The pre-match press conference was over at the Santiago Bernabeu, but there was one journalist in attendance with whom José Mourinho wasn’t quite finished. Radio Marca’s Anton Meana soon found himself being led into a small offshoot of the press room, before receiving a personal rundown of Mourinho’s CV courtesy of the man himself. If the Madrid coach doesn’t mince his words in public, then in private they come with a side dish of razor blades.
“In the world of football, me and my people are on top,” Mourinho barked. “In the world of journalism, you’re a piece of shit.”
Inevitably, it all got out. Marca has the highest readership of any daily newspaper in Spain, while its dedicated radio stations are also among the most listened-to in the country for sports coverage. Either Mourinho wanted his words to be leaked, or he simply didn’t care. In any case, his actions flew in the face of the image of the calculated, controlled man sold to us all on Sky Sports.
In England, Mourinho has a reputation for being a master psychologist – the man who took on Sir Alex Ferguson both on and off the pitch... and won. Every action, every answer at a press conference is planned meticulously in advance, part of a bigger scheme designed to take the pressure off his players and heap it back on the opposition.
He is The Special One, lest we forget. But is he so special anymore? In Spain, that’s now up for debate.
The Mourinho currently on display doesn’t fit that description. And, in the age of an exponentially growing digital media, it’s impossible to think that his recent behaviour hasn’t fed its way back to those parties in England who have a particular interest in tracking his performances. The people in charge of the Premier League clubs Mourinho may yet consider for his next job application will be more than aware of his recent activities. After all, Marca is available in English these days.
THUMBS (AND FINGERS) DOWN
Pinpointing the root of the problem is difficult, but much can be traced back to Barcelona and Real Madrid’s fiercely contested Spanish Supercup tie in August 2011.
That night, a heavy challenge by Marcelo on Cesc Fabregas had caused a mass brawl to erupt, with players such as Iker Casillas and Xavi Hernandez, who normally tend to avoid such confrontations, heavily involved. That night is also remembered for Mourinho’s now infamous finger in the eye of then Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova. For many, it was an act that brought shame upon Real Madrid as an institution. Casillas, their captain, decided to act.
The following day, Casillas called Xavi to apologise for the ordeal. The two are close friends, and largely responsible for the lack of infighting between the large Barcelona and Real Madrid contingents that make up the most successful Spanish national side ever. Xavi’s father, Joaquim Hernandez, later revealed that Mourinho took offence to the Madrid captain’s attempt to broker a peace deal, seeing it as a personal betrayal. Since then, Casillas has had his card marked.
With war firmly declared on Madrid’s captain, the next natural step for Mourinho was to do the same with his deputy. The tipping point in the relationship between Sergio Ramos and his manager also occurred after a Clasico encounter, this time in January 2012. With Madrid 1-0 up, Carles Puyol escaped his marker to head home from a corner, the equaliser in an eventual Barcelona victory. A few days later, Mourinho berated Ramos, who he had specifically asked to mark Puyol. Ramos had instead switched marker in order to track the taller Gerard Pique, who he believed was causing problems for the Madrid defence. When Mourinho grilled the defender as to why he had made the decision, Ramos replied that he wouldn’t understand, because he had ‘never been a footballer’.
Such a clear lack of respect from the Madrid vice-captain towards Mourinho suggests his coaching methods are no longer being fully absorbed. Mourinho’s success is built on achieving the unquestioning loyalty of his players in an almost cult-like environment. All for The Special One, and one for all. Not this time. Quite the opposite, in fact. It isn’t a stretch to suggest that the disrespect Ramos harboured for Mourinho stemmed directly from what he perceived as the shabby treatment of his friend and long-term teammate, Casillas.
Mourinho had every right to question the defender’s decision-making, but what is most striking is that he has refused to let either of the incidents lie.
Instead of attempting to curtail the disillusionment seeping in to his squad, he now appears to be pushing his players further towards resentment. This season, both Ramos and Casillas have found themselves the target of their manager’s belated wrath. First was Ramos, who was dropped an hour before kick off against Manchester City last September. Mourinho claimed it was a technical decision. Few believed him. In the end it didn’t cost Madrid, but it was a huge gamble to take based on a personal grudge. A gamble that didn’t work out the second time round.
The captain’s turn was next. In Spain, Casillas is known as Saint Iker – seemingly blessed from above. This is a man who, time and time again, is the difference between a goal conceded by Madrid and a goal scored from a trademark counter-attack launched after one of his saves. Many would say he is indispensable, but even he wasn’t safe.
Once again, Mourinho’s axe fell on the eve of a key encounter: this time against Malaga. The Andalucians had already proven their quality by becoming the first Spanish side to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League. And their coach, Manuel Pellegrini, is the man whose job Mourinho had taken when he joined Real Madrid.
Mourinho knew the game would be one of the few genuinely tough ties for Madrid in the league – a league they were already losing to Barcelona. But in the end, he didn’t seem to care.
With familiar timing, the news began to filter through an hour or so before kick-off. Casillas had been dropped, with reserve keeper Antonio Adan taking his place. Madrid went on to lose 3-2, their captain’s ability to organise his back four clearly missed. Mourinho, again, claimed it was a technical decision – but if few believed that excuse with Ramos, nobody believed it this time.
The Madrid captain wasn’t in particularly stellar form, but he certainly wasn’t the source of their misfortunes. There was little doubt that this was a personal, not professional matter – and a personal matter considered more important by Mourinho, it seemed, than results.
CUTTING OFF HIS NOSE…
What exactly Mourinho had hoped to achieve in reigniting his vendetta with Casillas and Ramos is hard to see. Some have suggested it could be an attempt to divide and conquer, with the aim of breaking down the core of Spanish players in the Madrid locker room. It is perhaps worth asking if destroying the close relationship between a group of players who have just won you the league is really a tactic worth pursuing, however. The insurmountable gap between Barcelona and Madrid in La Liga suggests not.
In recent weeks, the whole affair has become a certified farce. Adan, the young keeper thrust into the limelight by Mourinho’s decision to drop Casillas, has found himself having to constantly deflect questions about the ordeal, with journalists ready to pounce on the slightest of errors in order to rub it in Mourinho’s face. They didn’t have to wait long. In Madrid’s first league game of 2013, Adan was sent off in the sixth minute of play, with Mourinho forced to sub Casillas on as a result. To say he looked a fool is an understatement.
Then there are the press conferences. The press room, traditionally an arena in which Mourinho had been able to win a game before a ball was even kicked, now barely features his presence at all. More often than not, assistant coach Aitor Karanka is sent out into the firing line, ready to rattle off a by now fine-tuned lap-dog routine read straight from the gospel of Mourinho.
This has proven nothing more than an irritant for the media, causing them to further scrutinise Mourinho’s every actions in order to get the story they want – and in turn heaping pressure on the players. Like his fights with Casillas and Ramos, his complete dismissal of the media he once manipulated paints the picture of a man drunk at the wheel. Clubs considering employing him must now be asking if this is what they want from their manager.
While Madrid’s Champions League hopes are alive, so is Mourinho’s time as coach. But there is little doubt that the only thing preventing Florentino Perez from pulling the trigger sooner is the whopping 20m Euros in compensation he would have to pay out for terminating his contract early. Lose against Manchester United, however, and that’s likely to change.
With Casillas now out of action for the foreseeable future, the chances of a United win have increased significantly. The keeper fractured his thumb in a cup tie against Valencia, ruling him out for up to three months; as a result, former Real Madrid reserve keeper Diego Lopez has been drafted in as an emergency replacement. If anybody truly believed the Portuguese coach when he said he had benched Casillas because he thought Adan was a better option, they certainly won’t now. So highly does Mourinho rate Adan, in fact, that he took only a day after learning of Casillas’ injury before signing a replacement.
A TEAM UNITED
Recently, Madrid’s performances have begun to pick up. But it is claimed by some that this is in spite of, rather than because of Mourinho. One Spanish football show recently reported that a group of senior Madrid players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, held a meeting in which they decided to put differences aside in order to pull Madrid through the final stretch of the season.
Ronaldo himself, who was previously believed to be firmly in the pro-Mourinho camp, was a recent recipient of a verbal battering – the manager criticised the striker for taking a quick throw-in after the first leg of that same Copa del Rey tie against Valencia. Even Ronaldo, it seems, is sick of it.
So, where does Mourinho go from here? The least probable option is that he will continue as Real Madrid coach beyond the summer. Most believe Manchester City or Chelsea are the clubs most likely to offer him employment, but there is also the ever-present murmur that he will be the man to relieve Sir Alex Ferguson of his duties when the Scot decides to call it a day at Old Trafford.
Parting with Real Madrid before fulfilling the length of his contract isn’t likely to damage Mourinho’s career prospects, but the manner of his dismissal surely will. In a matter of months, he has taken the well-oiled machine that toppled Barcelona and transformed it into an inconsistent, unpredictable soap opera.
Mourinho’s shelf life has always been short, but this time his wrath has extended beyond the people upstairs to the players he needs to survive – leaving potentially irreparable damage to the squad that may last long beyond his tenure. Ferguson has worked tirelessly to create an unrivalled atmosphere of continuity at Old Trafford; with that in mind, would Manchester United really risk the prospect of his successor undoing much of that?
PROCESS OF ELIMINATION
United wouldn’t be the first club to decide against employing him for that very reason. In 2008, Mourinho was a leading candidate for the FC Barcelona job, only for Txiki Begiristain to hand the position to Pep Guardiola.
Begiristain was, by all accounts, impressed by Mourinho’s plans for the team – but when he asked the Portuguese to tone down his combative nature in order to avoid damaging Barcelona as an institution, Mourinho refused. Begiristain, now at Manchester City, will rightly feel vindicated by his decision... and, in the aftermath of the Mourinho/Madrid meltdown, could justifiably decide against bringing him to the Etihad for the same reason.
Which leaves Chelsea: the one club Mourinho did not spurn, but was spurned by. The story goes that Roman Abramovich and his former employee have long since made up. And, in a strange way, the Russian’s unpredictability fits Mourinho’s provocative nature. Yet Mourinho may view returning to his old club as a step backwards. Abramovich’s obsession with remodelling Chelsea’s football may even mean he doesn’t have the option to return at all.
The ultimate irony is that Mourinho could finish the season as a Champions League and domestic cup winner – knocking Barcelona out in the process. His success rate isn’t up for dispute, but what comes afterwards is.
At Madrid, Mourinho is just another name in a long list of coaches. Even he is not bigger than this club: the prestigious history of the nine-time European champions extends far beyond his reach. It is fitting, then, that the man whose job he would perhaps love to inherit most, the man he will face in the Champions League this month, is also the man who has helped to ensure that Manchester United is now a club bigger than someone like Mourinho. It is also a club that may now decide his influence is best avoided.
Lee Roden @LeeRoden89
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