El Clasico: Jose Mourinho looking to push Pep Guardiola’s buttons
A football match, for José Mourinho, is merely an episode – a plateau of slightly higher intensity – in an otherwise unbroken continuum of crackling competitiveness, a code orange escalation of his Clausewitzian ‘Total War’ that is only different in degree, not in nature. Whistles get blown, points accrued, passage to the next round attained or else not, but The Game never stops. There is no hors de combat: ever vigilant and switched on, 24/7, he ticks like some speed-fuelled Tommy on the Somme. For whenever there’s a footballing foe in the vicinity – or, for that matter, a ‘neutral’ (read: potential foe) – then, Pope shitting in the woods, Mourinho will be razorwired, hyperalert, pushing buttons and projecting strength, now hunter, now hunted, combative to his bones.
Has any football manager so consistently got off on conflict? OK, maybe there are a few, I grant you. But among those of a comparably bellicose disposition and general readiness to mudsling as José, have any had quite such a searingly caustic turn of phrase and the type of forensic nerve-hitting to send his adversaries off into extended psychoanalysis, either by pinpointing an existing neurosis or (no doubt preferably) implanting a new one?
For those that relish the Portuguese’s polemics and high melodrama, last Tuesday’s relatively inconsequential fixture between Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano – rescheduled due to Barça’s jaunt to Japan for the Intercontinental Cup – was a gigantic, steaming piss on the bonfire of Mourinho’s potential pre-clásico verbal pyrotechnics, another FIFA-inspired botch-job. You see, the net effect of that game on the league table has been to prevent José from dusting off a wonderfully pithy line that constituted the coup de grâce in what was, to my mind, one of his most brilliant press conference performances (and there are many contenders) – more precisely, the Rayo game foreclosed the possible reprisal of a line that, uncharacteristically perhaps, was less acerbic or hostile than of such concussively flawless logic and laconic delivery that it could not but have intimidated the Arsenal team for whose ears it was intended. As far as I’m aware, this line was not picked up or widely appreciated at the time – which would perhaps be borne out by the fact that, alas, it cannot be located on YouTube – nor was it logged in the canon of Mourinhisms. Yet it’s a quip that’s crying out for a 2011 remix and would, I’d like to think, have been unfurled this week for Pep and his men’s consumption were it not for FIFA’s utterly pointless latter-day medieval tourney, in honour of the Count of Zurich…
Anyway, we pick up our hero’s story in 2004, his first season in London. Remember it? He had abandoned that “beautiful blue chair” in Porto and his job as #2 to God, swanked his way down the King’s Road, talking the talk, walking the walk, and making the most grizzled of scribes swoon in admiration. And he had Chelsea winning, too, immediately and with a swagger. Then, on the eve of a London derby against the Gunners, two weeks before Christmas, 16 games into the campaign, came a press conference, irrefutably his stage. Chelsea were top, holding a 3-point lead over Everton (who had played a game more, winning the Merseyside Derby at lunchtime that day) with Arsenal a further two points back. They had been remorseless, but this was the mighty Arsenal of Bergkamp, Henry, Pirès and Vieira, Invincibles the season before and early pacesetters this time round.
Aware of the danger they presented, Mourinho, holding court, was, as ever, pitch perfect. After several minutes of back and forth – the tepid baseline rallying of 80’s women’s tennis, of Sabatini and Mary-Jo Fernandez – he was asked an apparently straightforward question about the ‘p-word’ by some blockheaded hack utterly out of his intellectual depth discussing such a notion with him. So he pounced. Doubtless it was just an innocent, throwaway platitude, of the sort favoured by the quote-obsessed mainstream media; a simple and mundane question – insofar as any question can be intrinsically mundane, regardless of the capability of an adept interlocutor to riff on it – that would habitually prompt an automatic, anodyne, ‘safe’ answer, the sort of inoffensive non-statement regurgitated hourly by Sky Sports News, having cultivated for just that purpose an army of well-meaning talking heads whose default cognitive and discursive mode is, precisely, to seek shelter within that crushing banality that comes from the so-called ‘tyranny of the majority’. Not Mourinho, of course. Oh no…
“So, Hoe-zay,” the twit began, equally oblivious of his mispronunciation of Mourinho’s first name as he was of the way in which his question was about to be deconstructed, “how are your players going to cope with the pressure tomorrow?”
It was a query so predictable, and elicited an answer so polished, that for a moment I thought the scribe must be his stooge. But Mourinho is the last person to need a straight man to pave the way for his punches. If it were off-the-cuff, it would have been impressive; perversely, however, off-the-cuff would have been less impressive, somehow, than having anticipated the question and rehearsed the reply, to the point that it would seem spontaneous. For that would only confirm that he never, ever switched off, see – that The Game never ended.
He started his reply with a stare long enough to unnerve his questioner, allowing him some time to ponder the question’s pat idiocy, then slowly arched an eyebrow, offered the hint of a smile (that of a maniac about to stove in your skull), and responded:
“The Chelsea supporters have a beautiful song…” he said, slowing right down, the deadpanning giving that clipped Iberian Portuguese accent even more of a Russian lilt. “It goes like this: ‘We…are…top of the league… We are…top of the league.’ It doesn’t matter the re-sult. After the match, our supporters, they can still sing their beautiful song: ‘We…are…top of the league… We are…top of the league.’ The only question is: two points, five points, or eight points?”
The room fell silent, save a few giggles quickly cowed by a hint of glowering impatience. Mourinho paused again for a second or so, perhaps irked by having to spell it all out, then concluded: “Pressure? I would say the pressure is all on Arsenal.” Well, as Kenneth Wolstenhome once said: it is now… Arsenal were immediately locked in a double-bind; they could not win (maybe literally).
So, sadly for those that love the cut and thrust of a genuinely talented exponent of mind games, the verbal sparring of the presser, Barça’s routine 4-0 rout of Rayo puts them within three points of Real, having played a game more, and, with the Catalans thus now able to regain top spot (on head to head), it precludes the obvious variation on that line: “…3 points, 6 points, or 9 points?” Shame, because I for one was looking forward to José attaching his metaphorical electrodes to some blaugrana nipples.