What’s Behind the Basque Mess?

Athletic Bilbao won fans everywhere last year with a dynamic style of play that always entertained. Led by the mercurial Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa, Bilbao featured a great blend of young starlets (Javi Martinez, Iker Muniain) and experienced players (Andoni Iraola, Paco Llorente) united in purpose and spirit. Bilbao’s 2011-2012 campaign will be remembered by a spectacular run in the Europa League during which the Basque club eliminated big names, notably Man United, and impressed with an irrepressible attacking style. Yet in the final, the dream season-ending was derailed by an exceptional Radamel Falcao and his resilient Atletico Madrid team-mates. Ever since that May night in Bucharest, Bilbao’s prospects have unraveled further and faster.

One of Bilbao’s admirers was Inter’s Moratti. At the end of last season Bielsa’s name popped up as a possible high-profile new man in charge at Inter, but in the end Moratti stuck with his low-profile man, Andrea Stramaccioni. Moratti must be smiling about that today. Bilbao’s problems appear to be rooted in the tension between Bielsa and the club’s President. Feeling untouchable, Bielsa, a very intense guy on any day, exploded with fury when the renovation of the club’s training facilities were not completed as promised in July. In a weird episode, he called the police … on himself for insulting and pushing the construction manager. The club’s board and President defended the construction team, creating palpable tension with Bielsa. In this strained environment, Bilbao’s two best players, Llorente and Javi Martinez, each with a year left on their contract, expressed their desire to leave the club, deepening the supporters’ agony and despair. Bielsa threatened to resign if Javi Martinez was let go, but he continued to work without him thus far.

The messy situation showed up immediately in Bilbao’s first two La Liga matches: a 5-3 home loss to Betis and a 4-0 trouncing to the same Atletico Madrid this past week-end. Nine goals conceded in two games, both without Martinez and Llorente. The pressure on Bielsa is intensifying every moment and he probably has two more games to save his position. Despite its very talented roster, more than anything else the loss of unity has devastated the psychology of the club. If Bielsa is too big for the club, he must go sooner rather than later. Another home loss would confirm that he lost this group of players.

Javi Martinez is now gone, having found a very complicated road to Bayern Munich. Javi was so desperate to get out of Bilbao that he took less money from the Germans. Llorente wants to go to Juventus, but the Italians don’t want to pay out his $46 million contract clause, hoping to get him on the cheap. Even if these two sales raise almost $100 million, Bilbao has a policy to buy only Basque players, which leaves them with slim options for this season. Still, it is early and there is time to restore calm. But losing Javi Martinez and Llorente, more than anything else, created a huge psychological gap within the team, as shown in the last couple of Sundays. Will Bielsa be the next to go?