by Abiola Kazeem
Perhaps it was inevitable that Jose Mourinho should manage Real Madrid. The world’s best coach managing the world’s biggest club makes for nice sound bite does it not? And there was excellent logic to it as well. Real needed to ensure that Barcelona’s looming hegemony was not allowed to take root and who else to hire than the man who has proved over and over again that he has he can stop Barcelona in their tracks. Whatever doubts that remained were swept away that night at the Bernabeu, when Jose imperiously led Inter Milan to shove Bayern Munich aside on their way to winning their first Champions League title in 45 years. A few days later, he became Real Madrid coach.
The early signs at Madrid were good. Jose brought in Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Carlvaho and Angel di Maria to further strengthen a team that already had 2 former world players of the year and a couple of players who were part of Spain’s ultimately glorious World Cup expedition in South Africa. The task for Mourinho was clear; wrest domestic dominance from Barcelona and restore Madrid to its eminent position in Europe where it had stuttered badly in recent years. Neither was going to be easy, but equipped with such vast riches and the ever present over sized ego, Mourinho set to task quickly. After a slow start, the Madrid juggernaut caught steam and started playing some fantastic stuff. Ozil and Khedira made the transition terrifically, Angel di Maria’s pace and trickery quickly became an asset just as Carlvaho brought certainty, authority, experience and resilience to a defence hitherto famous for been generous. All seemed to be going well till that night at the Camp Nou. Billed as the biggest El Classico in years, in some way, this was Real’s out coming party. Critics had thrown jibes at their early season form amid suggestions that they had not been tested by a really strong team. After masterminding Barcelona’s elimination in the semi finals of the previous season, thus sparing Real Madrid the horrific spectre of Barcelona lifting the Champions league at the Bernabeu, Mourinho ‘s own burgeoning reputation as a Barcelona slayer was going to be put to test once more. The buildup was like nothing ever seen before and perhaps, drunk on his own hype, Mourinho goofed, promising to come out and attack Barcelona. Attack he did, and was promptly shown that Barcelona owns the patent to attacking football. Barcelona’s domination was total and Real had no answers to the probing passes of Xavi, Iniesta’s evasiveness, Pedro’s intelligent movement, Villa’s clinical finishing and Messi’s outrageous brilliance. Mourinho sank deep in his seat in utter disbelief at the embarrassing spectacle before him, painfully helpless at stopping a ruthless Barcelona. His proclamation that the match was not a “humiliation” bordered on the delusional. It must have been abundantly obvious to him that he is tactically limited by the kind of players he has on his team.
Despite putting up a brave face, it will not be lost on Mourinho that overturning this Barcelona team would demand more than a loud mouth and an expensively assembled team. Though he had seen the back of the team with Chelsea and Inter, supplanting them in a title race will be brutally difficult. In England, he sauntered into Chelsea, fresh from conquering Europe with Porto and was almost messianic in his posturing, promising to end Chelsea’s 50 year wait for a title. His title wins at Chelsea were preceded by Roman Abrahamovic arrival and fueled by his millions. It also coincided with a period where United were in transition and Arsenal were heavily hamstrung with the economics of The Emirates. It is instructive to note that United eventually won the league and Jose had to leave when Roman refused to arm him with more money to wrest the title back. Over at Inter, perennial title wins did not satiate Massimo Moratti’s hunger to lift the Big Ears. In came Mourinho and he demanded for and got total support and promptly delivered not just successive title wins but the European Cup as well.
The scenario is completely different in Spain and for Mourinho to succeed, he has 2 battles to fight and win. First, in Barcelona he is confronted by a team who are better, in both individual and collective terms than his team. While Mourinho has Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Mesut Ozil and Xabi Alonso, Barcelona parade Lionel Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro. The disparity in quality is best underlined by the fact that Xavi, Messi and Iniesta were the 3 nominees for the 2010 FIFA Ballon D’or awards. Barcelona brand of football is the product of a consistent philosophy that permeates the entire club and emanates brilliantly whenever they take to the pitch. The recent domination of Barcelona in Spain and Europe is the crystallization of a football philosophy that has held true over many years. Indeed, the major characters in this team came through the youth ranks, including the manager. In a football world where philosophies have been diluted or even out rightly eschewed for short term glory, Barcelona have stayed true to theirs and are bountifully reaping the benefits, on the pitch at least. Mourinho’s protestations that his team is work in progress is deflated by the huge sums Real have paid out for players. In football, patience is a scarce commodity and becomes scarcer when money has been thrown around to shop for the best players. The thinking usually is that it shouldn’t be so hard to get good players to win games and trophies.
The other war Mourinho has to fight is internal. His oversized ego and Madrid’s illiustrious history always had a potential for combustion. Hailed as a Messiah everywhere, it is not beyond Jose to think that once more, his talents are needed to rescue the club from the claws of Barcelona. That might be true considering the fact that Madrid have not won the title in 2 years and have not gone beyond the round of 16 in the UCL in the past 6 years. But it is doubtful that Florentino Perez and Jorge Valdano believe absolutely that Mourinho or anyone for that matter is the answer to their problems. Both armed with jumbo sized egos and wary of Mourinho’s tendency to arrogate the success of his teams to himself, they are doing all they can to show Mourinho that they see themselves as equals in the project to restore Madrid’s pre-eminence. At Chelsea, Mourinho had all he wanted and then some. It is no coincidence that the wheels started to fall off as soon as Abrahamovic tired of his predilection to attribute every success to himself and denied him funds, if nothing, to show him that his money was also a critical factor in Chelsea’s success. At Inter, Moratti showed absolute belief and obliged him with funds to bring in players like Lucio, Sneijder, Milito and Pandev and he delivered the Champions League. Absolute belief is not something Real Madrid has ever had in anyone and the signs are becoming increasingly obvious to Jose. In their earlier stint at Madrid, Perez and Valdano had no qualms sacking Fabio Capello and Vicente Del Bosque despite both managers delivering titles at home and in Europe. Capello was fired because his team was deemed not stylish enough and Del Bosque, for not looking dapper enough. In Jorge Valdano, Mourinho has an ally as much as a usurper. The battle he has had to fight just to get a replacement for the injured Higuan will signal clearly to Mourinho that he is in charge, but not absolutely. The team’s recent struggles will not have strengthened his hand which must have been severely weakened by the Barcelona game. Never one to back down, he has attacked Valdano and Perez in not so subtle terms in the media for their seeming lack of support when they reprimanded him for suggesting that referees were been unnecessarily harsh on his team. Tellingly, he has also hinted that he would like to return to England much to the glee of the English press and the chagrin no doubt, of Roberto Mancini.
Like all geniuses, there is an urge to prove himself immortal and this is what drives him manically and relentlessly towards unprecedented success. Not one to bask in a secure legacy of been one of the best managers ever, Mourinho wants to prove he is the best ever and has set his sights on becoming the first manager to win the Spanish, English and Italian championship. He also wants to become the only manager to have won the UCL with 3 different clubs. Should he achieve all these, he clearly will become the greatest manager that ever walked the surface of the earth. Not for the first time in his career, Mourinho faces formidable adversaries and his record suggests that he usually conquers. In Barcelona, Jorge Valdano and Florentino Perez however, he faces the biggest test of his career and while you can’t put it beyond Mourinho to emerge victorious, you can’t help but get the feeling that these set of adversaries might be too formidable for Mourinho and that inevitably, he will leave Spain not as the Special One, but rather, as the vanquished One.