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This is the endgame. Jose Mourinho may be paranoid but now they really are out to get him. Behind closed doors men are scheming to oust Chelsea’s coach. Juventus’s manager Didier Deschamps admits Chelsea approached him though, he says, he won’t go. As a conspiracy theorist, Mourinho must feel vindicated. The intrigues around him accord with the way he interprets the world.
He was one of the last western Europeans to grow up under a dictatorship: Portugal’s fascist regime. As a boy he lived on the estate of his great-uncle, Mário Ascensão Ledo, a sardine-canning magnate and one-time president of Vitória Setúbal football club. Mourinho played football with a servant and attended private schools, thus escaping the miserable education then reserved for most Portuguese. He learnt the languages that made his career. Mourinho first rose in football as a translator and his linguistic gifts helped attract Chelsea.
In 1974, when he was 11, Portugal’s Carnation Revolution brought down fascism. Most of his family’s businesses were expropriated and the estate was lost. Elsewhere the childhood realm of Mourinho’s future wife Tami was also being shattered. In what is now Angola, where her parents were Portuguese settlers, guerrillas fought colonial rule. Her father joined the Portuguese army, was shot and left disabled. When Portugal’s new rulers surrendered the colonies in 1975, the family was airlifted to Lisbon.
Portugal’s revolution was the last in western Europe. Most of us on this side of the continent can no longer imagine hidden forces overturning our lives. Mourinho can. Experiences like his – common in poor countries – often produce conspiracy theorists.
A peculiarity of Portuguese conspiracy theories is the centrality of football. Eusebio, the greatest Portuguese footballer ever, has explained that the English arranged Portugal’s elimination from the World Cup of 1966 by moving the semi-final between the two countries from Liverpool to London. Many Portuguese assume that their team’s exits from Euro 2000 and the World Cup of 2002 were also fixed. Such beliefs may be inevitable in a country whose two best-selling dailies are sports newspapers.
Just as Texas is the home of UFO sightings, so Portugal’s second city of Porto nurtures footballing conspiracy theories. Porto’s setting is enchanting: the mountains, the Douro river, the vineyards where port is made, the Atlantic. But the city’s main buildings are mostly concrete monstrosities. Under fascism, the state spent on Lisbon instead. What bothered Porto almost as much were the perceived plots against its football. There are sometimes as many as nine top-division clubs playing in a 30-mile radius of the city, possibly the highest density in Europe, but the biggest is FC Porto, the club where Mourinho made his reputation. A story from 1940 has the fascist secret police arresting two Hungarian players of Porto as spies. One was later executed. Many locals still assume that Portuguese football is rigged against them.
In 2004 Mourinho took this mental heritage to England, where he found conspiracies everywhere. Here is a sample of his allegations, which English people are conditioned to dismiss as wacko:
■Arsenal control the Premiership’s fixture list and rig it to give Chelsea a tough schedule. “Is Jose Mourinho the only one who can look at the fixtures and find something very strange?”
■Sky Television broadcast Michael Essien’s knee-high tackle on Liverpool’s Didi Hamann hundreds of times because it hates Chelsea and wanted Essien suspended. In fact, all of England hates Chelsea. “When we lose there will be a holiday in the country.”
■A hidden hand put Chelsea in a strong group in this season’s Champions League, forcing them to pile up yellow cards.
■“Something is happening with the English press in relation to Frank Lampard.” Because Lampard is an excellent player, the press is scheming to undermine him.
Mourinho talks like this partly to unite his players against the world – and most are gormless enough to fall for it – but he also appears to believe it.
British newspapers love his conspiracy theories. Rather than report an encounter between two brilliant teams, we cover Mourinho. This is partly due to British football’s hierarchies. Players are not trusted to speak and so the manager is the voice and face of the club. Mourinho’s Armani cashmere coat became Chelsea’s de facto crest. He is the English game’s dominant personality, as malign as he is brilliant.
Now Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich appears to be getting sick of him. The problem is not Mourinho’s results. Match for match, he remains probably the most successful football coach ever. Talk of Chelsea trailing Manchester United by six points in the league is a mere snapshot. United visit Arsenal on Sunday and Chelsea in April. By May, Mourinho may have clocked up his third title in three years. Meanwhile Chelsea remain in the Champions League and in both domestic cups.
Rather, the problem is his persona. His bad image in England – due to his team’s workmanlike football and to his paranoia – has stuck to Chelsea.
Now there seems to be intrigue against Mourinho. The characteristic form of business in rich countries is the corporation. It is meant to provide transparency, reducing the scope for conspiracy theories. But Chelsea is a different animal. The club’s power structures are rarely visible. Several power brokers surround Abramovich: his Russian advisers; Pini Zahavi, the Israeli agent; Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon; the director of youth development, Frank Arnesen; and Mourinho. They never all sit down together for formal meetings. Private chats drive events. In this environment, a hidden hand can suddenly take away your realm. Mourinho understands.