Mourinho's ability to employ mind games is wildly exaggerated
Real's Jose Mourinho has infuriated opponents with brash statements
Mourinho's supporters believe he is employing psychological warfare
The reality is that not all of Mourinho's actions are pre-meditated
There is a wonderful moment in this month's "Informe Robinson" where Michael Robinson, the former Liverpool and Osasuna striker and now one of the most respected presenters and directors on Spanish television, leans forward and asks Jose Mourinho a rather personal question. "Is your wife in love with The Special One too?"
"No," Mourinho says. "She doesn't like him at all."
This week, many Spaniards decided that they agreed with her. Now, the chances are you're thinking to yourself: "what do you mean this week?! They decided that long ago." And you'd be right. But you'd also be wrong. Because this week was different. More to the point, the people who decided they disliked him this week were different.
In Barcelona they took an instant dislike to him. It is ages ago now that they decided Mourinho was provocative, arrogant, immoral. Beelzebub in a Real Madrid tracksuit. And fans from other clubs have not been very much more complimentary. Banners are raised against him, he is whistled and booed and sworn at. He has become a kind of cartoon bad guy. None of which is particularly surprising -- and, for anyone who saw him perform (and "perform" is often the word) in Italy, England and Portugal, even Spain when he was assistant to Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, it is also nothing new.
Since coming to Spain, Mourinho has accused opponents of lying down and letting Barcelona beat them and implied that referees are on the Catalans' side, claiming that they "often play against 10 men" -- even though statistically Madrid played against 10 more often than Barcelona. He has drawn irritated responses from Sporting Gijón coach Manolo Preciado, Osasuna coach José Antonio Camacho and Levante coach Luis García already this season. At halftime last Saturday Levante midfielder Juanlu snapped: "Mourinho should shut up. He spends all his time winding people up."
Afterward, Mourinho accused Levante of time wasting and feigning injury, sniping: "I thought they were all dead. I'm glad none of them are in hospital because it looked like they would all have to go." The following day it was confirmed -- from hospital - that Levante's Nacho González has torn knee ligaments after a lunging tackle from Real's Sergio Ramos. "It's fair to say Mourinho has been a bit bocazas," said club captain Sergio Ballesteros. A bocazas is a big mouth.
Still, in Madrid no one cared. Mourinho may be a bocazas but he's our bocazas. Much has been said about Madrid's self-declared status as a "Gentleman of a Club" -- honorable in victory and defeat, respectful, decent. But the truth is that most fans don't care. And, it's tempting to conclude, nor does the club itself. When it signed Mourinho it knew what he was like and on the day he was presented he promised only one thing: "I will continue to be Jose Mourinho."
All it cares about is winning. And Mourinho wins. In fact, the perceived wisdom holds that the winding up is part of it: for Mourinho, what he says, how he acts, is integral to the job. The "Special One" is a persona he has created to enable him to succeed. And succeeding is all that matters -- to him and his team. As he told Robinson, it is a persona that is not the real him; his wife loves Jose Mourinho, not "The Special One." Hell, he doesn't even like the Special One sometimes. As he has admitted lots of times: "when I go into the press room, the game has already started."
It is a line that has been accepted uncritically and used to explain everything -- even when it doesn't.
Which is why Mourinho, in Madrid at least, was forgiven for winding up opponents. More than forgiven, he was feted. He was a genius. A psychological warrior of rare cunning. Master of the dark arts, sure, but arts nonetheless. A master too. As the editor of Marca put it, continuing his campaign to beatify the coach: "those who accuse him of being arrogant or mad, should remember something very important: Mourinho never does anything for the sake of it -- there's always a reason."
One particularly zealous defender declared every remark from Mourinho another twist of the knife he had plunged into Barcelona's back. "Mourinho has them running scared," he said. "He's got right under their skin. They've got Madrid-itis, Mourinho-itis. They're wound up. Pep Guardiola has lost the plot; Mourinho has made him uncomfortable. He's fallen into Mourinho's trap. Barcelona are becoming obsessed with and terrified by Madrid and Mourinho. Look! They're crapping themselves."
Every word, every gesture, every scene, was planned is perfection. Every little thing he does is magic; every little thing leads to victory.
Except that it isn't and it doesn't. Madrid's football has not been impressive. It has drawn 0-0 twice -- against Mallorca and Levante. It has lacked fluidity and goals. It trails Barcelona. Mourinho has found himself making excuses.
At least, it is the excuses, the playing up, that everyone seems to have focused on. That's a pity because his press conferences are long and fascinating: not just for the show or the one-liners or the put downs but also -- more so - for the way he justifies decisions, the way he explains things. The rationale behind his footballing decisions, like his explanation for sending on two defensive midfielders against Espanyol or his admission that he teaches his players to jump with their arms behind their backs to avoid the risk of penalties - a brief glimpse into his obsessive training and attention to detail.
Instead, the focus is always on the edgy material; on the headlines not the whole article. On how Levante were sneaky, how the pitch was a "potato field," how it's too early, how Benzema "can see the game perfectly from the bench," how Barcelona are obsessed with Madrid. On the performance on what the television have called "The Show de Mou." And here, even as the media criticized him, they thought he was being clever. He never did anything just for the sake of it. Everyone said how intelligent he was, how calculated -- even if only for his talent when it came to manipulating the media agenda for his own ends.
"We're talking about him," they said, "And not how badly his teams are playing."
He is a genius. A mind games expert. A master puppeteer.
Which of course he is. Some of the time. But not all of it. But the media has been implicit in making it all of the time. By talking about how clever Mourinho is, by interpreting everything as part of some grand plan, by calling him a Mind Games master, his every move is analyzed and interpreted within that framework. But not everything fits that framework; not everything makes sense.
There are few greater myths than mind games -- as anyone who has followed the British media's approach to Alex Ferguson can testify. Every time he says something offensive against an opponent, winds someone up, rants against a referee or a committee, or offers up an outlandish excuse, he is lauded as a "Mind Games Master." If another manager responds, they are declared a victim; they're accused of being unable to control their temper, unable to cope with the pressure.
But, much as Kevin Keegan's extraordinary, famous outburst suggested that Ferguson had got under his skin, had that really been the Scot's intention? Did that outburst really effect Keegan's Newcastle team? And even if the answer to both questions is yes, does that really mean there is an ulterior motive, a plan cunningly brought to fruition? Often they are no more of a victim of their own pressure than Ferguson is. Often there is no method in his madness. Much of the time, he is just human. An angry man. A manager who does not like losing and reacts badly.
The same is surely true of Mourinho. He is a brilliant manager. He is a clever manager. And he uses the pressroom to send messages, to set scenes, to create an atmosphere. He has built a persona -- one his wife does not like but that seems to help him win. But that persona is not only an invention; that persona is, in part, him. That doesn't mean that every single word is perfectly planned.
Sometimes, Mourinho's excuses are excuses, sometimes his anger is anger, sometimes his accusations are not a clever tactic but paranoia. He is human. But, just as those who want to hate him don't want to see anything except a mean-spirited monster, his defenders don't see it. Or don't want to. They prefer to imagine him as a mastermind -- invincible, inalterable, unruffled, utterly in control.
This time, briefly, they did see it. This week, an angry Mourinho got up and walked out of the press conference before the Auxerre game -- before the translator had even finished turning his final response into French. No one would have minded but this time, the focus of his attack was not an opponent, a referee, or a committee; it was Pedro Leon -- a Madrid player. Going for Barcelona players was fine but this was different. Even Madrid fans decided they didn't like it. They also didn't understand it. One television presenter at last asked: "apart from provoking people, can anyone tell what Mourinho's actually doing?"
Asked three times why he had left Leon out of the team, Mourinho snapped: "It's not as if he is [Diego] Maradona or [Zinedine] Zidane ... or [Alfredo] Di Stefano." Clearly, something had happened with Leon. Clearly, Mourinho was annoyed with him. What was less clear this time was what he hoped to achieve by speaking out. If Leon suddenly starts playing brilliantly, Mourinho will be feted as a genius again, but as the words tumbled from his mouth it looked like anger. Real anger. And because it was a Madrid player not a rival, this time -- unlike other times when he surely has too -- people wondered if he had lost control. "By saying that, won't he just sink his own player?" people asked. "Where," they said, "is the sense in that?"
This time they couldn't see the logic. Sometimes in the past they couldn't see the lack of it.
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