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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
'Madman' with the midas touch
Marcelo Bielsa and Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta
Marcelo Bielsa and Argentina striker Gabriel Batistuta
Marcelo Bielsa may not be a household name yet, but the sight of the Argentina coach prowling the touchline could become a familiar one in Korea and Japan.

His star-studded team is fancied by many to take the trophy last claimed for Argentina by the inspirational Diego Maradona in 1986.

And the man known as 'El Loco' - the madman - has already won a major victory by making Argentine fans and press forget about Daniel Passarella.

When Passarella retired as Argentina coach after guiding the team to the last eight at France 98, it seemed a change of direction was on the cards.

Argentina players celebrate victory over Ecuador
Victory over Ecuador secured qualification
As captain of the national side, Passarella had played in three World Cups, lifting the trophy on home soil in 1978.

His tough image and fierce commitment was very much to the fore when he took over coaching duties, insisting his players cut their hair and lose the jewellery.

His harsh discipline may not have been universally popular, but Passarella commanded sufficient respect in the Argentine game to get away with it.

The arrival of the little-known Bielsa after France 98 came as a surprise to everyone.

He had not coached either of the Buenos Aires giants, River Plate or Boca Juniors, and had just taken up a post with Spanish side Espanol.

A successful spell with Velez Sarsfeld apart, Bielsa had made practically no impression in his home country.

But what he did share with his illustrious predecessor was a passion for the job.

In fact, Bielsa made Passarella look like a shrinking violet, stalking the touchline during matches and engaging in intense debate during press conferences.

Juan Sebastien Veron
Veron has flourished under Bielsa
Described by the Argentine press as a "football obsessive", he was said to be "informed, meticulous and organised in the extreme".

There is no doubt that he has benefited from the team created by Passarella, and many of the same faces that featured in France four years ago starred in qualification this time around.

But despite the talent available, the Argentina squad is not the easiest to handle for a relatively low-profile manger.

The majority of the squad play at Europe's most glamorous clubs and only rarely return to Argentina.

But Bielsa has not been afraid to take difficult decisions, leaving out the talismanic Gabriel Batistuta during qualifying in preference to Hernan Crespo.

His refusal to rely solely on the biggest of the star players at his disposal has fostered a team spirit that has not always been in evidence with Argentina sides.

"There is no Maradona in this team but we all help each other, and that's why we are so powerful," said Juan Sebastien Veron.

It took some time, but when Argentina qualified for Korea and Japan with four games to spare, the press and public alike were finally convinced by their team.

A 2-1 victory over Brazil last September left the home fans signing Bielsa's name for the first time.

Hernan Crespo
Hernan Crespo was top scorer in qualifying
It also proved that, for the moment at least, Argentina have overtaken their old rivals as South America's leading team.

Bielsa's ability to blend the traditional Argentine skills within a more rigid, European team ethic was exactly what Brazil had been trying to achieve.

The men in yellow laboured in qualifying with a side apparently devoid of inspiration.

Bielsa, meanwhile, has created what veteran midfielder Diego Simeone describes as "the most attack attack-minded" side he has played in.

Up until now, it seems that the madman has got just about everything right.


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GROUP F
  P GD PTS
SWEDEN 3 +1 5
ENGLAND 3 +1 5
ARGENTINA 3 0 4
NIGERIA 3 -2 1

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