By Paul Gardner
Real Madrid is marvelous team with marvelous players. What a pity that it has a coach who is deeply toxic. Jose Mourinho’s behavior during this week’s Barcelona-Real Madrid game, the second leg of the Spanish Supercopa, defies description, at least a description using a normal vocabulary. A psychologist, or a psychiatrist, using the abstruse words of those vocations, would do better, I imagine.
Here was a game between two teams that, between them, can put more skilled players on the field than any other matchup -- including both of the top candidates for the best-player-in-the-world title, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
And that was the way most of the game was played -- at an almost supernatural level of brilliance, with constant reminders -- an impossible pass, a breath-taking dribble, a moment of unbelievable ball control -- that we were watching something special.
But we also got enough sideline shots of Mourinho to let us know that his influence would lie heavily on this game -- and would ultimately mar it into an ugly brawl.
The best description of Mourinho and his behavior comes from literature, from a once-famous book that, no doubt, no one reads any more -- George du Maurier’s Trilby. There is a coach in the book, a coach of a singer, Trilby, who cannot perform unless hypnotized by Svengali. The word Svengali now means a manipulative mastermind; he was described in the book as someone who "would either fawn or bully and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humor that was more offensive than amusing and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice."
The big difference between Svengali and Mourinho is that where Svengali operated secretly, Mourinho courts publicity. We’ve seen examples of all the lamentable Svengali behavior from Mourinho, the cynical laughter, the sarcastic applauding of referee decisions and -- in this game -- “the gross impertinence” that ended with what was, in effect, a bullying physical assault on a Barca assistant coach.
So, in this game, there is no real need to start searching among the players, trying to find those who were guilty of dirty play, to establish who was responsible for the ensuing violence. We know enough about Mourinho now to have no doubts that it was his influence, his poisonous Svengali vibes, that were at the root of everything that caused this game to end in a shameful mass brawl.
Mourinho, unfortunately, is too often viewed as the laudable example of the first really modern coach. Young, suave, articulate, multilingual, well-dressed, successful. “Yes, I am the Special One,” he proudly announced when he took over at Chelsea in 2004.
That needs pondering. It is highly unusual in modern soccer for a coach to be that honest in describing his own role. What has tended to happen, as players’ salaries have skyrocketed, is that coaches, confronted by a locker room of stars earning quite a lot more than they do, have attempted to redefine the sport itself: individual talent is downgraded, superstars are snidely condemned as selfish and disruptive and we are constantly reminded, aren’t we ever, that this is a TEAM game, You know, one for all and all for one.
OK -- but how, then, does this guy Mourinho come off making sure he’s the focus of attention all the time, the head-line grabber supreme, precisely the team’s superstar, the Special One?
We saw Mourinho in action at Chelsea, and it wasn’t pretty. His unfounded accusations that forced referee Anders Fisk to endure threats to his family, and eventually led to him quitting the sport were quite simply disgusting.
That episode followed a Barcelona-Chelsea game, and it’s clear that Barcelona brings out the worst in Mourinho. He cannot beat it and he reacts by leveling all manner of accusations and insults at the referees at the Barca players, even at UEFA. He is a very poor loser.
At the moment, all the criticism is of Mourinho himself, with the harshest words coming inevitably from the Barcelona camp, where animosity is at fever pitch after Mourinho poked a finger into the eye of Barca’s assistant coach, Tito Vilanova. “Mourinho is a curse on our soccer in Spain,” said Barca vice president Carles Vilarrubi. Defender Gerard Pique accused Mourinho of “destroying Spanish soccer.”
If Real Madrid didn’t know it when it appointed Mourinho as coach last year -- and there was already plenty of evidence to at least arouse their suspicions -- then it must surely know it by now: it has appointed a deeply flawed Svengali of a coach, a Special One who is doing ugly damage to Real’s prestige as the greatest club in the history of soccer.
One wonders how much longer Real will put up with his deplorable excesses. After all, quite aside from image problems, if he can’t beat Barcelona ...?