Mourinho, Benítez and the search for the past

(On Soccer)

In the sudden rush of free time he had after leaving Manchester United, José Mourinho shot a commercial for a bookmaker. A couple of years and a couple of charges later, the ad is still running on British television. It still works, after all. Mourinho remains a household name in the UK. The central concept of the commercial is still valid.

Mourinho’s performance in the commercial may be a bit theatrical—unsurprisingly—but he’s also quite skillful. Looking as tanned, healthy and relaxed as we all used to look in 2019, Mourinho earnestly explains to viewers what it takes to be “special.” The grace is that he should know very well what is needed: after all, his nickname is “the Special”. It is understood, right?

However, Mourinho interprets it all with a wink and a smile. The tone is clearly self-critical. He variously mocks his vanity, his boastfulness, his penchant for trickery. He knowingly and happily lampoons the cartoonish villainy that, for 20 years, has made him perhaps the most fascinating coach of his generation.

However, it is worth noting how dated many of the references are. One of the ads shows him climbing into a laundry cart, a nod to an incident that happened before the iPhone was invented. There is another involving a piece of topiary in the shape of three raised fingers, a gesture Mourinho first adopted before “Game of Thrones” aired on television.

In fact, the main concept of the commercial, the idea that Mourinho is the Special, dates from almost a year before the creation of YouTube. That particular reference comes from a time when the famous social network was still called The Facebook, Netflix was a mail-order DVD rental company, and DVDs were things people wanted. It’s hard to describe it as current.

The fact that all the jokes worked anyway, that they were all immediately understandable to their intended audience, is evidence of both Mourinho’s enduring relevance and the spell he has cast over English football, which has time and perhaps You will always be hopelessly in love with him. England have never really been able to top it.

And apparently, neither Mourinho. He is, more and more, a coach, in the same way that the Rolling Stones are a live band. They have become, in a way, a tribute band to themselves. No one has any real interest in hearing his new material. Today, the only attraction is that they play their hits.

Mourinho, for his part, continues to do just that. A couple of weeks ago, while reflecting on his team Roma’s gripping loss to Juventus – in which they squandered a 3-1 lead only to lose by a single goal – he stated, in various ways, that his players they were too kind, too weak, too afflicted by some kind of deep psychological complex that he simply couldn’t resolve. Apparently everyone was to blame except him.

It has not been the first time that he has delved into his old catalog during the six months he has been in Rome. Following a humiliating 6-1 loss to Bodo/Glimt, Mourinho claimed the Norwegian champions had “better players” than Roma, despite operating on just a fraction of their budget. He has had a fight with the referees. He has highlighted the flaws in his rosters after nearly every loss.

And the losses have come more regularly than he would like. Mourinho’s spell hasn’t been entirely a bust by club standards: Roma are still, in theory at least, in the running for a Champions League place and that’s more or less where they were expected to be. was. However, by Mourinho’s standards, the season has been more than humbling.

Winning is not only crucial to Mourinho’s reputation, it is the cornerstone of his identity. For two decades, he won some of the most illustrious places in football — Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United — not because of the way his teams played, but because of the way they finished their games. Mourinho is a winner. It may be an acquired taste, but it gets results.

Now he is at Roma, an excellent, historic and weighty club, but with very few conditions to fulfill his personal ambitions. Roma, after all, is not Real Madrid. He is not capable of winning all the games, of winning the trophies and the glory that Mourinho yearns for, those that reaffirm his status and polish his legend.

The question that persists then is: why? What does Mourinho gain from this? He doesn’t seem to get any joy out of it: For a while now, he’s been much happier in that 2019 ad than he is in his day job. Is it greed then? Perhaps, but elite trainers are paid handsomely for winning and then paid just as well if they don’t. Mourinho has earned enough, in salary and compensation, to buy all the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs he could ever want and never need.

It could be, then, the status: not that of a winner, but that of a coach. Roma, like Tottenham, may be a second-class club, but they are still prestigious, powerful and high-profile. Being there means that Mourinho can still command a crowd, a studio, a room; it means, above all, that he continues to be what he has always been: a coach.

Perhaps Mourinho, like his old nemesis Rafael Benítez, simply cannot tolerate the idea of ​​not working. It is certainly difficult to understand why else Benítez decided last summer to sacrifice the constant affection that Liverpool fans had for him in order to take over the reins of Everton, his former club’s bitter cross-town rival.

As they age, coaches become avatars of the systems they once simply adopted. They become one thing, the strategy they seem to represent. They fix their styles in a literal sense: they don’t just want to win, but win the way they once did, as if to prove that they were always right, that the game hasn’t left them behind. It has happened to Benítez and Mourinho, just as it happened to Arsène Wenger at the time.

And so they keep moving, trying, working, accepting positions that do not give them any joy in the vain hope that, one day, the innate superiority of who they are, of what they represent, will once again be in evidence. And in doing so, they get more and more trapped in their own ideas, in their own pasts, unable to accept or admit that all those things that made them special happened a long time ago.

limited horizons

Not once, in more than 30 years, has a player from a team outside of Europe won the FIFA (Male) Player of the Year award, no matter what the pretext was at the time. None, in fact, have even come close.

Martin Palermo fell short of the top three after inspiring Boca Juniors to win both the Copa Libertadores and a world club championship in 2000. Neither did Neymar, despite his youthful brilliance propelling Santos to South American glory in 2011. By 2019, when Gabriel Barbosa won that year’s tournament with Flamengo after scoring two goals in the final minutes, no one even considered voting for him anymore.

And, unfortunate as it is, it makes sense. It’s hard to deny that, for at least 20 of those 30 years, the best players in the world have been in Europe. Of course, not all of them have been Europeans – several Brazilians have won the FIFA award five times and Lionel Messi has a collection of them – but they have all played in one of Europe’s top leagues. After all, that is where the strongest teams are. It is the place where a player’s talent is most thoroughly tested.

(The geography of the women’s award has been more varied: It has been won by players from the United States, Australia, Japan and, for several years, just over a decade ago, basically wherever Marta was playing. The fact that the last two years been dominated by Europe is perhaps evidence of a shift in the balance of power in women’s football).

What is not so easy to understand is why the same Eurocentrism should apply to coaches, both in the male and female category. No coach of a men’s team outside Europe has finished in the top three since FIFA began handing out the award in 2016. (Jill Ellis, former head coach of the US women’s team, and her former counterpart in Japan, Asako Takakura , have obtained podium places in the women’s vote).

This year, the omissions were especially outrageous. FIFA’s own rules state that the award should be judged on a coach’s performance between October 2020 and October 2021. In that period, Pitso Mosimane, Al Ahly’s South African coach, won the CAF Champions League twice. times. Abel Ferreira of Brazil’s Palmeiras won one Copa Libertadores and was on track for a second during the same period. Neither of them even got a nomination.

The logic that applies to player rewards doesn’t work for managers. That a coach has won the biggest trophy does not automatically mean that he has performed better than all his colleagues. Being a coach, after all, is about making the most of the resources you have at hand. It’s about exceeding expectations in your own personal context.

It is the reason, for example, why it is possible to say that David Moyes leading West Ham to the Champions League might be a more surprising achievement than Pep Guardiola winning that title with Manchester City. Or why Chris Wilder’s job in leading Sheffield United to seventh place in the Premier League was a greater feat as a manager than Jürgen Klopp’s in guiding Liverpool to the Premier League championship.

And that is why there is no reason why neither Mosimane nor Ferreira should have been officially recognized for their remarkable successes of the last 12 months. Instead, they were ignored because football, at some structural level, has been entranced by the bright lights and ostentatious arrogance of Europe. And in doing so, he has belittled himself.

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