Every time I watch one of Jose Mourinho’s teams perform on screen, I get nervous. It probably happens to a lot of people, and I suppose that’s sort of the idea. But my reason for getting nervous has nothing to do with the sociocultural ideas of fright and humiliation that the mournful-looking man is said to express, nor does it have anything to do with the extremely unattractive way he actually manages to be a very adventurous coach, nor is it any kind of artistic intimidation. My fear has to do with blood. Blood count, blood oath, Judas’ blood money, Dylan’s blood on the tracks—those who grew up during a cold war, and everyone who takes sport seriously, would concede the fact that a racial divide like the rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona represents absolutely everything: from Thermopylae to Man vs. Beast. Oddly, Mourinho himself once acted like he had heard this metaphor before:
It is a style of blood not skill. When the moment of leaving everything on the pitch arrives, you don’t leave the skill, you leave the blood. We were a team of heroes. We sweated blood. It’s a pity I could not play, because I have got the same blood.
Like in this quote, the forty-eight-year-old manager typically argues with the barreling strength of an abolitionist; in the occasion, he was reacting to criticism of Inter’s defensive approach after the dogged defeat against Barcelona that allowed the Milanese side to move to the Champions League final in the spring of 2010.
Mourinho called the match the ‘most beautiful defeat’ of his life, as The Telegraph‘s Henry Winter reported, or else one of the ugly things he is not afraid to do if they could be played as a competitive advantage. Soccer has always offered a ripe territory for this sort of approach. Strip out the variables, hide the formation within a nebulous scorecasting, throw in a few one-liners to keep fans and readers interested in you rather than in the prejudices about your team, and then whatever you are left with is the truth. Truth, reshaped. There was a time in which the acclaimed and now-retired Serbian coach Vujadin Boškov, on a whim or at the request of complacent audiences, could speak as a self-conscious caricature of a trade union lobbyist. The overall effect was beyond the puzzling and the absurd, capturing a full panorama of human resilience, rather like an underclass researcher writing a PhD at Tufts on the history of blue-collar America in the rise of the Tea Party.
Now here comes Jose Mourinho to play the reviled provocateur, the clotheshorse, and especially the autocratic boss who refuses to play it safe, the ambitious leader who prefers a beating to the philistines of risk-averse thinking. Inspired by Béla Guttmann, the prodigious Hungarian who became a legend for his footballing nomadism as well as his hot temper, the Portuguese’s career is inscribed in a legacy of tactical emancipation and diaspora in and beyond the Atlantic world. Is Mourinho a ruthless opportunist, an accessory to a class of statistical myth-busters driven by a lust for power? Or is he a pragmatic strategist who will defend the principles of zonal marking (like a Rumkowski or a Schindler saved Jewish lives during the Nazi regime) through wandering tactical evangelism?
The most recent demonisation of Mourinho, current manager of Real Madrid, after the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup, has already begun to open up a much-needed debate about race, language and class in today’s Spain. In a climate where sport discourse largely ignores the impact of the Spanish crisis in employment, housing and education on the Liga, and the swathe of the soccer population that feels unrepresented in the schizoid dualism Madrid-Barcelona, Mourinho unwillingly risks to embody a critique of inequality rather than the style of somebody who’s suffering from a cognitive bias. No doubt he worked out early how to turn decisions that might make him stand out into an important part of his home advantage; and yet his frenzy, especially near the end of a game, is going to stain European football with an unprecedented prussic acid, unlike the image of Alex Ferguson consulting his watch as United push forward for a winning goal in the 97th minute at Old Trafford came to define the English Premier League for more than a decade. In his comments on the 150-game unbeaten record at home, David Runciman makes of the Mourinho conundrum (supremely talented or lucky?) a tool to accentuate willpower in sport and to discredit the freakonomists’ trust in numbers .
Mourinho’s delirious taunting of Barcelona players as a cohort of narcotics smugglers is challenging the legality of the tika taka, whose well-organized system of play is thought to be a credible threat to soccer’s native need for snapping and improvisation. His association with the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples—inevitably, the most harmful and incontinent piece of accusation—brings Barcelona’s hypnotic passing to eerily chime with what you can see happening in any network of organized crime: transplantation sometimes fails, and mobsters get homesick too (given the erotic chase that ensued, the return of Cesc Fàbregas to Cataluña is presumably the bleaker culmination of Mourinho’s cyanotic comparison).
Directness confuses. I rather wish he had troubled his thoughts. Did he really mean it? Should we take the remark as more than the reflex perversity of a man who dreamed of Italy while in England, and of England while in Italy? According to a story recalled by Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, Epaminondas was a Theban general who led a life of principled carnage and founded the city of Megalopolis. As he lay dying and the bystanders lamented the lack of issue, he reminded them that he left two children, Leuctra and Mantinea—the sites of his two most famous victories.
For myself, I do not think we need to be quite so pessimistic. The case of André Villas-Boas is instructive, if, perhaps, gloomily. Florentines only trusted Leonardo because he could sculpt all the way like Donatello. The full-face portrait of Villas-Boas, for the moment, fails to hypnotize when it stares back with his short frizzy beard from the headlines of a rather ponderous beginning of the English campaign. (His personnel at Chelsea is currently standing on the chalkboards of the media like bronze paperweights on large water lilies.) However, even as committed a commander as Mourinho can tire of slaughter. Earlier in the summer, he decided to bring his own shooting season at press conferences to a close. He thought he’d figured out the best way to beat Barcelona. Another bifurcation in his life was finally resolved.
It was only a matter of time, it seemed, before one could see the blaugrana bird on the ground leaking blood, feet waving, beak opening and closing. Marcelo and Pepe would guard columns of Catalan prisoners after the capitulation, like a squadron of Uhlans riding with swallow-tailed lances flapping on their kurta. Cristiano Ronaldo would return to the fashionable weaving of the Jesuits, while for Guardiola, the haggard Mandarin of soccer tactics, the only feasible course of action since the crash would be a retreat among the Camaldolese hermits. Mourinho himself would gaze over the microphone, cranky at first, and then newly restored, his eyes still in the great white silence. All he wanted to do, of course, was to win as much as possible before moving to another country, and to outlive the enduring vanity of his own stratagems. The problem with this fantasy was Messi, who made the light dim like a drop of cognac on a gas-lamp. Disgusted with the platitude of the Argentinian’s sublimity, Mourinho now has to revert to a militaristic routine of conspiracy and fumigation.
So far, a practice of sly, taciturn epilepsy has served as a ruse enabling Mourinho the coach to sidestep a conventional career, and Mourinho the man to sidestep life. The question is merely at what symptomatic level a protracted experience of loss and defeat is going to change his tactics. It would be too banal if the style of blood was unaffected by intense psychosomatic phenomena. The genius of Setúbal. The first footballing modernist. The Special One. The father of Realism. The butcher of Dutch total football. The pontoon bridge linking the great Magyars to Joyce. All these titles were acquired as ennobling forms of address to stupefy potential employers. And yet, as the struggle with an enemy with no proportions is making of each fight an unnerving experience, both grotesque and incantatory, the hand searching for the dagger is that of somebody who surely lost his grip, whose technical hold is spurting and crumbling like for the androgynous ancestor of Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden” :
I caught sight of my reflection / I caught it in the window / I saw the darkness in my heart / I saw the signs of my undoing / They had been there from the start / And the darkness still has work to do / The knotted chord’s untying.
Whether your perspective is geological rather than historical, the residual sloth of this majestic ballad conveys something sinister, as if German trains of connection could move ever so slowly from the insignificant to the significant, toward a clearer Heimsuchung, ‘looking for home’, ‘returning home’. ♦ [To be continued]
 Blood of Eden, whose original art-cover I reproduce here, is the third single from Peter Gabriel’s 1992 album, Us, with backing vocals from Sinead O’Connor.