Mourinho. The Bold Man and the Holy See.
When Giles Morgan asked on a podcast about what still makes me cry in sport, I replied “very little, by now”.
Today would be one of those exceptions. And for more than one reason.
For the man himself, whom I’ve loved, and for the signpost it leaves for our game.
That “Te volemo bene Mister”,
in heavy Roman dialect, did it for me.
Mourinho is visibly moved and in shock.
This isn’t a normal manager sacking. It’s the canary in the coal mine.
Many coherent pieces have been written about why this had to happen, and they all mainly revolve around money. This itself is a clear symptom of where we are and why it needs to be today’s Sunday Column.
In our polarised world, we are now always expected to take a side, and when one talks about Mourinho, any middle ground disappears completely. But, like the man himself, it’s too intricate to be a binary maths proof.
This is pure philosophy.
Mourinho has for sure been the main protagonist of our game for 25 years, but events this week can’t just be about him. We need a wider net.
The Kominsky Method, a recent Netflix series about a forgotten acting coach, is reportedly Michael Douglas’s greatest role and performance. Alan Arkin, basically playing himself in the process of dying, is also desperately poignant.
The redemption arch always appeals.
Douglas/Kominsky earns his living as a small-time acting coach in LA, coming to terms with the fact that Hollywood has long ago dismissed his previous onscreen success as “over”. He is being forced to deal with his later years through this constant regret and pathos. The series ends with him being given a last chance to star, as Santiago, in a Barry Levinson remake of The Old Man and the Sea. This is a lovely review with an apposite title for today’s matter at hand.
The use of Hemingway’s book, as the metaphor mechanism, is so classy.
Now, that’s an idea.
The Old Man and the Sea was the last major fictional work published during Hemingway‘s lifetime, about an entire community having lost faith in the older fisherman, Santiago, even considering him a bringer of bad luck. Abandoned by all, save the young boy Manolin, he is in their eyes “finished”. The book plot recounts Santiago’s last hopeful trip to catch the big fish, and redeem himself.
The Old Man and the Sea seems written for
“The Special One“.
Mourinho is a deeply religious man, praying daily, making an annual pilgrimage to Fatima, so all this permits a brief indulgence to the Christian symbolism of the book, and the author’s talent. The Holy See of the Vatican is entirely based on a story about fishermen (or fishers of men) and has an almost identical “miraculous” and unexpected big catch, by the lake of Gennesaret.
Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.
The name Santiago (de Compostela) is a special place of Catholic pilgrimage and the protagonist’s hands, the wounds, are a clear reference to the stigmata from the Crucification.
Hemingway didn’t mess around when the mood took him, did he?
No need for a spoiler alert to any classic book, suffice to say that Santiago wins in the end, claiming the big marlin, contented and realised in his own redemption. The young boy Manolin is both impressed and delighted.
Both stories remind that the trend line of life is not a constant up-and-to-the-right, and there will always be setbacks and doubts. The best may be yet to come.
Hemingway himself was in one of those troughs at the time of narrating Santiago. His previous novel Across the River and Into the Trees had met with very negative reviews, and how many of this week’s assassin pieces on our Portuguese friend feel similarly premature?
Piranhas feasting on the carcass of someone they so desperately want to see as “done”.
I’ve never had a lot of time for critics, because I don’t really understand the mindset. Why use whatever skill you have to write about what someone else has done? That’s derivative and inglorious. All too often cruel and unfair. This type of person was also very quick to write off the “dinosaur” Ancelotti at Everton, and specifically, here is what they threw at Old Man and the Sea:
“Most overrated work”;
a “mock-serious fable” with “radical weaknesses”;
“Pretends it is high culture, but in reality is anything but”;
“Garrulous and repetitive”;
“Riddled with amateurish mistakes in style and prose”.
The authors of these chip-paper reviews are largely nobodies. Mr. Hemingway instead lives on as a giant, and the book in question won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize.
Is it the same with Mourinho’s critics? They perhaps know nothing, understand nothing, count for nothing.
Anyone who only knows football,
knows nothing about football.
This is one of my very favourite Mourinho quotes, alluding to the requirement of understanding a wider humanity, in sport, coaching, and man management. Way beyond old or new tactics. Jose knows that football can be ever reduced to just a science, numbers, or AI. There are far too many random intangible variables, including now VAR.
So, the more one reflects about him, sacked at 60, the more it is clear that Jose Mourinho, like Hemingway, like Kominsky, is in reality Santiago. This should be the context for all op-eds this week.
And all of us, of a generation not Z or Alpha, must reflect upon Mourinho/Santiago and ask where to now. Has the world perhaps passed us by with a condescending “OK Boomer” or conversely, are we in fact entering our peak, with the best contribution still to come? Is there a Marlin still out there for us?
In a world about to prioritise the machine, and its own learning, what has the human got to offer?
Finding all those answers is perhaps more important to us than it is to Jose. He will always be a star.
Any future value of humans will likely be around their complexity and unpredictability. Everything the robot isn’t. Mourinho, like Hemingway, is one of those conflicted characters, whose appeal is incomplete without all the dubious behaviour and contradictions. Bad boys always get the girls.
Neither suffered fools, and both absolutely tended to elitism. Santiago, alone in the middle of the sea, reflects on baseball excellence and Joe Di Maggio:
I would like to take the great Di Maggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand. But I must have confidence and I must be worthy of he who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.
Anyone else reminded of a similar little speech about worth, excellence and standards?
Beyond all his trophies and triumphs,
this is Jose’s finest hour.
Those who teach, really can, and it is why we should accept no truck with any scribblings saying that this man is finished or that he absolutely needed to go.
He and his role have just naturally evolved. Maybe it is us and the game that haven’t, to accomodate a generational talent?
All this is on us.
Once he was the pupil of Sir Bobby and Van Gaal, now he is, himself, Socrates.
The arrogance of his youth is diminished, whilst his philosophy has grown. Most people who read this, likely of my generation, will absolutely recognise all of it. As a young adult you do; later on, you think and teach.
Here is Jose with Manolin. This feels very right.
The matter at hand today is not on which side you fall re Mourinho, as a competitive coach in 2024. You are posing the wrong question.
It is this.
If there is no place in the game for Mourinho at 60, packing out stadia, as natural box office, as Socrates, must we all despair?
Call it fate, destiny, karma, whatever; but, oh so often, life seems to line up everything to make its point.
Mourinho leaving Chelsea, United, Spurs was one thing. Him leaving Rome, the Holy See (sic) is something entirely different and didactic.
Why does this article demand to be written now, and not after United or Spurs?
A previous Column answered that question.
Jose Mourinho, 3 months ago, gave a long sit-down interview to Sky Italia and Federico Buffa (Italy’s own Hugh McIlvanney), which was incredibly optimistic and positive about his future in Rome. He felt he had done very well there, brought a trophy to a club who never wins, introduced young local players, and established a truly authentic connection to the fans. The place was packed.
The interview betrayed something he and we hadn’t seen before:
The arch seducer was being seduced…by the Eternal City.
I have no doubt about this. He’s not the first, he won’t be the last. You need to have lived there to get this, but it is a city metaphorically and physically from a different time.
Rome ruled the world with total superiority for such a long time, in culture, society, rule of law. Never since has this city aspired to dominate, or been focussed on competing hard for excellence. They’ve done that empire dominance thing, and life is now for living. It’s a post-modern state of mind, where success is defined differently. Winning is overrated. Better to lose, with our identity, and essence, rather than winning with outsiders and mercenaries.
Substitute “Rome” for “Mourinho” and you understand exactly what happened this week.
Success, there, must always be defined differently, and Jose’s triumph at the club is not in 2 European finals. It is in being embraced like no one since Totti. Romanisti thought to have found their soulmate for life. That’s a big big thing.
Te volemo bene Mister!
Rome is today full of banners with that love letter.
Nothing about Mourinho and this week really makes any sense without understanding all of this. Mourinho, deep down, fell hard for Roma, refusing other major offers to manage his national team, or in Arabia. Unusually for him, and his ego, he was patiently waiting for a contract renewal, that never came.
This separation is in so many ways a tragedy. A sporting version of Burton and Taylor.
Wuthering Heights on the Tiber.
Anyone who only knows football,
knows nothing about football.
Football will always be about irrational human emotion, loyalty, pride, and unrequited love.
Jose understands this best, and that is why he is special.
Lovers will always have tiffs; marriages will always have rocky periods. That’s part of the gig.
All this is understandable, but it is wrong. Like couples calling their divorce lawyers at the first crisis. Plates will always get thrown in the best 50-year marriages. It’s just one of those troughs. It’s Across the River and into the Trees.
Alas, today, no one thinks longterm like this. Everywhere we look in this world, all we see is instant judgement and polarisation. In politics, culture wars, wealth, sports leagues, tours, audience tastes, generations, and fanbases.
Get the slag-off meme out, take a side, condemn and attack.
Well, bollocks. I’m not having that.
What is it they say when dumping someone? “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Well if Mourinho is getting dumped, it is for sure not him, but us.
We have made this industry incompatible with our best and most experienced talents.
The current American owners of the “franchise”, like Jim Pallotta before them, are investors who have bought an asset that de facto needs to give them a return. They’d say that you can’t take love and emotional connection to the bank. They’d make a case that they need the Champions League. Maybe all that is the problem. We’ve created rewards in football that are too short-term and too binary. Too many coaches are getting sacked in weeks, not months. Once, Ferguson got 5 years.
So they replaced Mourinho with club legend Daniele de Rossi. If you are prioritising results and cold money over romance, why pick a manager with no managerial experience, apart from utterly failing at Spal? All he has, for God’s sake, is emotional connection.
They were undoubtedly influenced by so many articles, written for some time now, about the terminal decline of Mourinho. Here, for the chronicle, is what the village says about our Santiago.
Firstly, his type of defensive football is superseded.
Some say that Mourinho was never such a great coach and that he managed to cover all this tactical mediocrity with unimaginable communication skills and charisma. A sorcerer casting a spell, for a limited period of 2/3 years max, making men believe in themselves, their teammates, with an exaggerated sense of “tribe” and siege mentality. He squeezes everything out of them and leaves an empty shell of a club on his inevitable departure. He focuses on experienced veteran players for immediate impact, but compromises the future when the likes of Mo Salah and Kevin De Bruyne are let go. Jose “wins ugly” for a moment, but leaves a desert behind.
Secondly, he’s always just been lucky.
Like in the moment that marked his true arrival on the big stage. That last minute free kick goal was NOT what he had instructed his team to do. He has actually subbed on a free-kick specialist for exactly that eventuality and specifically told the ultimate scorer to stand on the edge of the United wall, as opposed to back post. Players, in the heat of the moment, ignored him completely and the Mourinho myth was born, by chance. This voodoo has now ended. Once, the referee decisions in Seville would have gone his way. No longer.
Lastly, his charisma doesn’t work anymore.
Utterly at odds with a new generation and society, where young men are different and no longer respond to his schtick. They say Jose himself knows this, but can’t get out of the way of his own frustration, making him irascibile in the dressing room and the dugout. Even the very best of us struggle to avoid this eventual descent into self parody. Mourinho may have been very correct over Pogba and Dele Ali, but if it all now seems a bit “Karen” in 2024, what’s the point?
It’s true that today’s society is “short” wisdom,
but I don’t buy into any of this trope.
Mourinho deserves to still be considered an elite coach, and should still be at Roma.
If the investment thesis for Friedkin owning Roma means that they must sacrifice a man packing out the stadium with adoring fans, then it is the investment thesis that is flawed.
But if it is the end, and I am really forced to write some kind of eulogy, this is what I would say to young Manolin.
Who was “The Special One“ and what did he teach us?
Lesson 1. Always hustle.
Talent isn’t enough, it’s table stakes. Drive and determination is what will take you from The Translator to The Special One. The world owes you nothing, so better go and grab it.
Lesson 2. Life rewards energy and confidence.
He fully deserved his astonishing success at Porto. but Chelsea afterwards wasn’t a slam dunk. Arsenal were the Invincibles, United still had Sir Alex, and he was working for a volatile and impatient oligarch.
Jose Mourinho, a Machiavellian winner with the face of Alain Delon, was in a phase of his life where his self belief and arrogance was crowding out his Catholic Beatitudes.
But it had to be that way. No one at elite level of team sports can be “The Shy One”.
Lesson 3. Belief is contagious.
People look to the leader much more than we think. Mourinho knew Chelsea still hadn’t graduated to be a top team with the winning mentality. They were still short. So he transmitted to his players that he and they had nothing to prove, and it was time to win. You think they didn’t see this video and grow a foot tall?
Lesson 4. Humans react to stimuli.
At Inter Milan, winning everything, he got miracles out of an unbalanced squad. Jose managed to make Milito, Pandev, Eto, and Sneijder run like dogs, gel and cover for each other, and got big names like Cordoba, Materazzi, Stankovic, Toldo to accept the bench.
For me, the concept of a team is one of the most beautiful things. I have teams from 25 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and we are still a team. If any of us needs the other, everybody’s coming for you. In the end, the trophies that we won in different teams, in different generations, with different groups… of course, that is what stays in the history of football. But from all my experiences in football, there is the human side of it. Team, brother, family. And for me, these are the things that stay forever. – Jose Mourinho
He stops the car and goes back to a player who had just lost his everything, his North Star. This alone is worth it. Watch it.
This is the Special One. His humanity at Inter, for results, is a masterpiece.
Lesson 5. Ambition is a non-negotiable.
This is the Parable of the Talents. If you’ve been given 5, you better get the return worthy of 5.
Mourinho knew Real Madrid was his destiny and he had to do it. So much so, he didn’t go back to Milano after the Madrid final.
“I’d have been tempted to stay with those players I loved.”
For some of us, the world stops at the bottom of our street. For the best of us, that’s where it starts. If you are gifted, you have a duty to look for the biggest stage possible.
Lesson 6. The value is in experience and wisdom.
You see things earlier and better. It’s the vision thing.
How can anyone say this man is finished, when he has this feeling for the game?
We are an industry that needs to start operating on the long-term, with this kind of experience and knowledge.
Lesson 7. Humanity is underrated.
If the future is so obviously AI, what do we humans have to offer our world going forward to add value? Is Mourinho the Last of the Mohicans? The surrogate fathers like Shankly, Stein, Clough, Ferguson.
This industry, managing itself horrendously, losing biblical amounts of capital with bad management, should instead double down on humanity. The study of Jose Mourinho and his “diminishing impact” is the wake-up call for our imminent world of fake immersive experiences and machine-learned AI content.
Hard vertical skills will be done by machines, so all we will have is our humanity, and we need to cherish it, not discard it.
Those of 50+ should take comfort in that. That is our added value.The ability to inspire, love, entertain. To read moods, pickup “tells”, anticipate irrationality.
Cicerone, another guy from Rome, clocked all that 2000 years ago: Docere, Delectare, Movere.
Teach, Delight, Motivate.
Mourinho is Cicerone.
Lesson 8. Respect is more than good manners.
There are so many rich, powerful and famous bluffers in our world today. None deserve any respect.
When you get one who does, take the opportunity to show it. It costs nothing.
This is doubly true for the new investors into football. This is not an asset class that is governed by numbers. It never will be. People are allocating capital to football and are making the most horrendous mistakes, by exactly disrespecting the past.
The Old Continent is awash with American investors into football making a total pig’s ear of it. Conway, another multi-club guru, was locked in the toilet by Oostende fans this week.
Here is the business conference soundbite to summarise:
European football as it is currently structured is simply too volatile to run as a normal business, or an American franchise. It is a clash of civilisations. If you don’t respect the culture of European football, you will be badly badly burned.
Fabio Capello said it best this week. Football is the ultimate people business. Never forget that.
What Friedkin, owner of Roma, doesn’t get is that Jose Mourinho always strengthens the bond between club and (fan) community, thus lowering significantly the inherent risk and volatility.
That is his charisma and genius. Without someone like that, like Maldini, a club is utterly exposed to a results-based destiny. There is no shock-absorber. You just can’t make a return on that business model.
Lesson 9. Don’t underestimate the old lion. Ever.
This is the most relevant of the lessons. All around us there is a shocking dismissal of the analogue generation. Those critics will learn their mistake, as we did ourselves as teenagers.
The greatest overconfident bigmouth in history, not just sport, was once written off. They had ambulances ready in Zaire to rush him to hospital when big bad George had finished with him. How did that end up?
All You Suckers Bow, and here endeth the lesson.
Who knows where Mourinho goes now? Some say back to Chelsea.
I instead see Santiago going out one more time to try and catch the Marlin. In Mourinho’s case, perhaps that Marlin is the World Cup with Brazil?
If, on the contrary, we are at the end, the eulogy should be this:
Of all the souls, his was the most human! Thank you.
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