Jose Mourinho, Master of the Dark Side of Football – An Exploration

An introduction from the editor: Jose Mourinho was born in the year John F. Kennedy had his mind relocated. The world has its mind relocated too, but not quite as literally.

The instigator of the moon landing, President Kennedy, started a major scientific and literary obsession of the time. Early Portuguese and particularly, Italian literature are full of descriptions of the Earth’s satellite. From Dante to Ariosto, Galileo and Leopardi, waxing lyrically about the celestial. The finest of them, Italo Calvino was fascinated by the Moon and had offered a highly evocative description of its effects in ‘Moon and Gnac’.

However, pragmatists like Lee Harvey Oswald, Darth Vader, Pink Floyd and Jose Mourinho were only concerned with the dark side of the moon.

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Less than half an hour to go and 1-0 down on the biggest night of his career, he turns around. His piercing gaze lands on two men sitting on the dugout. “You, warm up. You, get kitted.” Approaching senior-citizen status, his eyesight was probably dimming, but his vision was as sharp as his will to fight. The opposition had battered his team for more than an hour, but the match wasn’t over yet. The next twenty-five minutes were like an out-of-body experience, the kind of crescendo the London Philharmonic would be proud of executing, culminating with the ball bouncing off an outstretched Norwegian foot into Oliver Kahn’s net. The two men this grand old man of football had sent out, had scored a goal each in injury time to complete the most remarkable comeback in European club football yet. Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United had won the Champions’ League.

His grey blazer soaked, hair dripping with champagne, he made his way to the mixed zone for a quick interview. “Football, bloody hell.

First seen as recently as the qualifying phase of the 1958 World Cup, substitutions are a criminally underrated tactical move in modern football. A good manager, so often the orchestrator and master of puppets, is frequently called upon to don the hats of a chess grandmaster or a poker specialist. At any point over the evening, it could be time to show the decisive card, play his knight.

In one of the great tactical moves of the 2014 World Cup, Louis van Gaal substituted Jasper Cilissen for Tim Krul right before the penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica. Krul went on to save three penalties, taking Netherlands into the semi-finals.

For him, this is a welcome opportunity to alter the game completely. A deficit can now be chased down with greater fervour, a lead can now be protected with more steel. For the audience, it’s an incredibly effective catalyst for discussion; a chance to evaluate the manager’s ability to win his team a lost game, gauge his drive for staying in control, or throwing out the key, to shut the shop down.

Over Sir Alex’s twenty-six year rule as the high priest of Manchester United, the mere mention of Liverpool or Anfield would evoke rage and repugnance, his face following the nose into a sharp hue of red. There were victories and there were losses, but like a boxer on the cusp of winning at the bell, he would land the definitive blow if he saw his greatest rivals on the mat.

As Dejan Lovren walked off at Wembley last Sunday, thirty-one minutes into a game against the Premier League’s second-best football team, the discussion was as much about this match as it was about the one Liverpool played the previous weekend against Manchester United. Juergen Klopp was accompanied by Jose Mourinho into the court for a public trial. How could the Manchester United manager, riding the wave of an enviable start to the season, give away the chance to shed his pragmatism for once and take the game to such a brittle defensive lineup?

When Jose Mourinho was presented at the Manchester United training ground in 2016, for six million people across the world, he was the messiah, the one who’ll drag them out of the pits they found themselves in, post the twenty-six year grand opera that was Sir Alex’s United career. For Jose himself, it was catharsis at last. He hadn’t expected to be given the task of hauling United out of the depths of mediocrity, his dreams were set for following the one opponent he respected the most.

Three years prior, as news reached his ears that Sir Alex Ferguson had chosen David Moyes as his successor at Manchester United,  Mourinho, on that occasion had been left crying and sobbing on the phone with his agent Jorge Mendes’ company. Now, older, wiser and more battle-hardened, he embraced the club which had fallen far from their perch. He was ready to be the messiah.

Jose Mourinho had long harboured dreams of following Sir Alex Ferguson into the Old Trafford throne.
Jose Mourinho had long harboured dreams of following Sir Alex Ferguson into the Old Trafford throne.

Three gold medals in his first twelve months seemed to reinforce the belief. Jose had lifted Manchester United to the brim  from the pit, it was now time to step into the harsh, cruel world and regain the lost riches which were once so definitive of this football club.

The new season began with some impressive victories, casting rays of a vibrant, new era in Mourinho’s managerial tenure where he finally gives his players the freedom to create and attack. Then came the international break and one indispensable ingredient of a Premier League season: injuries. With every twitching muscle of his midfielders and defenders, the horizon  seemed to darken again. Attack turned to turgid defense and teams which should’ve been steamrolled were allowed to wear United down. Were those effervescent victories glimpses of a potential sunrise, or had it been another false dawn, a fleeting moment of calm before the all too familiar resonance of the storm that is life under Jose Mourinho?

Understanding the motives  of some football personalities is fairly trivial, you see what you get. For many others, like Mourinho, you need to dig for answers to get to the depth of the men they are.

Jose’s elite, alternative education

By the time Jose Mourinho was old enough to enjoy a glass of port wine with his mates in Lisbon, his view of football wasn’t confined to the greener side of the chalk-lines. A modest footballing career aside, his telescope into the sport was polished by a grandfather who was once president of Vitorio and his father, former player and manager, who was sacked on Christmas day after taking Rio Ave to promotion and the Portuguese Cup final (an incident that would shape Jose’s worldview). Way before most players, starry-eyed and twinkle-toed, made their professional debuts, Jose Mourinho was already being moulded by the dark alleys of business and industry that is modern competitive football.

When modern football’s coaching elite were getting shaped as players in Catalunya, there he was, sitting next to the managers, studying every single detail of friends and foes. Whenever Bobby Robson and van Gaal looked towards their translator for quick insights, he supplied them with dossiers instead. Behind the Guardiola passes and Figo dribbles which warmed the cockles of a million hearts, for all the plaudits and laurels bestowed on the valiance of Senor Robson or the Ajax-Barcelona education of Senor van Gaal, there was the meticulous work ethic and hard grind of Jose Mourinho.

El Traductor: Jose’s football education peaked during his time at Barcelona, where he started off as a translator.

Unlike every second person on the Barcelona payroll, Mourinho was an outsider, for he had no pedigree as an athlete or footballer. Yet, he became an indispensable part of their setup because his credentials as a football-man were beyond reproach, for his education had equipped him with things that would pass by others with better ball-control.

Jose Mourinho’s mentor at the Instituto Superior de Educação Física was Manuel Sérgio, a psychologist, who believed that the nuances of the game existed far beyond the pitch. The game was played as much in the whizzing neurons of your brain as it was by the muscles behind the Adidas and Nike insignias.

While going through his paces as a student of sports science, Jose was taught about mastering the mind and everything it can accomplish. Soon after, he took up his first job as a teacher, one which now serves as a keyhole view into the mindset and psyche that he takes to the dugout as a manager. He tasked himself with teaching kids with Downs Syndrome and mental disabilities, a challenge whose gravity he happily admits he wasn’t prepared for, but in a turn of events that would become a pattern throughout his career, he succeeded because he knew how to empathise.

“I wasn’t technically ready to help these kids. And I had success only because of one thing, the emotional relation that was established with them. I did little miracles only because of the relationship. Affection, touch, empathy – only because of that. There was one kid that refused all his life to walk up stairs. Another one that couldn’t coordinate the simplest movement – all these different problems, and we had success in many, many of these cases only based on that empathy.”

– Jose Mourinho, The Telegraph, 2015.

It’s a lesson he took for life. Decades later, as he sits gloriously in august company amongst the greatest football managers to have ever lived, Mourinho is known of as a general who’ll live and die by his men. Michels, Menotti and Cruyff spoke in numbers and shapes; Busby, Shankly and Ferguson were fatherly figures, men you wanted to impress. Jose Mourinho modelled himself on the third prototype of great managers: the Helenio Herrera kind.

The Argentine stretched his teams to their physical limit, unleashed psychological and emotional warfare to get them over the line, a trait that would go on to define much of Mourinho’s career. Even Herrera’s journey as a manager peaked at Barcelona and Inter Milan, clubs Jose would eventually carve his name in.

Life, or football, has never been about art, beauty and other romantic notions for Mourinho. Inside the royal wardrobe in his London house is a mix of blacks, greys and other dark colors. He’s not a man for a glittering magenta shirt or the flicked through-ball under the legs of an opposition defender. Talk to him about movies and characters, and his answer will not revolve around the all-hope story of Shawshank Redemption or the out-of-the-world experience of Interstellar. He connects most with Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of The Lambs, an ace psychiatrist and cannibalistic killer who leads the FBI into the capture of a serial killer. Jose is also a well-read man, an admirer of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most loved poet. In his writings from Book of Disquiet, Pessoa had written a line which begins to explain why Jose would’ve taken such a liking to his work.

I’ve always rejected being understood. To be understood is to prostitute oneself. I prefer to be taken seriously for what I’m not, remaining humanly unknown, with naturalness and all due respect.

I think I’m the special one”, he roared, sat solid on his chair at the Cobham press room. England, a footballing culture still basking in the afterglow of the cloak and dagger era, the hard-nosed grit. The industry of Clough and Revie, Robson and Dalglish, Keegan and Ferguson, wasn’t ready for a 40-something punk with salt-pepper hair, all of three years into top-flight management, shouldering  his way into mass consciousness.

Soon enough, the memo reached every corner of the football-following world. Even in a gathering of the knighted, revered, admired and loved, Jose Mourinho was still the main event, the target of all flashlights. Here was a man who was audience at the greatest coaching seminar of the world, yet he chose to approach and play his football in a way which most others at the gathering, and indeed a majority of the world, saw as borderline sacrilege. Mourinho’s career began at Barcelona, and continues to be defined by his relationship with the club.

The adventures of El Traductor

Back in 2008, when the Barcelona board were mulling over the replacement for Frank Rijkaard, Mourinho put on his best suit, ready to walk into Cuitat Esportiva Joan Gamper. It was homecoming for the prodigal son, the one Camp Nou faithfuls had once named el traductor, the translator. Waiting impatiently for the phone to ring, he was pacing around his house in Portugal. The shortlist had come down to two men: him and Josep Guardiola, a fierce Catalan and a Barcelona legend during his playing days, but a man whose managerial resume had all of one season with the Barcelona reserves. Mourinho, with the UEFA Cup, Champions League and Premier League medals shining bright inside his cupboard, didn’t anticipate as much as a contemplation over this. The final decision still lay with Johan Cruyff, an oracle for the people and football fraternity at Barcelona.

The call for a visit never came. President of the club, Joan Laporta, had delivered the hammer blow. Cruyff had chosen the man who was seeped in the Catalan sentiment, was his disciple as a player, and had projected himself as the best option to carry Barcelona forward with Cruyff’s vision of the club as cornerstone. In twelve months, Guardiola won the treble with Barcelona, conquering all and sundry, while playing the sort of football which transformed the game across the planet.

As the congratulatory confetti streamed down on the Barcelona players from the roofs at Stadio Olympico at Rome, down at Madrid, Florentino Perez was making a return as President. Archers and shooters at an Olympic range are less sure of their target than Perez was when he took over. Guardiola’s blitzkrieg of a team had be stopped at all costs.

Perez promptly secured Bernebeu as the venue for the following year’s Champions League final, and before he knew it, Real Madrid were knocked out and Barcelona were in the semi-final. For anyone remotely associated with the white faction from the city of Madrid, Barcelona’s tiniest successes evoke disgust of unmatched proportions. The prospect of watching the men from Catalunya, a region which maintains a considerable ideological and political distance from Spain, lift European football’s biggest prize at Madrid’s home ground, was akin to hell freezing over.

Mourinho, leading 3-1 from the first leg with his Inter Milan team, made his way into Camp Nou, this time as the adversary who’d go out on a limb to break their ascent. Jose set up his team like only he knows: with an iron shield, completely comfortable in weathering storms of any size and power. Catenaccio it may not have been, but Mourinho took a giant swig of Helenio Herrera’s spirit that evening. Messi and his merry men hammered at the door for an hour and a half, but couldn’t break it down. In the end, Jose Mourinho sprinted across the perfectly-cut green turf at Camp Nou with his fingers held aloft, sprinklers squirting water on his torso, as if pointing towards the Spanish capital. He was their messiah, the only one with the wherewithal to take on their arch enemies.

For social scientists and psychologists, he was a subject sent straight from the highest peaks of heaven. Ubaldo Martínez is Professor of Social Anthropology at the National University of Distance Education in Madrid. If you peek out of his house, the dominating sight would be of the brown pillars, just a couple of hundred yards away, forming the externals of Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. He had front row tickets to the blood-curdling roller-coaster that was Mourinho’s three year reign at Real Madrid.

“We’re convinced that we’ve become rational but we’re still more persuaded by magic than by reason,’ he comments. ‘Everything that Mourinho says, that sort of austerity he imposes on players, that continuous punishment thing, that takes you down a certain path – it’s what the shamans do. Here, fear plays a tremendous part. Fear is everything. In this case, fear that they’ll throw you out of the club, that they won’t let you play … everything. Fear is a way of imposing discipline on people. The theoretical problem that we encounter is that these guys, these players, are untameable. They’re cocky. How do you dominate that?”

The Jose Mourinho Show: Breaking the fourth wall

Konstantin Stanislavski spoke of the fourth wall in theatre. There’s an imaginary boundary which exists between actors on stage and the audience. It lets the artists work illusions without interacting with the consumer. Once you purge the Fourth Wall, you are one with your audience. Every action of yours, every movement, directly impacts and references them. It is then, that the performance moves from illusion to real.

Whether you encounter Jose Mourinho at the training ground, in a dugout, a press conference, or a newspaper interview, you’re witnessing theatre, a performance of the highest dedication and resolve. He will bend your mind and show you a movement of emotions which you wouldn’t anticipate coming from the realms of competitive sport.

Jose Mourinho turned power management into a fine art while at Real Madrid, feeding on fear and paranoia. Florentino Perez brought him to Madrid to put an end to Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona. Players came and left, were thrown under the bus in press conferences, were hugged in training and screamed at after they had saved Madrid the game; all in the same breath, all by the same man. Mourinho landed the Premiera Division at Madrid’s doorstep in Guardiola’s last season as Barcelona manager. He might not have won the war, as his unceremonious tenure and exit screamed out loud, but he had won yet another battle. This time, the precise one he was asked to win. Most of his big victories that season came when he pushed his own players to the edge, filling them with insecurity and fear, and led the opposition to believe they had his team on the mat, before watching his men unleash counter-attacks with unerring efficiency and surgical incision.

There are lots of poets in football but poets, they don’t win many titles.”

Jose Mourinho, after winning the Europa League with Man United, 2017

Mourinho has made a glittering career out of astute man-management and with an utter and complete disregard for the frills and fancies. For every player who has fallen out with him, there are two within whom he has inspired devotion and loyalty.

Jose’s friends swear by him. Sat on the far right is Rui Faria, who has been his assistant coach since his first stint at Benfica in 2000, and sits beside him at the Old Trafford dugout today.

From Maniche to Terry to Ibrahimovic, a lot of his players will tell you things about him which are often overlooked by the media, attributes which lend the grey shade to the otherwise dark space he inhabits as a football man.

“He knew everybody so deeply that he could control our emotions in every situation. In my case, he would just pat me on the back and I was ready to go. However, there were players who needed motivation, who needed to be praised, and he knew which ones needed what, that’s what made him so good.”

Vítor Baía, goalkeeper at FC Porto during Mourinho’s reign

A few months into Mourinho’s tenure at Porto, Baía’s training ground altercation with him resulted in the goalkeeper getting banned from all club activities. Friendships and relationships counter for only so much if you went against him. He was the club, he was the team, he was Machiavelli’s reincarnation from five hundred years in the future. Mourinho claims to have read the Italian philosopher’s work, and agrees to have a generous spattering of Machiavellian sentiment in his public projections.

You might have been used to twenty-six years of attacking football, or spent your formative years watching teams play exquisite one-touch outside the opposition box, but when Jose Mourinho takes over your club, you’re in his world. You’ve ventured into the vortex he has created where he exists as the supernatural. It’s his show, his theatre, his music. He’s the master of the dark arts, you’re just the audience, and the doors are shut.

Take a seat.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.