Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A theory on Mourinho's undoing

Leander Schaerlaeckens of writes of the turbulent end of the season for Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid.

Maybe the Special One really was Special.

It's easy to dismiss Real Madrid's wonder boy-turned-megalomaniac manager Jose Mourinho as a loudmouth whose paranoid potshots look as misplaced as they do petty. But past the posturing and below the bellowing isn't just so much hot air, but an attempt at reinvention gone terribly wrong. It's one worth exploring.

In his mid-20s, after wrapping up a most pedestrian career as a professional player, the Portuguese set his sights on managing. He looked up to his father, Jose Felix Mourinho, who had become a manager after a long career as a goalkeeper. Mourinho spent five years pursuing his degree in sports science at the Technical University of Lisbon while he taught gym in schools. He showed a keen interest in the value of psychology in soccer, a rather novel approach in the late '80s.

After some entry-level coaching jobs in the Portuguese league, Mourinho caught a break. Veteran English coach Bobby Robson had taken over Sporting Lisbon and needed a knowledgeable translator. Mourinho, well on his way to becoming fluent in five languages, got the gig. He followed Robson to FC Porto and then Barcelona, where he became an assistant manager when Louis van Gaal took over in 1997.

Mourinho's subsequent success is well-documented. First came a brief stint in charge of Benfica, which ended when a new chairman, who had promised to bring in an old fan-favorite as coach, refused to extend Mourinho's contract. Then there was his time with tiny Leiria, which vastly overachieved under Mourinho and notched a best-ever fifth place in the league. Then came Porto and league titles and a UEFA Cup and then a Champions League crown. On to Chelsea, more league titles. Inter Milan -- a treble. And, finally, Real Madrid as of last summer. All the while, there were 29 individual managing awards.

But during this coming of age as a coach, a second legend rose: Mourinho's public persona, which has come to undermine everything he has achieved.

It doesn't take much tinkering with the evidence at hand to conclude that Mourinho had a plan all along. With his early interest in psychology documented, it isn't inconceivable that he decided at some point that the undeniable success of his teams would be aided by mind games -- an effort to divert the scorching media lens away from his players. If only he said and did enough outrageous things, the pressure on his beleaguered Porto side, money-is-no-object Chelsea, win-us-the-Champions League-or-else Inter, and we-expect-greatness-every-time-out Real, would shift to him. And he thought he could handle it.

It started with some digs at an opposing manager while Mourinho was at FC Porto. He ripped up a Sporting Lisbon shirt one of his players had received in exchange for his shirt after a match in full view of his opponents and cameras. In an odd moment of ironic prescience, Mourinho criticized Celtic for its negative tactics, its "horrible and aggressive style" during their 2003 UEFA Cup final. After arriving at Chelsea, he held a press conference. "Please don't call me arrogant," he said, before arrogantly adding, "but I'm a European champion and I think I'm a special one."

Later, he followed this up with: "If I had wanted to be protected in a quiet job, I could have stayed at Porto. I would have been second, after God."

After Chelsea was knocked out of the 2004-05 Champions League semifinals by a dubious Liverpool goal, he started floating conspiracy theories. After his second English Premier League title, he threw his medal into the crowd, received a new one and chucked that one into the adoring masses, too.

Mourinho claimed to have learned Italian in three weeks when he showed up to his next job, at Inter, in 2008. And, indeed, he spoke it fluently. Then sparred with or outright insulted every well-known manager in Italy. Inter was also where he started amassing ejections and got banned for three games in February 2010 for publicly criticizing a referee. That would become a reoccurring theme for Mourinho, reflecting his growing belief that his team was being targeted unfairly. Consider it the precursor to Mourinho's conspiracy theories at Real Madrid this past season, theories built around the frequent ejection of his players against Barcelona.

For a time, Mourinho's ploy worked, and his teams played fabulously. "He is a brilliant leader," Real advisor and former player Zinedine Zidane has said. "He gives all the players great belief, and makes them feel [like] they are the best in the world before every game."

In almost 10 cumulative seasons, Mourinho won six league titles, six domestic cups, two Champions Leagues, a UEFA Cup and some other hardware. He lost just two home games, bookending a 150-game unbeaten streak at home with four teams. "Even at his age, there is a very strong case for him being the best manager in the world," said Barca head coach Pep Guardiola in 2010. "That's the truth."

Not everybody was fooled, though. Mourinho's distraction tactics irked some. "Mourinho … always tries to divert everyone's attention to the points which are convenient for him," said Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz in 2007.

"He is a football manager who never talks about football," said Guardiola's assistant, Tito Vilanova, last year.

In the process of provoking fellow managers and the media, the coach seemed to morph into his hubristic media alter ego, originally intended as a psychological crutch for his team. Now he seems incapable of turning off the alternative version of himself he created. His behavior has grown downright erratic. He has gone from being a translator, presumably using none of his own words, to a figure capable of causing as much of an uproar with his utterances as the most media-savvy political commentators. One minute, he's holding a press conference in which he's in full-on spin mode, then next he's refusing to speak to the press at all, deciding instead to just sit next to one of his assistants. Capping it all off, Mourinho drew an unheard-of five-game touch-line suspension in the Champions League. It's gotten to the point where little of what Mourinho says is entitled to any credibility. And this from a man who was once able to back up his own claim that he was special.

In parallel fashion, the flash and flair of his teams has decayed, perhaps owing to his growing paranoia about a grand conspiracy designed to foil him for Barcelona's benefit. At Leiria, Mourinho's teams played attractive soccer. With Porto, perhaps still the apex of his career, his team played hauntingly beautiful and clever at times. But at Chelsea, playing for the result became Mourinho's M.O. At Inter, it became his specialty. At Real, it's become a contemptible blight, unapologetically on display in the four-game series with Barcelona, when Real twice made no attempt to seek out the ball.

In fairness, Mourinho had always had defense on the mind. As early as his spell as Bobby Robson's translator at Barcelona in 1996, whose ear he had on tactical matters, Mourinho was deeply committed to sound defense. But as the stakes were raised, his team's soccer became increasingly less attractive to watch.

Mourinho became a spoof, redeemed only by the fact that he still wins a lot of things.

But he's spinning out of control, whipped on by the pressure of working for the most demanding and unforgiving club in the world and, most of all, the orbital momentum of his own unstoppable mouth.

"Whom the Gods would destroy," wrote Euripides, "they first make insane."

Except Mourinho didn't need the Gods to do it for him. He could handle that on his own.

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