British Esquire, April 2014
Under New (Old) Management
Is José Mourinho the best football manager in the world? He certainly thinks so. And he makes a compelling case. By Tim Lewis
In the final series of The Sopranos, Tony – the Mob boss played by James Gandolfini – gets popped in the gut by his uncle Junior. He drops into a coma and, as he barely clings to life, his underlings jostle for succession. Tony eventually pulls through but, back at work, he detects a residual loss of faith in his leadership. When he passes out – faints! – at a wedding, his men begin to circle him like sharks. He decides he needs to do something about it.
The opportunity arises when all his men are sitting down for lunch one day. He looks round the room – Sil, Paulie Walnuts, Bobby Bacala – before his gaze settles on the new kid who’s been driving him around: Perry “Muscles Marinara” Annunziata. He’s a ringer for Vin Diesel; young, tough and ripped. But he’s also vulnerable: he’s a hothead and inexperienced. “What the fuck is your problem?” says Tony, out of nowhere, before inventing a dispute: “Slamming the goddamn refrigerator door.” They fight and Tony destroys him, before glaring down and declaring, “How’s that, eh? Got anything else to say?” The message has been sent. The fins vanish from the water.
In one reading of events – which may or may not be accurate – something very similar happened at Stamford Bridge last summer. José Mourinho arrived and for the first time in his precocious managerial career he was vulnerable: he had come from three tetchy years at Real Madrid and the first full season in which he had failed to win a trophy. He looked around the dressing room – JT, Lamps, Cashley – and eventually his gaze settled on Juan Mata. He was 25, near his peak, an artisan with the ball, voted by fans as their favourite player for the past two seasons. Taking him down would let the rest know who was the boss; that no one is untouchable. And that’s exactly what Mourinho did.
Or to put it another way: Chelsea, a club that in recent years has often seemed like a prison run by its inmates, was under the control of new (old) management.
Before José Mourinho starts a new job, he sends an open letter to his soon-to-be co-workers. The first time he did it – as an unheralded appointment at FC Porto in January 2002 – it was an actual piece of paper, but the 51-year-old Portuguese has moved with the times. “In this moment, we have an application in our telephones and in our iPads,” he explains, referring to the message that arrived in the inboxes of Chelsea players last summer when he took over for his second spell as manager. Mourinho’s lip curls a fraction in restrained Ludditism, “So not anymore a paper letter.”
The basic instructions have not significantly altered in more than a decade. Mourinho always outlines his belief that football is a collective endeavour and that each individual has to subsume his personal ambition to the team mission. He promises to be fair, but reminds the players that every decision he takes will be in the best interest of the club. Still, he knows that footballers have egos, so he makes it clear that if they fully commit to his way of working, he’ll devote every atom of his being to making them the best they can be.
This document then becomes almost a contractual agreement between two parties; a written outline of what he expects from his players and what they’ll get in return. “Yes!” says Mourinho. “There is no more: ‘I respect you because you are the manager.’ The football player today – in general terms – is only keen to give when he receives. So there is: ‘I respect you because you are good. I respect you because you are honest with me. I respect you because you are making me better and I feel that.’ But no more: ‘I respect you because you are the manager.’ A bit like: ‘I respect you because you are the police.’”
Mourinho’s way doesn’t work for everyone. At Real Madrid, he fell out publicly and quite spitefully with two of the galacticos: Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, perhaps the most revered goalkeeper and defender in the world, respectively. In a bust-up leaked to the papers after a defeat to Barcelona, Ramos sniped at Mourinho: “Because you’ve never been a player, you don’t know that that sometimes happens.” It’s reported that Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo barely spoke at the end of his time in Spain.
But Mourinho’s unconventional methods have also created a small army of acolytes. Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed he made him “feel like a lion”. The Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder went even further: “I was prepared to kill and die for him.” When Frank Lampard’s mother died in 2008, Mourinho phoned him every day, commiserating and offering advice. Mourinho wasn’t even his manager then, and there was a strong chance Lampard would never play under him again. “He’s the most loyal, the most caring manager I’ve ever worked with,” Lampard said recently. “I might be biased, because I love the man, but he does it instantly. He brings instant success.”
As I read Mourinho the rap sheet – the haters, the believers – his expression remains neutral, like a diner being told the specials when he’s already made up his mind what to order.
“It’s impossible to make every player better,” he says. “With some I don’t succeed and with some I cannot improve. But – if I go player by player – my percentage of players who reach the best years and the best moments of their career with me is huge. Of course, there are a few where the connection was not good, because the personalities couldn’t find each other or because I don’t enjoy working with them. But that percentage is minimal.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Mourinho divides dressing rooms; he divides everyone who follows football: so basically, the world. His achievements, at least, are uncontested. He is the only manager ever to win the league titles in England, Italy and Spain; he also won in Portugal, but he’s aware that mentioning this fact is like leaving your GCSE results on your CV. He’s claimed the Champions League twice with – objectively speaking – the two weakest teams (Porto in 2003 and Inter Milan in 2010) to lift the trophy in the last 10 years. He has also won a clutch of other cups, supercups, trinkets and baubles, but his craziest record is the one he ports from club to club of almost never submitting to defeat in home fixtures. Mourinho does not build teams, he recruits and drills Spartan warriors prepared to defend their citadel to the death.
Any team should be desperate to have Mourinho as a manager, but that turns out not always to be the case. He was interviewed for the Barcelona job in 2008, but the Catalans opted for Pep Guardiola, at that point untried and, as a man, Mourinho’s antithesis. Manchester United could have pursued Mourinho to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, but the word from inside Old Trafford was that they didn’t like the Portuguese’s tendency to jump clubs when he got bored. There’s a whisper that Mourinho cried when he learned he’d been passed over, but he assiduously denies that he was ever approached. Some pundits, most outspokenly Johan Cruyff, don’t like the style of football he schools his teams to play, while almost everyone finds him arrogant and possibly even narcissistic.
Mourinho has heard it all, and perhaps the most extraordinary facet of this extraordinary human being is that he appears genuinely not to care. Of course, he’s aware that, as a football manager, his actions are scrutinised like almost no other profession. Even prime ministers and CEOs have it easy most days by comparison. His successes are public, but equally so is every failure. If, for example, Juan Mata flourishes as a Manchester United player, people will want to know why he sold him. If he huffs that Arsène Wenger is forever whinging, as he did in January, there’s not a chance on this earth that the Arsenal manager won’t hear about it. History can show him that his boss, Roman Abramovich, has fired six perfectly decent managers and Avram Grant since Mourinho himself was jettisoned in September 2007.
Does he find the job stressful? “No,” he replies flatly. “I find life stressful sometimes. Not in London, but in Madrid, in Italy, it was stressful.” What keeps him awake at night? “Nothing,” he says, and explodes into laughter. “Nothing! I sleep seven, eight hours every night.” He pauses, “I cannot compare my job with the doctor who is doing heart surgery. The difference is that I have millions of people know the result of my work and the only people who know the result of his work are the family of the person who is on the operating table. But there is much more responsibility for him than for me. That’s why I sometimes feel that we earn too much money compared to people who do much more than us to benefit humanity.
“What is football?” Mourinho continues. “Football is emotion. No more than that.”
It was an older, probably wiser, certainly less fashion-forward Mourinho who returned to London last summer. First time around, he was 41, suave and tanned. When he was introduced to the press in 2004, he gave a quote that will forever sandbag him: “I’m not one who comes straight out of a bottle – I’m a special one.” Manchester City fans tried to spread a slur that his distinctive slate-grey overcoat was from Matalan, but it was actually made by Armani. That detail alone was enough to tell us we were entering a new era.
Now Mourinho is in his fifties, his hair more salt than pepper. Half the managers in the Premier League are younger than he is and he appears to have decided it is undignified to be too obsessed about what he wears. These days he’s often found prowling the touchline in club-issue training gear or a thigh-length puffa. Even a snood. “I wear clothes to feel good, not to look good,” he explains. “Sometimes I can wear a tracksuit, other times I need a tie and a jacket, it depends on the circumstances, but I’m never worried about being fashionable or looking good or something like that. Feeling good.”
I’m not sure I entirely believe him. This wintry afternoon, in a photographic studio in Fulham midway between his flat in Eaton Square and Stamford Bridge, Mourinho turns up layered deep in tasteful knitwear and tailoring. He wears a shawl-collared, double breasted flannel shirt – nicer than it sounds – and a Zegna gilet. His pre-Christmas buzzcut has grown out into something more benign.
What’s he like, you know, in person? The only answer I can offer is: You know what you’d imagine José Mourinho to be like? He’s like that. This itself is remarkable; unique among famous people I’ve encountered. Celebrities always surprise you in at least one or two respects: they are shorter or posher or grouchier or luvvier than you expect. Mourinho in the flesh is the Mourinho from the telly and off the back pages, just less extreme and outrageous, the volume turned down to five or six. He is not exactly charming, but he is irrefutably charismatic. He has an ingenious knack of making basic lines of enquiry sound preposterous, which you learn not to take personally after a while. (An example: I’d heard he likes cars; he has a few and this year he’s lending his name to a new Mourinho supercar, which comes in an edition of 11. So, I ask, are cars important to him? He juts out his bottom lip: “No.” We move on.) He’s a fearsome intellect, always a few steps ahead; in an interview, you don’t elicit scoops from Mourinho, he gives you presents, tied with a bow.
One of today’s bugbears is the vanity of the modern footballer. “Lots of times at Real Madrid, the players would be queuing in front of the mirror before the game while the referee waited for them in the tunnel,” he recalls. “But that’s how society is now. Young people care a lot about this: they are 20-something and I am 51 and if I want to work with kids I have to understand their world. How can I stop my players on the bus doing errr, what do you call? Twitters and these things? How can I stop them if my daughter and my son do the same? So I have to adapt to the moment.”
Mourinho accepts that football is a less innocent game than when he first arrived at Chelsea a decade ago. He was brought in by Abramovich, a reclusive oil tycoon, who not long before had bought the club for £140 million, without even bothering to haggle. Within a month the Russian had spent £100 million, an unfathomable amount back then, on new players. Now, of course, foreign investors are commonplace: they own stakes in 10 out of 20 Premier League clubs and many in the lower divisions besides. Players’ wages have inflated from merely disgusting to morally obscene. This is an age where Tom Cleverley – yes, Manchester United’s Capital One Cup stalwart Tom Cleverley – can launch his own brand: TC23.
“I’m a manager since 2000, so I’m in my second generation of players,” says Mourinho. “What I feel is that before players were trying to make money during their career, be rich at the end of their career. But in this moment, the people who surround them try to make them rich before they start their career.” He laughs mirthlessly, “They try to make them rich when they sign their first contract, when they didn’t play one single match in the Premier League, when they don’t know what it is to play in the Champions League. This puts the clubs in difficult conditions sometimes.”
And it makes Mourinho’s job harder? “You have to find the right boy: the boy who wants to succeed, has pride and passion for the game,” he replies. “His dream is not one more million or one less million, his dream is to play at the highest level, to win titles, because if you do these things you’ll be rich the same at the end of your career. So we are working hard to give the best orientation to young players, to follow examples of guys from the past – the Lampards, the Terrys – who were always fanatical for victories.”
The rehabilitation of John Terry – and to a lesser extent Lampard – has been one of the signatures of Mourinho’s first season back in England. Successive managers, starting with André Villas-Boas and gathering zeal with Rafa Benítez, had set about dismantling Chelsea’s reliance on its old guard. Mourinho came at the problem from the opposite direction: while fully acknowledging the club had to rebuild, he decided to put Terry and Lampard front and centre of the process. Instead, he heaped pressure on Mata: consistently brilliant, never less than polite, modest, a model professional.
Immediately, this strategy appeared to show Mourinho at his most contrapuntal: *The world thinks that? Idiots!* Certainly, only Mourinho could have got away with it. Perhaps he chose to do it because he wanted to stamp his authority or maybe it was because he’d just had his nose bloodied at Real Madrid. But he has certainly committed to it and the early signs are the Chelsea are heading in the right direction. “Terry and Lampard are very, very important,” says Mourinho. “It was very important for me to recover them.”
We meet in late January, not long before the transfer window slams shut, and Mourinho spends the first five minutes thumbing his mobile. “Now is time to sell players, buy players, players on loan, all these things,” he says, finally looking up. “So even if I’m not in the office, I’m working on the phone.” It’s impressive multi-tasking: in tomorrow morning’s sports pages, the lead story will be that, out of nowhere, Manchester United are close to agreeing terms with Chelsea for Mata, a transfer that will eventually cost a club-record £37.1 million.
The standard take on Mourinho – accepted by both fans and detractors – is that everything comes back to his own brief, unremarkable career as a player. Born in Setúbal, a genteel city south of Lisbon, his family had deep roots in football: his father Félix was a goalkeeper, capped once by Portugal; his uncle Mario Ledo, who owned a sardine cannery, built the football stadium for the local team Vitória de Setúbal. Mourinho was a defender and in his teens he joined Rio Ave, a first-division outfit of which his father was manager.
In the creation myth, the furious, bombastic Mourinho was born in 1982 when, aged 19, he was a substitute against Sporting Lisbon, the dominant team in Portugal at that time. One of Rio Ave’s defenders was injured, but just as Félix was about to call up his son, he was informed by the club president that if he played José not only would he never turn out for Rio Ave again, but Félix would be fired as manager. Father and son watched their team lose 7-1 from the stands and Mourinho – as the line goes – decided he would never endure such humiliation again. From there, he went to business school for one day, transferred to a university course in sports science and eventually worked his way up to coaching football teams.
Mourinho disputes some of the specific details of this account, but mostly he refutes its conclusion. “If people think that, because I was not a top player, I was frustrated with that, I wasn’t,” he says. “Not at all. I enjoyed my football a lot even playing in the second division, the third division. Since the beginning, I always felt I was much more of a coach than a player, so when I finish my academic studies and coaching badges, I jump naturally into that area. I did in my life always what I want to do.”
This interpretation creates a problem: where does Mourinho’s drive come from if not to prove something to his father perhaps, or to give a middle-finger salute to anyone who doubted his greatness?
For Mourinho, the explanation for his rise is rather more humdrum: he just worked really hard. He taught disabled children, he became a fitness trainer and eventually, in 1992, he hooked up with Bobby Robson, the new manager of Sporting Lisbon, as a translator as much as anything. When Robson was poached by Porto and then Barcelona, Mourinho went with him. When Robson was fired by Barcelona, Mourinho stayed and made himself equally indispensable to his successor, the Dutchman Louis van Gaal. All the while he wrote in a journal called the Bible, and refined his “methodology”.
Even since he has become successful in his own right as a manager, surrounded by assistants, Mourinho’s work ethic remains unstinting. In his autobiography, I Am Zlatan, Ibrahimovic notes with reverence, “He works twice as hard as all the rest. Lives and breathes football 24/7. I’ve never met a manager with that kind of knowledge about opposing sides. It was everything, right down to the third-choice goalkeeper’s shoe size.”
“It’s not obsessive,” corrects Mourinho. “I think details are important: details make players better; details make the team better; details help to win. Of course, there are a few players in the world who by themselves can make a team look better than it is. But basically football is about teams and teams are better if you care about the details. So it’s not an obsession, it’s more that my experience tells me that details can make a difference.”
But, as Mourinho accepts, thousands of coaches know everything about football; where he believes he can make the greatest difference is in the psychology of his players. Sometimes the strategies are almost childishly obvious: telling Ibrahimovic at half-time in an Inter game that he should give his award for best foreign player in Serie A to his mother – “Someone who actually deserves it”; or his insistence that a frazzled Wesley Sniejder take three days off in the middle of the season to sit on a beach in Ibiza.
One of his most intriguing exchanges came with Adrian Mutu, shortly after Mourinho arrived at Chelsea the first time. Mutu was a player of uncommon gifts but questionable temperament, bought in the first flush of Abramovich’s spending spree. Mourinho spoke with Mutu and told him that he stood at a crossroads: he could fight and struggle and achieve something special at Chelsea; alternatively, he was already rich, a king in Romania, he could be satisfied with that. “But five years after you leave football nobody remembers you,” he warned. “Only if you do big things. This is what makes history.” Not long after, Mutu tested positive for cocaine and was banned for seven months. As his career winds down for Ajaccio in Corsica, he has one Romanian league title and cup to his name.
What becomes clear – once you have read dozens of testimonies from former and current players – is the sophistication with which Mourinho approaches the mental side of the game. His ability to gauge the mood goes far beyond the hairdryer treatment or a quick scan of the Wikipedia entries for Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Brendan Rodgers, now the Liverpool manager, described working under Mourinho for three years at Chelsea as “like being at Harvard University”. Some days Mourinho will kick the whiteboard around the changing room, while before other matches he will be preternaturally calm. When Chelsea played Manchester United in January, his team-talk lasted less than ten seconds: “Big games are for big players. If you are a good player, go out there and win.” Which, of course, they did: 3-1. Mourinho shrugs, “Simple. Nothing more to say.”
Cynics might argue that team talks are hokum, anyway; that he could have said anything when his opponents were David Moyes’s Manchester United and Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie were sat in the stands. But what is inarguable is that, since Mourinho’s return, no team in the Premier League has recovered more points from losing positions than Chelsea. He's either extremely lucky or, tactically, he's doing something right.
Players who’ve worked under Mourinho speak of constant attention; their phones relentlessly pinging with text enquiries: *How did you sleep? Are you eating right? Are you happy?* This last question again and again. He is known for approaching girlfriends and wives and telling them they have only one mission: keep their man, his player, smiling. Mourinho’s dexterity with languages – according to legend, he became fluent in Italian in three weeks (it actually took three months) – makes it possible for him to make his appeal direct and personal. This sounds like a minor detail, but then you remember watching England when Fabio Capello was manager.
“It’s important to understand things,” says Mourinho. “Sometimes you have a player and his performance level is going down and you don’t understand why. He trains well, he’s not injured, everything looks perfect, but he’s not performing. Why? Why? There must be a reason. But they have to trust you. I’m not a policeman, so I don’t chase them outside the club. Even if my clubs are keen to do it, I don’t allow them to follow players. It’s their lives and their privacy.”
Mourinho’s stamina for psychological warfare appears to go far beyond that ubiquitous and meaningless cover-all, “mind games”. During his three years as Real Madrid manager, he appeared determined to fatally undermine Barcelona, arguably the finest club side in history, and their cerebral coach Pep Guardiola. Mostly the battle was waged verbally, but in 2011 it actually became physical when Mourinho eye-gouged Guardiola’s assistant Tito Vilanova during a post-match scuffle. (Afterwards, Mourinho referred to the victim as “Pito” – Spanish slang for “penis”. He later apologised.) The attritional confrontation appeared to take its toll on Guardiola, who became scruffier, then balder and eventually announced that he was taking a sabbatical from football. He resurfaced at Bayern Munich, largely, some speculated, because it was improbable that Mourinho would follow him to Germany.
For Mourinho, discussion of his off-the-field behaviour is overstated. “In football the only game I know is the 90-minutes game,” he says. “It’s not mind games; I don’t try to do that. The period before the game can be important to influence opinions, characters, personalities, feelings and of course I use that to touch my players, to touch opponents, to touch supporters. I use that. But for me, the only game in football is the 90-minutes game.”
Does he ever allow it to become personal? “No, I never have that,” he insists. With Pep Guardiola? With Arsène Wenger? “I prefer to play against the best players and the best teams and the best coaches. Never personal.”
Mourinho insists he’s rarely been happier than he is right now. He is certainly in buoyant spirits this afternoon, especially considering that 24 hours earlier he was under the knife in Paris to repair a fractured elbow. He arrives at the Esquire session with his 17-year-old daughter Matilde, who has a budding interest in photography, and he spends the shoot grilling Simon, the photographer, on how much such work pays and what editing programs Matilde might need. It’s sweet, actually. For the final set-up, Mourinho has to do keep-me-ups and, as the ball flies off, he instinctively sticks out his tender left arm. He howls theatrically, but he’s hamming it up for his daughter really.
Matilde sits in our interview, looking a little bored to tell the truth. I ask Mourinho if I can put a question to her and he replies, “Of course.”
“At home, do you all watch a lot of football together?” I say.
Matilde starts to open her mouth, but Mourinho can’t stop himself. “No!” he jumps in, laughing. “In our house it’s two and two. Mum and daughter completely isolated of football. Of course, they like me to win and they care about my happiness, but they don’t live for football. And obviously the boy [José Jr] is a boy, and at this age – 13, 14, 15 – he gets involved in the game, too. So it’s two for football and two who are more intelligent than the men of the house.” Matilde returns to her phone, to Twitters or something.
Mourinho clearly enjoys the football in England, too. The bipartisan nature of the Madrid-Barcelona rivalry began to take its toll even on him, so it’s refreshing to come to a country where four or five teams are in serious contention for top honours. He cops some abuse from opposing fans in the Premier League, but he believes it is fundamentally good-natured – not like Spain where, when they called him a *hijo de puta*, he knew they really meant it.
This seems about right. When you canvas opinion on Mourinho, most English fans will tell you they hate him, but it often dissolves quickly into something more accurately defined as a grudging respect. If he turned up to manage their club, they wouldn’t close the door in his face. Moreover, to paraphrase Eminem, it did feel so empty without Mourinho, and his presence has been especially welcome given the charisma vaccuum caused by the departures of Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini.
Mourinho concedes that the Premier League is a duller place without Ferguson. “I miss him,” he says. “I miss him.” Against expectations, the pair did always basically get on, swapping bottles of expensive red wine after each encounter. Mourinho found they had more in common than not, a compliment he wouldn’t pay to many people. “Sir Alex is 70-something, no? He just finishes his career and in the first year he retires he’s in football every weekend. Hahahaha! I thought he'd go to enjoy other things, but he’s in football every weekend!”
These days, Mourinho rather fancies a legacy of his own, with one club, like Ferguson. He currently plans to leave the game aged 65, after a dozen years turning “my Chelsea” into the dominant outfit in global football and then two years taking a national team to the World Cup. He views international management as a symptom of growing old, like taking an interest in gardening or buying clothes from classifieds in newspaper supplements. “It's not a job I like so much,” he says. He exhales disdainfully, “You have to wait two years to have a competition! You are playing easier matches, many friendlies, qualification matches! Training two days a month!”
He scratches his head; it really doesn't make sense to him. “I don't need an escape from football,” he decides. “I just need a couple of weeks in the summer to be somewhere, a beach. That's fine for me.”
It must be good to be Mourinho. To live an existence without doubts. To be so self-assured that success becomes undeniable. To sleep eight hours a night while your rivals are tossing and turning, waking up to find their pillows covered in shedded hair. But what if his return to Chelsea is not a success? Is it possible that he could have misjudged the moment: his reappearance only souring the memory of his original achievements? Has he ever considered that?
“When I decide to come back, there is some risk of things going very wrong, but I’m not afraid because I trust myself, I think I can do it again,” he says. And more than that, he seems to say, what’s the worst that can happen? “I’m not afraid to lose my job and when you’re not afraid, you don’t feel any kinds of pressures. You are not too worried, you can express yourself in a different way. It makes you better, I think.”