EFL: Leeds, Marcelo Bielsa and ‘spygate’ – what’s all the fuss?

After Marcelo Bielsa’s admission of spying on Leeds’ opponents’ training sessions this season, Ross Bramble discusses the aftermath and the questions surrounding ‘spygate’.

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If you ever play a game of Go Fish with me, there’s a solid chance I’ll lie and tell you I don’t have the card you’re looking for if I think the game is going against me. Does that make me a bad person? Perhaps, but I’ve never once regretted it.

My relationship with cheating is a controversial one, and understandably so. I’ll take whatever advantage I can find to help my cause, so long as I calculate I can get away with it. Perhaps that’s why Leeds United’s recent ‘spygate’ scandal struck such a deep chord with me.

When I first heard the news, I, like many neutrals, thought it was outrageous – it just isn’t done, is it? Or, if it is done, it’s never broadcast and worn as a badge of honour by the perpetrators. Yet, that’s exactly how it was worn by a rather nonchalant Marcelo Bielsa, who dryly explained the practise of spying on his opponent’s training sessions was not only something he’d done for years, but something that happens elsewhere all the time.

The tactical press conference the Argentine held, in which he invited journalists to view his mountainous spreadsheets of data and analysis, seemed to me like distracting your toddler by jingling a bunch of keys. It worked, mind you, because the furore over ‘spygate’ from the media seemed to almost entirely dissipate.

That hasn’t quelled the rebellion among other EFL clubs, though, many of whom have registered their complaints with the governing body. If league leaders Leeds are persecuted for their spying, they could face a costly points deduction that could open the door for Norwich, West Brom, Sheffield United and others to stake a claim to the title.

What struck me most during the entire debacle was how I, as someone who subscribes to the Eddie Guerrero philosophy of “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”, could be so certain that what Bielsa had done was appalling, but lying in a game of Go Fish was entirely inadmissible.

The answer, obviously, is because cheating in a game of Go Fish helps me. As a massive Championship fan, Bielsa spying on training sessions feels as though it hurts me. It’s weakened the competitive spirit of my favourite division by giving one team an advantage over their 23 opponents. But what if I were a Leeds fan? Well, I’d probably be quite happy with him.

It’s not all that hard a leap to make, either. Each and every football fan is willing to forgive cheating in their own ranks so long as it furthers their team’s cause – in fact, we even have a euphemism for it: “the dark arts”.

I vividly remember the night that Southampton played Inter Milan in the Europa League. Southampton went a goal behind but won a penalty just before half-time, and with the referee’s back turned, one of the Inter players started scuffing and digging up the penalty spot. Tadic duly missed the preceding penalty. I was livid at the injustice – but I also hoped some of our players were taking notes.

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When Nathan Redmond scores with his arm against West Ham, I, as a Southampton fan, take pride in his cunning. When Abdoulaye Doucoure palms a ball into the net and steals three points from us, though, I’m appalled. Watford fans? Well, they loved every minute of it.

There’s a part of us all that thinks each game should start and end with a handshake – the ethical grey areas that players like Diego Costa reside in feel incompatible with that Duchess of Queensbury Rules mindset we seem to have.

Therein lies the crux of the ‘spygate’ scandal – do the EFL sides have a right to be upset? Almost undoubtedly. But would fans have admired their dedication to success if their manager had been on the other end of the binoculars? Almost undoubtedly.

Cheating has always been a part of the business, and it can never be stamped out so long as fans make allowances for those who cheat in their favour.

If Leeds are punished by the EFL, I think we’d all – perhaps with the exception of Leeds fans – feel some sort of vindication. But to claim any sort of ethical superiority over the Whites seems, to me, short-sighted at best and shamelessly hypocritical at worst.

Follow Ross on Twitter at @rossbramble


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