Leeds United and their manager, Marcelo Bielsa, have won the 2019 Fifa Fair Play Award at the governing body’s annual award ceremony in Milan.
The Championship side won the award after Bielsa ordered his team to let Aston Villa score an equaliser at Elland Road in April. Mateusz Klich had put Leeds ahead while Villa forward Jonathan Kodjia was down with an injury.
Klich’s goal led to a melee between both sets of players, with Anwar El Ghazi sent off for the visitors. When play restarted, Albert Adomah was allowed to run through and level the game – although defender Pontus Jansson still tried and failed to tackle the Villa winger.
“Some residents of planet football consider winning the ultimate. The only purpose of playing the sport. For others though, there are values which need to be held even higher than those which bring victory,” a statement on Fifa’s website read.
“In April 2019, Marcelo Bielsa and the Leeds United squad were chasing automatic promotion to the English Premier League. They faced Aston Villa, and went 1-0 up. However, Mateusz Klich’s goal was scored while a Villa player lay injured. Bielsa ordered his side to allow the opposition to equalise.
“The game finished 1-1, ultimately allowing their promotion rivals Sheffield United to guarantee their automatic spot in the Premier League, at Leeds’ expense. What was at stake makes Bielsa’s act of sportmanship all the more remarkable.”
Bielsa’s decision to allow Aston Villa to equalise came after the visiting manager, Dean Smith and his assistant John Terry had remonstrated with him at length.
“I suggested I thought that would be the right thing to do and he agreed. But I’m not sure all his players did,” Smith said afterwards. “I can understand their frustration but full respect to Marcelo for that because it was the right decision.”
Bielsa himself was circumspect after the game, saying: “what happened, happened. English football is known around the world for its noble features. I’ve said all I want to say.”
The 64-year-old experienced an eventful first season in English football, missing out on promotion via the play-offs, which were won by Aston Villa. Earlier in the season, Bielsa admitted to sending someone to spy on Derby County after a man was apprehended by police outside the Rams’ training ground.
The club were fined £200,000 and given a severe reprimand by the EFL. Leeds then lost to Derby in the play-off semi-finals, but Bielsa agreed to return as manager for another season – although Jansson was promptly sold to Brentford.
Previous winners of the Fifa Fair Play award include Paolo Di Canio, Lucas Radebe, Gary Lineker and Bobby Robson. Last year’s winner was VVV-Venlo’s Lennart Thy, who missed an Eredivisie match in order to donate blood to a leukaemia patient.