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Mourinho: Madrid’s saviour, Barça’s anti-Christ?

The Portuguese faces perhaps the greatest challenge of his career. His management style will ensure sparks fly and players perform – but is that enough?


Mourinho aims to restore Real Madrid's European credibility. Photo: segnaleorario

Someone once said that in England football is war, in Italy it is chess, and in Spain it is theatre.

José Mourinho has proved that he can battle it out in England by winning the league title twice with Chelsea. He has also just shown he can manoeuvre with the best of them in Italy by winning the Scudetto, the Coppa and the Champions League in the same season.

So now he comes to Spain, set on continuing an extraordinary campaign of European conquest that began in earnest when he announced himself to the world by leading Porto to the Champions League title in 2004. But if, as anticipated, he becomes Real Madrid’s new coach, can he provide the kind of success and theatre the club demands?

“Whoever replaces me will have to beat Barcelona, win 18 home games, get more than 100 points in the league and score over 100 goals. That’s not easy.” This was the bitter verdict of Mourinho’s predecessor, Manuel Pellegrini, who failed to win any trophies in his debut season in the Madrid hot-seat, despite Real’s €250-million player splash-out last summer.

But Mourinho appears able to win silverware in whichever league he chooses to work.  If anyone can improve on the decent, albeit incomplete work of Pellegrini, it is surely the man from Setúbal, whose vast tactical acumen is allied to a career psychologist’s approach to man-management.

Other Real Madrid coaches in recent years have often looked as if the job is simply too big for them with all the obstacles it entails: a transfer policy dictated by the boardroom, fans who boo when play is too drab, an aloof president, and a frenzied local sports press. But this job is certainly not too big for Mourinho. He has an ego every bit as big as his new club, having won more Champions League titles than Real Madrid has in the last few years, and many more trophies overall. Regardless of the players Real signs this summer, its star signing is the coach.

As a result, he will almost certainly have more influence at the club than those who came before him, especially in terms of signing players. The big question mark over this new project is whether Mourinho can work smoothly within a club that is not used to giving its coaches more than a minimal degree of autonomy.

With Madrid’s fans and media in thrall to Mourinho, especially after his Inter side knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League and won the tournament itself in Real’s own stadium, he merely has to show his knack of winning games to extend the honeymoon.

Or does he?

Spanish fans are much more demanding about how their teams play than their Italian counterparts. The style in which Mourinho’s sides win has to be a worry at the back of every Real fan’s mind.

“We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position,” he said after his Inter knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League. “I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball, we gave it away.”

I didn’t want us to have the ball. Most self-respecting Real fans would have blocked their ears as their coach-to-be uttered these heretic words. But Mourinho is a pragmatist, not an aesthete, so nobody should be too surprised if Real Madrid start clamming up after going 1-0 ahead in the opening minutes of league games.

And yet, after six years in the European wilderness, if the new coach can lead Real Madrid to a 10th European champion’s trophy (or at least somewhere near it) and win the league, presumably the club’s famous penchant for stylish play will be conveniently forgotten.

Lost in translation

Over in Barcelona, fresh from retaining the league title, they are looking forward to welcoming Mourinho with the cries of “translator!” they like to yell, to remind him that his spell at the Catalan club as an interpreter-assistant coach under Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal was a crucial moment in his career.

“I’m not stupid enough to think that this hate can be turned into love,” he has said. “I respect Barça and I’ll never forget what the club gave me in the four years I was here, but something has been created around me that is hard to make positive… It is clear that I will end my career without having coached Barça.”

The Barcelona fans’ hatred of Mourinho is complex. Ostensibly, they despise him for the arrogant and brash way he has behaved when he has led teams against them; most recently, his wild celebrations at eliminating last season’s European champions at the Camp Nou, for which Barcelona sourly rewarded him by dousing his players with the pitch water sprinklers.

But there is also something else behind the hostility, it seems. Barcelona has enjoyed enormous success over the last five years and has no reason to envy Mourinho. But the fact that a former employee of the club took his freshly-baked know-how elsewhere and conquered Europe apparently rankles, as does his insistence on winning ugly, a most anti-Barcelona trait.

Barcelona’s coach is the charming and grounded Pep Guardiola, the ideal foil to Mourinho’s attention-seeking histrionics and mind games. If Guardiola can keep his cool throughout an entire season of baiting from the new arrival, then retaining the league title again will seem like a walk in the woods in comparison.

Barcelona’s fans might outwardly relish the thought of having their bête noir in Madrid next season, but they will also be more than a little nervous as they flick through his CV.

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Published: May 24 2010
Category: Sports
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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