April 2006. Chelsea beats ManU 3-0 at Stamford Bridge to take the Premiership. It is José Mourinho’s second title in England, his fourth title in a row as a manager. Upon receiving his medal he throws both it and his jacket (still carrying his wallet) into the cheering home crowd. Then, when he’s offered a replace medal, he throws that to the spectators as well. As if to say, honours don’t matter – only winning. Trinkets and goblets only serve to weigh down this promethean character.
Unlike most managers, Mourinho has succeeded in making football narratives about himself. Not about the players, the transfers, the money, the referees, the owners, or the wags. Just about Mourinho. Everyone has a Mourinho moment, the incident that led them to loath or admire him. For me it was the teary embrace with Materazzi as he, Mourinho, prepared to leave Inter behind and join Real Madrid. (Materazzi, the Rolls Royce defender here sobbing over the loss of his coach, is the same Materazzi whose most inspired football contribution was to be the victim of Zindane’s World Cup head butt.) I admit that’s a bit late in the game. True followers of football had Mourinho pegged long before. Some as Bobby Robson’s gifted Portugese interpreter/protegé, others as the treble winner with Porto. Still others as the Special One, after his Chelsea press conference: a virtuose media performance, with Mourinho himself coining the nickname: “I’m the European Champion. So I’m not … I’m not on of the bottle. I think I am a special one.”
Despite his hubris and slight Portugese lisp, it became hard to make fun of the Special one after winning the Premiership in his first Chelsea season. Harder yet after he departed for Inter (after some foreseeable trouble with Abramovich, oligarch and meddler), and took the Milan team to win the Scudetto, the Italian cup, and the biggest price of all, the Champions league. Not news to Mourinho – he had already done it with Porto. The Chelsea supporters still chant his name, forever disenchanted with Abramovich’s series of well paid replacements.
Loving Mourinho is a privilege, for he doesn’t make it easy. Liverpool supporters will recall his outrageous taunt, hushing the home crowd during a cup final with Chelsea. From eye poking to simply poking fun, Mourinho has left a string of offended parties on his campaigns across the European continent. What did he say to Pep Guardiola and Ibrahimovic during the El Clasico? Did he really think celebrating with Barcelona goalie Valdés was a good idea? Yet, his players do love him. The Chelsea veterans from the Mourinho era (Lampard, Terry, Drogba) are sometimes called the Old Guard. They are the experienced and aging elite, equally scared and decorated from Mourinho’s English campaign. For them, the memory of the Special One’s grey overcoat is strong enough that they frequently rebel against their new commanders. And when they do win, like yesterday’s grueling game against Barcelona, it is with a tactical instinct that survived Mourinho’s departure. A Chelsea v Madrid final in the 2012 edition Champions League will be a loyalty test for many – but a victory for the game’s foremost protagonist, no matter the scoreline.
Both for Mourinho’s detractors and acolytes it’s easy to imagine that nothing would be more satisfying than a Barca v Madrid final in the upcoming final. The reason is the epic mano-a-mano that is Ronaldo, regal Madrilenian bull, versus, Messi,
Catalonian Argentinian David and Unicef poster boy. It is touted as the grand narrative of today’s football, record breaking down to the clinical detail (advertisement revenue included).
It leaves me completely cold. Mourinho’s story is infinitely more complex than their high school intrigue. If anything it is a mere subplot in Mourinho’s grander odyssey, a storyline that has a life beyond offside and onside, beyond football even. And even though prophesy isn’t my strong suit, it’s an odyssey that might just end with Mourinho – his last controversy behind him – dictating his memoirs whilst coaching some trophy-less island team. Maybe RCD Mallorca. Or better still, AC Ajaccio.