At a lunch in Madrid recently of Spanish football insiders, the most authoritative of the bunch, a former player, remarked that in the summer of 2010 Spain had been a football paradise. “We’d just won the World Cup, two years earlier we’d been crowned champions of Europe and Barcelona were the most admired team in the world game. God thought, ‘No, we can’t have this. It’s too perfect’. So he slithered José Mourinho into the Garden of Eden.”
Everyone in the group laughed. Nobody missed the point. The arrival, from Internazionale of Milan, two years ago, of Mourinho as coach of Real Madrid has had, as even many Real supporters will admit, a venomous effect on the atmosphere of the Spanish game. It all turns on the mission for which the formidably successful Portuguese coach was appointed: knocking Barcelona off their throne.
Mourinho’s chief motivational strategy at Real seems to have been to foment acrimony, to create a war mentality in his players and among the supporters. The Catalans hate us so we must hate them; we will pursue victory by every means; whatever we can get away with, we will; we will play – if need be – ignobly defensive football and if we lose we will never give the enemy credit; we will always, as a matter of inflexible doctrine, seek to rile Barcelona and to sully their achievement by blaming the referee. All’s fair in football, has been Mourinho’s message. It is the reason why Josep “Pep” Guardiola, who has recently stood down after four years as Barcelona coach, said in April that he had derived no joy from his 11 encounters with Real Madrid in the Mourinho era, only two of which he lost. “They have always left a bad taste in the mouth,” he said.
The unprecedented ill feeling between the Spanish league’s big two has caused many in the game to express concern about the potential impact on Spain’s triumphant national team. How can team spirit possibly survive so much bad blood among the Barcelona and Real Madrid players who form its core? Real’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas, the Spain captain, the defender Sergio Ramos and the midfielder Xabi Alonso are non-negotiables in the starting line-up; Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas are the best known of the seven Barcelona players picked for Spain’s squad of 23 last weekend. How can they possibly hope to get along over the next few weeks?
The nadir in relations between the two clubs was reached last August, a year into Mourinho’s reign, at the end of the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, which Barcelona won. To the Real Madrid coach’s habitual war of words was added the X-rated spectacle (with the game already in the bag for Barcelona) of a Real player making what seemed like a gratuitous attempt to scythe Fàbregas’ leg in half. In the fracas that followed, Mourinho poked a finger into the eye of Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s assistant, who has since replaced him as Barcelona’s first-team coach. Former teammates in Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning side called each other, and their mothers, the most vicious names in the Spanish language; some had to be pulled apart to stop a brawl.
The buzz that night and for the coming days in the news media and on social networks reflected the dread that had suddenly descended on Spanish football regarding the future of the national team. Was this the end of the dream? At the time, Vicente del Bosque, the serene national coach, strove to downplay the affair. But when I spoke to him last month he acknowledged, in his habitually understated manner, that, yes, there had indeed been “tensions”. Del Bosque would not, under any circumstances, be drawn on whether Mourinho was to blame; he is too canny a diplomat for that. But he did say this: “Those tensions had their origin somewhere. Everything in life has its genesis. But it’s not going to be me who’s going to look where that might be. What’s true is that all this radicalisation divides more than it unites.”
What is also true, as veteran observers have confirmed to me, is that never has this “radicalisation” been felt more keenly in the Spain team than in the past two years. I asked Del Bosque, who played for Real Madrid and Spain 35 years ago, how relations with the Barcelona players had been in his day. “They were excellent. To this day I remain on friendly terms with various of them. Of course, back then there were fewer influences … ” Influences? Again, Del Bosque would not be drawn.
Nor would Xabi Alonso, anchor of the Real and Spain midfield, when we spoke on the phone. The subject of Mourinho was – he left me in no doubt – out of bounds. Alonso, who played for Liverpool for five years, did not try to deny that problems had arisen. “We found ourselves playing a lot of games against Barça in a short space of time, we always gave it 100 per cent, it was inevitable we’d trade a few fouls and then, yes, there were the external factors, all the talk around the games. All this couldn’t not affect us, obviously.”
But Alonso maintains that now, as he prepares to don the red shirt once more of the nation that remains the favourite to win the European Championships, things are back on an even keel. He would say that, of course, but there is reason to believe that it is true. Player power appears to have defeated Mourinho’s attempts to divide and rule.
Two or three days after the eye-poking incident, Casillas (captain of both Real and Spain) made calls to Xavi Hernández and Carles Puyol, Barcelona’s two most senior players, offering peace talks. Things were bad, the air was thick with recriminations, but they had to rise above the noise and preserve the bonds they had forged in winning the World Cup – and in the case of Xavi and Casillas, representing Spain together going back to under-17 level. The gesture worked. The players made a pact: come what may, they would make a clear separation in their minds between club and country.
Mourinho, on learning of Casillas’ initiative, was furious. Astoundingly, Mourinho dropped him – Casillas is quite possibly the best goalkeeper in the world – for Real’s next match. Casillas received the message loud and clear. He had disobeyed orders, he had deviated from a party line that required maintaining a climate of permanent hostility, on all fronts, with Barcelona, and he had been duly punished. Casillas has not forgiven Mourinho. It is Spanish football’s worst-kept secret that the captain and coach of Real Madrid can barely speak to each other. “There is maximum tension between them,” as a recent article put it in AS, Spain’s most unashamedly pro-Real daily sports newspaper.
Casillas took the hit from his club coach for the greater national good. And the sacrifice paid off. The bonds between Barcelona and Real’s Spanish team players do appear to have remained sound. It wasn’t just Del Bosque and Alonso who said it; another half-dozen well-informed people I spoke to, off the record, said so too.
Mourinho has claimed championships in Portugal, England, Italy and now, with Real Madrid, in Spain, but here was a battle he could not win. Despite his best efforts, peace reigns again between the players of Spain’s two most heatedly antagonistic clubs. “As we did when we won the World Cup, we continue to live – in our minds – in parallel worlds,” Xabi Alonso said. “We have understood that the dynamic at club level and in the national team must not mix.”
John Carlin writes for El País