Hey! Did you notice the Europa League Final is on today? No? You couldn’t care less? Fine. But they’re going to play the match in Bucharest, regardless. The finalists are Athletic Bilbao and Atlético Madrid. Besides pitting two clubs from Spain’s La Liga, who also both happen to wear red and white stripes, this final features two teams who have Argentine managers. I don’t think that’s ever happened before in Europe (off you go, soccer trivia nerds).
Marcelo “Loco” Bielsa came to Bilbao last summer and has imprinted his signature style, along with his classic eccentricity, to the basque club. A spot in the Europa League and Copa del Rey finals is undoubtedly the best year for Bilbao fans in ages. The team is playing attractive, high intensity football and has defeated the likes of Manchester United and Schalke 04 to get here.
Diego “Cholo” Simeone arrived in Madrid at Christmas to replace Quique Flores (a previous Europa League winner with El Aleti), managing to get Falcao and company into good enough shape to knock off Hannover 96 and Valencia, among others. Simeone is a legend at Atlético, where he did the Liga and Copa del Rey double in 1996.
Both sides have had average results in La Liga this year. Athletic is sitting midtable while Atlético could sneak into a Champions League qualifying spot if things go right in the final week.
The thing I remember Simeone and Bielsa for, however, is Argentina’s disastrous run at the Korea-Japan World Cup in 2002. As manager of La Sele, Bielsa led Simeone and his teammates through a breezy qualifying run that saw them finish first, twelve points ahead of Ecuador. Argentina were favorites to win that World Cup, with world class star players like Gabriel “Batigol” Batistuta, Hernán “Little Valdano” Crespo, Juan Sebastián “Little Witch” Verón, and Pablo “Little Clown” Aimar (among numerous other great players) all at the height of their powers. Verón had the captain’s armband, but Simeone was the field marshal, usually lining up at holding mid. Simeone in his glory days in the 90s was like Mascherano, but better. By 2002, he was getting a little old.
Then came the draw in December 2001, and Argentina got the Group of Death: Nigeria, England (gasp!), and Sweden. Still, winning the group wasn’t out of the question.
Fast forward to June 2, 2002. Argentina opened with a nervy 1:0 win over Nigeria thanks to Batigol. First hurdle down. Five days later, the epic fail at the Sapporo Dome, when the English won on a Beckham penalty in the first half. Not dead yet, a win over Sweden would see Argentina through to the Round of 16.
But then came the limp performance against the Swedes in Miyagi, where an 88′ Crespo equalizer was too little too late, sealing a group stage exit for one of the most talented national teams ever. Simeone was on the bench for this match, having started the first two. I can’t recall why he didn’t play, though he picked up a yellow card against Nigeria. Perhaps Bielsa wanted to be sure he would be available and rested for the Round of 16.
Despite calls for him to resign, Bielsa hung on and led the U23s to Olympic Gold in Athens 2004, reached the final of the Copa America that same year, and then surprisingly quit in the middle of a successful qualifying run for Germany 2006. Classic “Loco” Bielsa.
I can’t really say how much Simeone learned from Bielsa about coaching during their time together with the national team, but I do think this final will be entertaining, to say the least.