Bilardo, the soccer doctor

Review: ‘Bilardo, the Soccer Doctor’ (2022)

Having reviewed so many Maradona films and series, I was sorely confused when I began to watch the Argentine docuseries Bilardo, el doctor del fútbol.  In all the Maradona shows I’ve seen, coach Carlos Bilardo is portrayed as a very minor but unpleasant character, someone who calls the shots for the Argentina NT but otherwise is buried in the background. So for me, this 4-episode HBOMax docuseries is a soccer revelation that thoroughly describes the man behind Maradona’s success.

In football today, managers and their coaching genealogy fuel an obsession. Pep Guardiola, Matias Almeyda, and many top coaches admire Marcelo Bielsa. Ralf Rangnick is credited with developing Red Bull’s Gegenpressing, which Jesse Marsch may implement at Leeds. The German Federation (DFB) spent decades on a youth development system that won them WC 2014. In this docuseries, Director Ariel Rotter gives what must be a uniquely complete story of Carlos Bilardo and his techniques, as well as the extremes he pursued in his quest to win through perfection.

The bilardismo that Bilardo developed in the 1980s was a way of playing and coaching that is in vogue today. He played a 3-5-2 to defeat Germany. He ran 3-4 hour practices where sometimes the first 2 hours were a lecture with drawings that were indecipherable to most. An early consumer of a Sony Betamax VCR and camera, Bilardo recorded many games and forced players to watch in the evenings after practice. He sent an assistant coach to stay with players in their homes for a week to monitor how they lived. He instructed the players’ wives that being on top would save their husbands’ strength. At WC 1986, he told players not to celebrate goals because running across the field would use up energy.

Throughout the series, you sense that Bilardo is a mostly honest man whose greatest strength might be his resilience to criticism. The first 2 episodes in the series cover WC 1986, where his appointment is met with widespread criticism, partially because he comes from Estudiantes instead of one of the big clubs (Boca or River).  He isn’t helped when the NT plays poorly, and his predecessor Menotti adds to the negativity. Apparently Argentines are a tough audience. After announcing that Maradona will not only join the NT but also be Captain, Bilardo says he had to leave the country for 10 days because people wanted to kill him.

Football is ungrateful. What I always tell players, especially young players, is that laughter and sadness are just one step away in football. 

Carlos Bilardo

And while I say Bilardo is mostly honest, over his career he was known to have used dirty tricks to gain an edge. Having  earned an MD while playing, Bilardo used a syringe needle to pin prick opponents. He may have adulterated the water given to an opponent at WC 1990. At Seville, Bilardo is caught telling a physio on the sideline that he should not have helped an opposing player on the field (who Maradona had just kicked in the face) and instead should have stepped on him. “Step on him” became a Seville supporters song.

Episode 3 covers WC 1990. Although Argentina gives its all in the hopes of a repeat championship, they play 3 knock-out games in a week, 2 of which go to shootouts, and they fall to Germany in an unfair Final, in an unfriendly stadium. But when they return to Argentina, they are greeted as heroes, and for the first time, Bilardo seems to enjoy the public’s appreciation. But he is done, and he announces his time with the NT is over.

Episode 3 also covers a range of anecdotes from various periods of Bilardo’s life.

The relationship with Maradona

A couple of times in the series, Maradona is referred to as the son that Bilardo never had (Bilardo had a daughter, who gave him a grandson and a granddaughter). One of the enjoyments of this series is watching Diego Maradona warm up at practice, how he juggles and moves with the ball as if it were attached to him like a yo-yo. The muscle definition in his legs adds to the picture of a player who is compact and tightly coordinated, able to spring forward in an instant and attack, like a wildcat.

Episode 4 covers the many things that Bilardo tried during the 20 years after WC 1990. He goes to Seville and then Boca, and a bloated and drug-crazy Maradona goes with him. In 2008, Maradona becomes coach of the NT, and Bilardo serves as the bridge between the coach and Federation President Julio Grondona. It does not go well, as you would expect with such different approaches to discipline. Maradona’s contract is not renewed after WC 2010, and he claims that “Bilardo betrayed him”. It appears that Bilardo and Maradona never repair their relationship. By the time Maradona passes away on Nov-25-2020, Bilardo is too cognitively impaired to be told.

As I said at the beginning of this review, it seems strange to me that Bilardo is so overlooked in all the Maradona films and series. It is like talking about Messi without mentioning Guardiola, or extolling Cristiano Ronaldo without any reference to Alex Ferguson, or talking about Landon Donovan without crediting Bruce Arena. Almost all the current day players I have heard will thank the coach who gave them their first big break. Yes, Maradona was already a rising star by 1983, but Bilardo made him the Argentine captain at age 22. Without such a huge vote of confidence, would Maradona have become the same player?

Episode 4 also shows other things Bilardo tried after soccer: a 2005 comedy TV show called “Lo de Bilardo“, for which he wins an award for worst actor of the year. And he runs for the 2013 President of Argentina.

In Conclusion

I took a lot of notes during the series, but I have only listed a few of the many anecdotes. It would not be fair to repeat them here. It is so much better for soccer fans to watch this series themselves and understand just how crazy coaching can be under a man possessed. The WC 1986 Argentine story is a far cry from the German WC 2014 campaign captured in Die Mannschaft. And fortunately, unlike many coaching stories we see in the USA, Bilardo’s story is about a manager who is cherished by the players who stick it out with him. He is simply a man who loves the game so much, he can think of little else.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8