José Mourinho and the disadvantages of realizing one’s dreams

“You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it,” argues Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront (1954). In that particular scene, he deviated from director Elia Kazan’s vision, rephrasing the definition of heroic American masculinity with his delicacy; instead, gently pushing away the gun his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) holds.  “Oh, Charley. Wow,” he says, shaking his head in pity. (He stayed truthful to screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s lines, however.1) Kazan did not mind; quite the contrary, he would later admit: “If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”

Mourinho
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

If someone thinks he’s exaggerating, they should watch the scene, carefully, and then compare it to Margot Robbie’s take on it. (I love Robbie, but come on.)

Brando himself, however, opined in the audiotapes distributed by Listen to Me Marlon (2015) that he was not at his finest in the scene—that “there were times when [he] did much better acting.”

According to the late actor, the scene attained a life of its own, not because of his performance, but because it resonated across the minds of millions. “Everybody feels that they are a failure. Everybody feels that they could’ve been a contender,” he said.

We feel—some more intensely than others—that it behooves us to take at least something out of the accident of our birth.

Someone’s childhood friend moves house to California, setting one of his birthdays as a deadline to succeed there. Another’s namesake writes yet another manuscript. If he could write one page perfectly, that is all he’d ever ask. And a girl in Paris paints and lives by these words: “Hell, look at me. I don’t have a single dollar in my pocket, but I’m happy as a motherfucker!

But most prominently, an affluent man dreams in Lisbon. He wants to coach Manchester United one day.

After experiencing a sudden epiphany that his footballing career was going nowhere, José Mourinho, twenty-three years old at the time, signed up for business school. The young man spent just one day on the premises, however, before jumping ship and enrolling at the Instituto Superior de Educação Física (literal translation: Higher Institute of Physical Education). As Joel Neto, a Portuguese journalist, said to The Observer’s Mark Honigsbaum in 2004: “I believe that was the most significant day of his life. The day he said to himself: I’m going to prove to my mother that I can make a living from football.” That he could emulate his honoured father.

Mourinho—undoubtedly perceptive individual—was a realist. While studying, he saw his peers as mere commodities lest he forgot that life existed at the expense of other life. When one dream comes to life, another one dies. Thus, near-obsessed commitment and pedantic approach to details is the only way to go about one’s business.

Mourinho was determined to redefine the role of a head coach. He wanted to grow into a visionary: psychologist, inventor, and motivator. Royal. A (serial-)winner.

“I’m a dinosaur. I’m an absolute dinosaur. But what I am, I’m a winner.”

— José Mourinho after extending his contract with Manchester United until 2020. Just kidding. This was Alexander Ferguson’s full-time team talk after they lost the Premier League to City in 2012.

And he did just that. Via the professions of translator and schoolteacher, to the profession of a top football coach. Thence he realized his dream. Thrived. Turned himself into one of the greatest of all time. (Arguably.) Women swooned before his Iberian George Clooney look, and players were left impressed by his methodical man management.

Eu estou aqui

“[Y]ou grew up good and wonderful. It was great just watching you, every day was like a privilege. Then the time comes for you to be your own man and take on the world, and you did. But somewhere along the line, you changed. You stopped being you. You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow,” says Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to his son, Robert Balboa, Jr. in Rocky Balboa (2006). The passage is a pretty accurate description of what happened to Mourinho, except for two things. It wasn’t Mourinho who changed somewhere along the line—it was football. He stayed put. He forgot what Lauren learned in Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower. He forgot that “the only lasting truth is Change.” He did start looking for something to blame—like a big shadow—but he didn’t let people tell him he’s no good.

Perhaps, he should’ve.

“It’s been a struggle to try to preserve sanity and a sense of reality that’s been taken away from you by success,” Brando (candidly) admitted in a public statement after his son, Christian killed his daughter Cheyenne’s boyfriend Dag Drollet — the scion of Jacques Drollet, a former minister of education and tourism in Tahiti. The downside of being successful is that one gets easily trapped in a maze of yes-men and million-euro homes.

How does anyone even expect someone to change, if the supposed object of this change is VVIP wherever they go? If the only thing they get to hear is that they are the greatest coach that ever was? If they’ve seen how eyes of postgraduate students light up when they get to hear concrete examples of their lecturer’s pragmatic approach? It is difficult to maintain a balance between sticking to long-held convictions that have been proved right and keeping an open mind.

Borussia Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre is a great example of a coach who is receptive to new stimuli. He doesn’t have an army of assistant coaches that he drags along whenever he changes clubs. If—for some hypothetical reason—he is dismissed, Borussia Dortmund don’t have to ship off six members of his staff as well, like United did with Mourinho. (Mourinho also had a distinctive 17-year association with Rui Faria, which ended before the ongoing season.)

Mourinho addressed these alleged shortcomings for France Football in 2017. “I do not need ‘yes men’. I want people who have their own opinions. And even people who contest my decisions, questioning them.”

That’s not to say his assistants shouldn’t keep their mouth shut from time to time.

“I always say to my assistants: ‘During the match, I want to think alone.’ I do not want to have someone who is going to talk next to me, to tell me things. In those moments, I want to put together my expertise, with my instinct, with my feeling. I want to manage the team by myself.”

One person, who claims to have experienced the dark side of Mourinho, told Eurosport’s Dan Levene that the Lusitanian “needs to spend less time talking, and more listening”.

I used to roll the dice / Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes / Listen as the crowd would sing / Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!

Like a bitter novelist, who had a clear template how to compose critical successes until, one day he didn’t, Mourinho eventually ran out of ideas and audiences at Manchester United. Even though he dons the moniker “Special One” with pride, it takes someone really special to recognize the subtle shifts in the currents of one’s profession.

Cristiano Ronaldo did just that, ipso facto reinvented himself, and breathed down the neck of sixth Ballon d’Or; Donald Barthelme had a dozen acts; Michael Jackson intuitively understood what listeners wanted at any given year. Audrey Hepburn semi-retired from acting in 1968, due in part to the first coming of violence, and sexual revolution. She had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress the year her hiatus began.

“Well, I have the key in my hand, all I have to find is the lock.”

— Character Joseph Tura as Professor Siletsky in To Be or Not to Be (1942). It is believed that Mourinho first wanted to find the lock, after which he would mould a suitable key—to keep an opponent on the schneider.

This century, Father Time aggressively altered the way elite football should be played. Not only on the pitch, but off it as well. Mourinho—rather than following the evolution of the game—opted go about his business in the same way he had always gone. By plotting in the dark, parking the bus, and telling everyone they suck. Can you even imagine him saying, ‘the great players analyse the game better than I do’? This was something Ernesto Valverde admitted a few days ago.

But, no. Mourinho’s Machiavellian artistry was on full display in several pre- and post-match press conferences during the latter half of his tenure. In one such instance, he defended himself by citing the teachings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.2

“If you were not to win a Premier League title at Manchester United,” asked the journalist, “would you still be one of the greatest managers in the world or would that just be an old thing, based on your reputation?”

“Have you read any philosophers? Have you spent any time reading, for example, Hegel?” the composed manager scoffed. ”Hegel says ‘the truth is in the whole’. It’s always in the whole that you find the truth.”

Then he took a deliberate sip of water.

The act was calculative, if anything.

Hegel’s name is a recognizable one but few know his philosophy so thoroughly as to be able to use it in a press conference to defend themselves. Thus Mourinho, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, mirrored a person of brilliant mind and high thoughts; intellectually superior to mere reporters.

Hence, it’s not a far cry to argue that at times, the Portuguese is more concerned with cinematography than the actual screenplay. With the colour of glazing, not flavour. Tactic that is in stark contrast with his perspective and philosophy of football.

The year of cognizance

For two decades, Mourinho, who is now fifty-six, was in charge of realizing fans’ dreams. People around the world watching, waking up early or staying up over midnight. Narratives awaiting to be defined. All the terror, the frenzy, the tension in cities’ subways—he was in the middle of all that. He liked it. Whether it was about tackling Olly Murs, running onto the pitch at Camp Nou, sprinting one-hundred metres before the Theatre of Dreams, piggyback riding José Callejón, cupping his ear at home fans in Turin, poking Tito Vilanova in the eye, ambushing a referee in a car park, flipping three fingers for the Chelsea faithful, or attempting to tilt with Marco Ianni. (He, by the way, explained Ianni’s pre-incident behavior with “bad education”.)

Mourinho desires the limelight. Especially after a late winner or damned defeat. Mou’s always there. Provoking. Joking. Unlike the actual run of play, he’s never dull or achromatic. Instead of You, it’s always Mou.

He named himself the “Special One” and guzzled records. Had himself labelled as “serial winner”, and prevailed under the immense pressure of Madrid while instilling a piece of his own terminology into the Spanish football media.

After doing all that, it’s hard to take a step back and say, “Hey, maybe I am human after all”. After cementing himself as one of the greatest of all time in his profession, it was difficult to accept jeers and criticism. That would be difficult for anyone.

Last season, on the back of winning a ‘treble of sorts’ in 2017, United finished second, and collected the number of points that would’ve allowed them to compete for the championship in any season, bar 2017–18. This combined with his past successes convinced himself that he knew something others didn’t. He was educated. He was successful. He was a winner.

Who were those failures to tell him how to do his job?

1) Marlon Brando claimed to have improvised the speech. This, however, was not the case.

2) Mourinho kind of misquoted Hegel. The original quote is meant to be read as a synonym for “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.