Having been condemned by many for “spying” on opposition teams earlier this season, Leeds United’s manager Marcelo Bielsa finds himself being praised for “sportsmanship” after remarkable scenes in a vital match for the second-tier English club at the weekend.
In January, the 63-year-old Argentine had found himself in hot water after sending scouts to secretly watch opponents train ahead of games in Leeds’ bid to win promotion to the Premier League, in an incident dubbed “spygate” by the British media.
Fast forward to Sunday and, in something of a Damascene conversion, Bielsa was ordering his Leeds players to let opponents Aston Villa score an equalizing goal.
The bizarre scenes followed a passage of play which led the Argentine to believe his side had taken the lead unfairly during the Championship match.
After Aston Villa player Jonathan Kodjia injured himself in a tackle, most of the stadium expected the hosts to knock the ball out of play – allowing the striker to receive treatment.
Leeds had other ideas and Mateusz Klich played on against static defenders to give his side a controversial lead.
A mass brawl erupted as soon as Klich’s shot hit the back of the net, with Aston Villa players furious that their pleas had been ignored by their opponents.
Aston Villa’s managerial team, which includes former Chelsea defender John Terry, led the furious protests from the side of the pitch, confronting Bielsa.
Villa’s Anwar el Ghazi was also sent off amid the melee for an apparent swipe at Leeds striker Patrick Bamford – although television footage reveals that no contact was made.
Bielsa then told his players to let Aston Villa walk the ball into the back of the net from the restart.
“English football is known for sportsmanship so I don’t have to comment on this kind of thing, which is common in England,” Bielsa told Sky Sports after the game.
Whilst most of his players toed the line, defender Pontus Jansson was unhappy with his manager’s decision and attempted, in vein, to prevent Villa scoring at the last minute.
The home supporters unanimously booed the equalizing goal which subsequently ended any hopes of automatic promotion into the English Premier League next season.
However, the football community has rallied around Bielsa and praised the Argentine’s actions after the 1-1 draw.
“Full respect to Marcelo for doing that,” Aston Villa manager Dean Smith told local radio channel BBC WM 95.6. “I think sportsmanship has prevailed in the end.”
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger also commended Bielsa for his “remarkable gesture.”
“They are playing to come up to the Premier League and there is something at stake. the whole world has to watch that,” Wenger told beIN Sports.
Now that automatic promotion is no longer possible, Leeds must navigate the Championship playoffs – which pit together the teams that finish between third and sixth in the table.
It’s a very real possibility that Leeds will face Aston Villa again in the playoff final which has been dubbed the most expensive game in football due to the financial fortunes that await the winners in the Premier League.
Last season’s playoff final was estimated to be worth over $200 million to winners Fulham, though the London team has already been relegated from English football’s top flight during the current campaign.