By Pat Johnston
When Athletic of Bilbao squares off against Atletico of Madrid in the Europa Final, to the casual observer there will be a prevalent Spanish flavor. While the supporters and players will uphold this perception, it should be pointed out that all the strings will be pulled via “los hijos” of Argentina.
The highest profile character to patrol the pitch in Bucharest tonight will be the Madman himself, Marcelo Bielsa. Having risen to international acclaim with his assembly and tactical overseeing of Argentina from 1998-2004, Bielsa was heralded as the greatest coach to never win the Cup with the Albicelestes.
His recent transformation of Athletic is well documented and has increased his global stock and appeal with the performances of his Basque based side. The big question is how long will Athletic be able to keep him?
While not as prolific a manager as Bielsa, Atletico’s Diego Simeone has a CV that is admirable. A player for Bielsa in the great Argentine side around the turn of the century, Simeone went on to managerial glory by rejuvenating the once dominant powerhouse of Argentine soccer, Estudiantes de la Plata. Leaving after almost two years in charge he has been a journeyman manager in recent years with stints around Argentina and Italy but has seemed to land solidly in Madrid.
These are two of the great names of soccer in the land of the Albiceleste, but perhaps the most capable Argentine in the Romanian Capital will be Claudio Vivas. Vivas has deep ties with both men and will sitting in his customary seat to the left of Bielsa this evening. He was second man to Bielsa for the national team adventure and when Bielsa left, Vivas went to work for a brief stint in Japan and then eventually came home to oversee one of the most dynastic youth development programs in a country that is perhaps the greatest purveyor of soccer talent on the globe.
He assumed his role as the director of the Estudiantes Academy prior to the arrival of Simeone and supplied Simeone with the players to win the club’s first title in 23 years with the Apertura crown of 2006. After Simeone’s departure he stayed on for another 18 months before moving off into management in the top flight. It was his Academy players that went on to win the Copa Libertadores in 2009 and win yet another Apertura for Estudiantes in 2010.
I spent some time with Vivas while at Estudiantes and his story is an interesting one. His father was the quintessential vicarious parent who imposed upon his son the necessity of a successful football career. Vivas openly admits he was never good enough. His father was so consumed that when it was determined that son Claudio was not a capable player, his father then forced him to become a keeper thinking that might perhaps be the calling. Vainly seeking professional acceptance to appease his father, Vivas was granted salvation by Bielsa when the Madman plucked him from the playing ranks and plunged him into a coaching role in both men’s first go at the managerial side at Newell’s Old Boys in the early 90’s.
While never being the high profile figure of his mentor, within Argentina Vivas is considered one of the most influential figures in the nation’s sport.
Then Bielsa came calling from Spain and Vivas could not resist. Tonight the Bilbao brain trust will be sitting side by side with a like-minded soul in the other dugout. Sons of the “New World” plying their trade in a quintessential “Old World” nation while seeking a major title. I can’t help but think that all three will have a moment in the match where they all connect on a thought that only the three of them can share.
Watch this game, you will not be disappointed.
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