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José Mourinho needs love. He pretends that he doesn’t. He acts tough, revelling in the role of stage villain, playing, with comically malevolent conviction, a scheming, plotting pantomime version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. But the bad guys need love too and the Portuguese football coach, quite possibly the most entertainingly controversial character in world sport, is no exception. That is why he left Spain for England this summer, and why, after a protracted but ultimately unhappy fling with gorgeous, pouting Real Madrid he returned to the steadfast embrace of Chelsea Football Club, trading glamour for unconditional devotion.
He confessed as much back in May, as his relationship with Real was drawing to its miserable end. “I know that in England I am loved,” he said. “I know I am loved by some clubs, especially one.” And when he arrived the following month at that one special club, Chelsea, he blew kisses to the fans, who had welcomed him back with open arms, and he cried out to them: “I am one of you!” And then he appeared on Chelsea TV and declared that he and the club to which he had been wedded between 2004 and 2007 were “back together and ready to marry again”.
But there was more to the sweet nothings than met the eye. Mourinho had famously described himself, the first time he arrived at Chelsea, as “the Special One”; now, he said, he wished to be known as “the Happy One”. He smiled and smiled but he was hiding disappointment behind a joker’s mask. The truth was that he had had to endure some humiliating blows to his self-love in the previous weeks and months. He had been spurned by Europe’s big clubs, pilloried by his former fans. And that was hard to take for a man who never fails to remind us that he does not lack reasons to have a high opinion of himself.
Mourinho’s record over the past decade is stupendous. He won the Portuguese championship with Porto in 2003 and 2004; the English championship with Chelsea in 2005 and 2006; the Italian championship with Inter Milan in 2009 and 2010; the Spanish championship with Real Madrid in 2012. Along the way he has won many more trophies, including the biggest prize in club football, the European Champions League, twice. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement, and the one that jet-propelled him into the big time, was winning his first Champions League in 2004 with Porto, a big club in Mourinho’s native Portugal but a minnow among Europe’s big fish. Six years later he won the Champions League again with an aging Inter Milan side, beating the best team of recent times, Barcelona, in the semi-finals.
And yet, while it was obvious during practically the whole of last season that he wanted to leave Real Madrid, the big clubs, save for Chelsea, did not come knocking at his door. Even Chelsea did not want him back at first. The wedding bell chimes on his return were heartfelt enough but they also served to divert attention from the well-known fact that he was second choice as coach. The preferred option of the club’s billionaire Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, had been Mourinho’s arch-rival Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona coach, who in the end spurned Chelsea’s offer and went to Bayern Munich instead.
That cleared Mourinho’s path back to London, if he wanted it. It is not obvious that he did then. For, as well-placed sources in Spain have revealed, Mourinho had set his heart on moving to Manchester United after Real Madrid. Or, at the very least, on being offered the job. But he did not even enter United’s reckoning. They appointed instead a stolid Scotsman called David Moyes, who had laboured gamely for years, without anything much to show for it, as coach of Everton. Hurtful also was the lack of interest shown in him by Manchester City, a coming force in European football on the back of barrel-loads of Arab money, who also replaced their coach at the end of last season.
The bald fact was that Mourinho wanted to leave Real Madrid and, among the clubs capable both of paying him the big salary he expects and of competing at the highest level, Chelsea was the only one that would have him. Mourinho has arrived in England far more bruised and with far more of a point to prove than he lets on. That suggests he won’t be spreading happiness around for long, that at Chelsea he will resume the style of grudge management that comes naturally to him and on which he has always thrived. He carries resentment in his bones – it is the engine of his lust for victory – and, as we have already seen in the first weeks of the English season, he is incapable of hiding it. Already he has been aiming public barbs at – surprise, surprise – Manchester United. He has also been unable to resist the impulse to deliver a snide swipe or two at Real Madrid.
The curious thing is that Mourinho’s personality has not always corresponded to that of the snarling, moustachio-twirling schemer we see today. I would have described him, the first time I met him, as meek. That was back in 1997. He was working at Barcelona football club as assistant to the club’s then coach, Bobby Robson. He and Robson had been together for five years, Mourinho having initially worked as his interpreter when the Englishman moved to Sporting Lisbon in 2002. But Robson, who had taken England to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, saw a studiously analytical football mind in the young Portuguese, and took him with him to Barcelona, where he increasingly had a say in team affairs.
I knew Robson. There was a connection between him and my family and I wrote a magazine piece about him in May 1997. Six months later I moved to Barcelona. Twice I found myself sharing Sunday lunches at which Robson, Mourinho, his wife Matilde – to whom he has been married since 1989 – and a dozen or so friends were present. We must have sat for three hours each time but while the conversation moved along fluidly, with much banter and laughter, I heard barely a squeak out of Mourinho. He sat at a far corner of the table, neither in good humour nor in bad, just listening. I remember thinking that he did not seem a bad sort, just a little dull, possibly a little shy. In retrospect, it occurs to me that more likely he regarded himself as the serious member of the party and the rest of us as a bunch of clowns.
Mourinho stayed on at Barcelona after Robson left, continuing as assistant to his successor, the tactically obsessive Dutchman Louis van Gaal. In 2000 Mourinho moved back to Portugal, now elevated to first team coach but switching swiftly between clubs before joining Porto in 2002, where he won the Champions League two years later. I interviewed him on the telephone after that triumph. He spoke humbly, about the debts he owed Robson and Van Gaal, whom he described as two great and mutually complementary mentors. From Robson he had learnt the art of motivation; from Van Gaal the finer points of strategy. It struck me then that the quiet, modest Mourinho I had met some years earlier was already a man with a plan. Keeping a low profile, careful not to offend his betters, politely uninterested in the jovial liturgy of the long Spanish lunch, he had seen his time at Barcelona as an opportunity silently to sponge up information in preparation for the great things he hoped would lie ahead.
Great they did turn out to be, and richly rewarded he has been too. He was never poor, his father having been a professional footballer, a goalkeeper who once played for Portugal, but at Real and now back at Chelsea he has been earning a salary of some €10m a year, plus more from sponsorship deals with Adidas. He has even reaped unexpected capital from what many regard as his roguish good looks, with Braun electric shavers. The association with Real Madrid, which conceives of itself as football’s Hollywood, boosted his global profile still further. Yet in Madrid he failed. He himself refuses to quite see it that way but he would be hard pressed to deny that it was the first time, on what had previously been a smoothly spectacular ascent, that the Mourinho motor sputtered.
Florentino Pérez, president of Real as well as of a powerful construction and engineering multinational, hired him as a hit man with a very deliberate job in mind: to knock Barcelona, the most successful and most admired team in world football, off their throne. There was a lot of blood spilled, plenty of shots were fired, but he botched the job. Along the way he undermined his reputation, suffering by comparison with his Barcelona foe, Guardiola, and setting back his hitherto limitless career prospects to the point that by the time he left Real he was no longer football management’s most-wanted golden boy.
In three years at Real, between 2010 and 2013, he won one league championship in 2012 and one Spanish cup in 2011, coming second in the league twice, while advancing far into the final stages of the Champions League. But Real aspire to world domination or, in the absence of that, to get the better of Barcelona. Barcelona got the better of Mourinho’s Real, winning two Spanish championships and one Champions League while retaining the mantle, for most of those three years, of the world’s best team.
Yet Mourinho might plausibly argue, as indeed he has done, that he did as well as might reasonably have been expected. Barcelona were undoubtedly the better footballing side and, knowing this, his practical assessment was that in order to fulfil the mission for which he was being paid he would have to resort to guerrilla warfare on all fronts. One of the fronts on which he figured he could do Barcelona some damage was the press conference, terrain where, as he admitted recently with admirable candour, “we” (meaning the coaches) “lie”. Continually seeking to destabilise his rivals psychologically by belittling their achievements, he made it a point of policy to attribute Barcelona’s invariably magisterial victories, against Real and others, to refereeing bias.
On the field, especially during the first two years of his reign, when he overlapped with Pep Guardiola, he would get the ground staff of Real’s Bernabéu stadium to let the grass grow long and ask them to keep it as dry as possible so as to hinder the smooth flow of Barcelona’s passing game. And he also played ugly, typically deploying tactics designed more to smother Barcelona than to impose on them the considerable talents of his undoubtedly gifted, richly paid squad. It was Machiavelli, or Richard III, brought to football. The end justified the means. And maybe he was right in thinking this was the only approach that would allow him a realistic chance of doing the job he had been hired for. For, as he finally confessed right at the end of his tenure at Real, Barcelona had been a formidable opponent, “probably the best team in the world in the last 20, 30 years”.
But the Spanish press, and most of the football public, hated both his personal manner and his style of play. The doyen of Spanish sports journalists, Alfredo Relaño, is also the editor of As, the most unashamedly pro-Real sports paper there is. Relaño has a daily column. Usually he is a courteous fellow. Last month, summing up his feelings and most of those of his Madrid colleagues, he wrote this: “The truth is that Mourinho blew it at Real Madrid. He was not up to the challenge. He came to eat up the world and he ended up eating something else.”
Relaño, like the rest of the Mourinho-bashers in the Madrid press, took his cue in large measure from the players. Throughout Mourinho’s tenure, but especially in his last year, the Real dressing room generated a cascade of leaks. One would read in the newspapers practically verbatim dialogues, oozing mutual recrimination, between Mourinho and his players. The arguments usually centred on the players’ sense that their coach was demeaning them. At three levels. One, because too often against Barcelona he made them play like a little team does against a big team, seeking to stop the rival from playing and hoping to snatch a goal on the break. Two, because beyond counter-attack Mourinho’s Real had no settled system of play, meaning that even the weaker teams they played against figured that ceding possession of the ball to them was the best way to ensure they would not know how to attack. Three, because he seemed to follow a deviously crafted script, either blaming referees for defeats or stoutly defending his methods of play.
But the players too often refused to go along with Mourinho’s propaganda ploys, instead saying they had lost fair and square or venturing veiled criticisms of his tactics. Mourinho’s response – even with players of the stature of Cristiano Ronaldo or Spanish World Cup winners such as Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos – would be to drop them for the next game. Which in turn inflamed feelings in the dressing room further.
Viewed from England all this internal dissent was baffling. What had always characterised Mourinho’s tenure at Chelsea the first time around had been the blind devotion of his players. The likes of Frank Lampard and John Terry, both England internationals, spoke of him always with reverence and affection. At Inter Milan he inspired similar loyalty.
At Real the depth of ill-feeling spilled into the open continually, not least when the long-suspected rift between him and Real’s star player, Ronaldo, was publicly exposed. Mourinho made a disparaging remark about Ronaldo which provoked his Portuguese compatriot to reply: “I don’t want to talk about him. I’m not interested in that person. He’s not worth it.” And: “I am accustomed to people speaking badly of me … I don’t spit on the plate from which I eat.”
Mourinho’s studiedly paranoid “us against the world” approach failed at Real but it worked wonders at Chelsea, where he took a club that had not won the English championship since 1955 to two league titles in three years, transforming them from willing also-rans to major competitors on the European stage. Why did it work at Chelsea and not Real? Because the Mourinho method rests on his players being soldiers first, footballers second. He prizes grit, effort and obedience above individual talent. That works better in England, among fans as well as players, than in Spain. In England fighting spirit will get you a long way; in Spain too, but there is a greater demand for art, for what they call “espectáculo”.
Mourinho has arrived back in England now as damaged goods and he finds himself obliged, if not to start from scratch, to rebuild his reputation. He has two things going for him: that the English press has more of a sense of humour about his antics than the Spanish, for whom righteous indignation is a favourite sport; that his more pliable Chelsea players, who have a more modest sense of their abilities than the Real ones, are more likely to go along both with his take-no-prisoner tactics and with his instructions on what to say and not to say off the field. No one should be fooled, though, by the image the prodigal son has sought to project since his Chelsea homecoming. His manners may improve, at least while his team is doing well, but we will not be seeing a fundamentally transformed, gentler, nicer Mourinho.
His record should prepare us for a repetition of some of the outrageous things he has done in the past. This is the man who, while at Chelsea, pushed the excellent Swedish referee Anders Frisk into premature retirement by accusing him, without foundation, of having colluded with his team’s opponents during a Champions League match; who, when at Real Madrid, turned on his own club’s director of sport, former Real player and Argentine World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, hounding him out of his job too after publicly humiliating him by not letting him ride on the team bus; who poked a cowardly finger in the eye of the Barcelona assistant coach, catching him when he wasn’t looking then quickly skipping away for cover.
The season has barely started in England but he is at it again, sowing the seeds for more of those long-running vendettas his rancorously competitive nature requires. Resentful at having been slighted by Manchester United, he spent the preseason trying to unsettle the club, likely to be a serious league rival, by making no secret of his desire to poach their big-name player Wayne Rooney. As for David Moyes, the coach who got the job he was never even offered, Mourinho, noting in June that he had participated in 108 Champions League matches as opposed to Moyes’s none, said that his rival’s lack of experience in Europe ought to mean he should not be expected “to be a fish in water”. He also had a dig at United generally, English champions last season, by saying that his Chelsea of a few years ago had been far worthier Premier League winners. “Do you think Manchester United won the Premier League last year because they were an unbelievable team? I don’t think so,” he said.
This was in marked contrast to his comments in March this year, before Moyes’s appointment was made, when he was still bidding to secure United’s affections. Then, after his Real team had beaten United in the Champions League, he declared, with calculated graciousness, “the better team lost”. Many people would have agreed that this time he was speaking the truth, but if so it was an implicit admission of his failure at Real. Player for player Real were much the stronger team yet they struggled against a United side whose veteran coach, Alex Ferguson, had achieved what Mourinho had singularly failed to do at Real, which was to get the best out of the squad at his disposal. At Chelsea, though, and as the first big game of the European season indicated, he will probably succeed.
By a perverse and, in the end, somewhat cruel twist of fate, eight days ago Mourinho found himself face to face with his nemesis, Pep Guardiola, in a Uefa European Super Cup that pitted Chelsea against Bayern Munich. No surprises in the way Mourinho’s 11 played. They let Bayern have the ball, absorbed pressure, snapped at their opponents’ heels to the limits the rules allow and beyond, struck fast on the counter-attack and lost by a hair’s breadth, on penalties. A mightily spirited performance by Chelsea it was, too, that bodes very well for the season ahead, but Mourinho chose to centre his post-match comments on the referee, who had sent off one of his players for violent play.
“An unwritten Uefa rule says always that when a team of mine plays against one of Pep’s we finish with 10 men,” he railed, while admitting that “in pure terms” his player had got his just deserts. His tangled reasoning was that a referee should not spoil “the passion” of a big European final by applying the letter of the law. This was either disingenuous or downright mad. A far more likely explanation than a Uefa conspiracy for why his teams often end up with a man fewer against Guardiola’s is that they go on to the pitch encouraged to intimidate their more cultured opponents into submission. But all is not fair in football, as it is in war, and the risk always exists that the referee will intervene to stop limbs from being broken.
So much, then, for the happy, softer, gentler Mourinho. Less than a month into the new season the mask has already slipped. He is no longer at peace with the world, for the world, as ever, is out to get him. The barricades are up once again. Outside he remains the villain; inside, within the ramparts of Chelsea, he revels in the love he craves, the love of the fans and of the team’s old soldiers such as Lampard and Terry, who may know that he is a son of a bitch, but they don’t care, because he is their son of a bitch.
A difference between England and Spain is that in England they have a clearer understanding that Mourinho is not, in fact, an evil Latin American dictator, but the coach of a football team. Within the football world he will always play the stage villain, for that is his histrionic nature and the way most people have learnt to respond to him, but in England they boo him with less moral rage, more pantomimic fun, than in Spain. That is why he is happier in England. But it is not, as he chooses to believe, because they love him more, but because they hate him less.
John Carlin is author of ‘White Angels: Beckham, Real Madrid and the New Football’ (Bloomsbury).
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