as a coach, a lover of good soccer. He won the European Cup with Real Madrid and was dismissed in spite of the achievement, because he lacked the sophistication demanded by a team and a president who wanted not only to win but also to generate universal admiration," says Caño.
A practical and kind man with his players, Del Bosque has been portrayed as a veritable encyclopedia by those who have worked with him.

Javier Aguirre

— LatinContent/Getty Images

Javier Aguirre – The Wrath of Mexico

But if Del Bosque is happy avoiding the press spotlight, the same cannot be said of his Mexican counterpart Javier Aguirre, "the Basque," as they call him because of his immigrant parents’ national origin. Aguirre, despite losing his post after the elimination of Mexico by Argentina, also experienced the pleasure of well-deserved vindication after qualifying Mexico for the championship in South Africa.
"I'm Javier Aguirre and I love Mexico. I don't know if I always understand it, but I know I always love it." With these words, the coach introduces himself on a video currently circulating on the Internet as part of the "Mexico Initiative," a communications effort designed to hearten his dispirited countrymen, battered by drug violence and political tension. The video is a good portrait of Aguirre: a man who seeks to motivate his peers, who speaks plainly and directly, looking to address issues beyond the realm of soccer and willing to generate controversy if necessary.
"Javier Aguirre is a serious, forthright hard worker who accepts responsibility for his mistakes in a country that excuses its own errors," says writer and columnist Juan Villoro in a phone conversation from Mexico City. "He managed to qualify Mexico in second place, behind the United States, and that raised excessively high hopes,¨ Villoro adds. Instead of leveling expectations, Aguirre made statements in Spain indicating that Mexico had become a disaster. ¨He was referring to crime, the economic crisis, and soccer. He received a barrage of criticism and had to apologize," says Villoro.
Aguirre did not seem intimidated by the wrath of Mexico. For him, it was about shaking Mexico and Mexican soccer out of the stupor of resignation and fatalism.
Accustomed to meeting the fight head-on since his days as striker, a trait that cost him a fractured rib and fibula while playing for Osasuna in Spain, Aguirre played in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and began his coaching career 10 years later, although almost immediately he traveled to Europe to complete his studies. Since then, his career has followed the same intermittent pattern, with a few seasons coaching Mexico and then a few seasons in Spain. In 2009 Atlético Madrid sacked him despite the team's good performance. Hurt and jobless, Aguirre didn't think twice when the Mexican Federation again offered him the head coaching position, a post he had previously held during the FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea 2002.

"I sensed a general discouragement in the air, in everything," he would later tell the Spanish daily El País, recalling his first days leading the Mexican team. "The atmosphere was tense. I asked for a six-month truce for all of us to understand that we Mexicans weren't the enemy, but rather that it was external."

Words to live by from a man used to picking himself up and reinventing himself, on and off the soccer field.

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