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Spain has melted Mourinho’s aura of invincibility

Defeat in the Copa del Rey final confirms that the reputation of the departing Real Madrid coach has suffered over the last three years. But Spain and he were never meant for one another.


José Mourinho

The really striking thing about Mourinho’s three-year spell in Spain is not how his team has played, but how his own aura has slipped.

On a recent visit to Setúbal, near Lisbon, I noticed some massive billboards at the side of the road for an exhibition marking half a century on earth of the town’s most famous son. José Mourinho – 50 anos, documents the meteoric career of The Special One, through photographs of his many professional triumphs, with a few personal moments thrown in.

It was a reminder of how revered he remains in Portugal – perhaps the country’s most famed living son, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. But on arriving back in Madrid, I realised how differently the Portuguese and Spanish regard him. In his adopted country, his reputation has been on a steady slide for much of the three seasons he has spent here, culminating in the spats and vitriol that have marked his apparently unstoppable exit from Real Madrid.

The trophy haul from those three years is reasonable, but far from awesome: one record-breaking Liga title and one Copa del Rey. And Friday’s defeat to Atlético Madrid in the Copa del Rey final, breaking a 14-year jinx for the red-and-whites, has confirmed this season as the worst of Mourinho’s career, by his own admission.

The most glaring gap in the trophy cabinet is that of the Champions League title. Real Madrid ultimately measures its success on the European stage, not on that of the two-horse domestic one and Mourinho was hired as much to land the desperately sought-after Décima as to break Barcelona’s stranglehold on the liga. Two major domestic titles are scant compensation, as are three semi-final appearances in the Champions League.

So in purely footballing terms, Mourinho, himself brought in at huge expense to the club, can be seen as a let-down. But the really striking thing about his turbulent spell in Madrid is not how his team has played, but how his own aura has slipped.

In recent press conferences, he has repeatedly defended his record, not with the confident authority of the winner who arrived in our consciousness as if by magic a decade ago, but with the chippy insistence of someone who knows he hasn’t quite fulfilled expectations. “I won the liga points record, you can’t take that away from me,” he whined recently, sounding eerily reminiscent of his erstwhile arch-enemy Rafa Benítez at the tail-end of the Spaniard’s spell at Liverpool.

Meanwhile, his relationship with Iker Casillas, the club captain and goalkeeper Mourinho has sidelined for most of the second half of the season, has deteriorated beyond repair. And even Pepe and Ronaldo, his stalwart fellow countrymen, have spoken out against him.

Goodbye “witchdoctor”, hello hate figure

At Chelsea, Mourinho was the coach who managed to be both a best mate and a scolding parent to his players, and one whom sociobiologist Desmond Morris described as a “witchdoctor” figure. At Inter, his tearful farewell hug with ice-cool defender Marco Materrazi cemented the idea that whatever you thought about Mou, he did have a special relationship with his charges.

And yet in Madrid, his man-management skills seem to have deserted him. What started as a dressing room split pitting some Spanish players against their Portuguese colleagues and Mourinho, seems to have culminated in most of the players simply uniting against the boss.

Among Real Madrid fans his stock has also plummeted. At the notoriously fickle Bernabéu he has frequently been met by boos. Just as importantly, the media, which he has seemed increasingly obsessed by, has also turned hostile, even Real Madrid’s daily fanzines Marca and As.

While Mourinho has always been known to ruffle feathers, he has never before generated such enmity. In Portugal, his global fame means he can do no wrong. In England, even his arrogance was a breath of fresh air for a media and public who took him with a pinch of salt and enjoyed the soundbites. In Italy, he only lasted two seasons, but in securing the triple with Inter he was seen more as a pantomime villain than a real baddie.

But, as the saying goes: Spain is different. Mourinho’s limelight-hogging brashness went down badly from the start. His brand of self-publicity simply doesn’t win admirers here, where an outlandish boast is taken at face value, rather than with a smile or a shake of the head.

Also, he could no longer play the enigmatic upstart card; the man from Setúbal was now the world’s best-paid coach at the world’s biggest club – the figurehead of a venerable institution.

The often dour playing style didn’t help, or Mourinho’s baggage as a defensive-minded pragmatist, compared to the attack-oriented philosophy of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. In neutrals’ minds, Guardiola was always the goodie in that particular rivalry.

Disdain for the Bernabéu

But if Spain has never loved Mourinho, it was quite clear from the start that he wasn’t falling for Spain. He hasn’t hidden his disdain for Real Madrid’s fans, who, instead of getting behind their players come what may, start waving their hankies if their team isn’t dominating a game.

“I want to thank the few (fans) who were behind the goal, because if it wasn’t for them, you’d think the place was empty,” he sighed back in 2011, after thrashing Osasuna 7-1 in the Bernabéu.

And in the press room, his comments have frequently crossed the line between provocative and outrageous, sneering at fellow coaches such as his shoddily treated predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, or accusing Guardiola’s Barcelona of cheating their way to the 2009 Champions League title. Even after the scrappy defeat to Atlético in the cup final (during which he was dismissed from the dugout) he defiantly insisted that the winners “didn’t deserve” to win.

Mourinho managed to evoke the sepia-tinged old days in Spain – not so much the days of Puskas and Di Stéfano, but rather those of the right-wing dictatorship – when he cornered a journalist he didn’t like in a room with his coaching staff and interrogated him about his radio reports. These sorts of anecdotes have fuelled the notion that far from having the mind of a logic-obsessed scientist, as we had been led to believe, Mourinho is actually madder than a bag of snakes.

This wasn’t the popular image of the supremely rational, carefully coiffured trophy-magnet who arrived in Spain three years ago. But since then, almost all facets of his invincible aura have been challenged: the tactical nous, the man-management skills, the icy calm under pressure and an ability to ensure results – all seem to have melted slightly in the Madrid sun.

But I, for one, will miss Mourinho. Granted, in recent weeks he has become a sort of cartoon of himself, more resembling a Portuguese psychopath with Tourette’s than a top soccer coach. Yes, his public persona may be graceless and utterly self-serving, but of all the graceless, self-serving people in Spanish public life (and there are quite a few) he’s by far the most complex and intriguing.

Farewell, José, it’s been a pleasure knowing you – sort of.

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Published: May 20 2013
Category: Featured, Iberoblog, Spain News, Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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