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On Mind Games

Mind games, Victorian cartoon-style

“This is definitely a battle that is being fought in the mind. Without a shadow of a doubt.” —Dan Mason, ESPN Soccernet Podcast, April 25, 2011

“Tomorrow at 8:45 we will play a match on the field. Outside of the field, he has won the entire year, the entire season and in the future (it will be the same). He can have his personal Champions League outside the field. Fine. Let him enjoy it, I’ll give him that.” —Pep Guardiola, April 26, 2011

Listening to the most recent ESPN Soccernet Podcast seemed to confirm the notion that there is a persistent, perhaps all-too-British, unreconstructed lapdog approach to covering Jose Mourinho. The host Dan Mason and his guests wheeled out the somewhat tired clichés about “mind games” as evidence that Barcelona and Pep Guardiola in particular were ground down to a quivering, hysterical puddle of human debris, powerless in the face of the Special One’s Jedi mind tricks. There are (were?) very good reasons to think that Real Madrid would advance to the Champions League Final at the expense of Barcelona. Injury, fatigue, a perilously thin squad, and the fact that Barcelona has to fight on two fronts in order to guarantee silverware this year were all plausible reasons to doubt their passage to the final. Neither Mason nor his guests mention any of this, however. Instead, we are told “Ecce Puto Amo.” Behold, the fucking boss.

The figure of Mourinho and his ability to psychologically wind-up his opponents is put forward as the only significant variable when considering which team has the edge going into the tie. Sure, tactics and recent results are mentioned, but they are drowned out by strength of character and mental edge, of which Mourinho always already has more of than his opponent. It’s a great wonder that he ever loses.

Perhaps the breathless toadying of Mason and co. says more about the kind of journalists and pundits they are than the sport they cover. Fawning passed off as learned commentary is simply to be expected among certain English-speaking journalists still aflutter after Mourinho’s charm offensive while he was at Chelsea. Or maybe because journalism and punditry are professions that require instant commentary stereotypes like “mind games” provide useful shortcuts when imagination fails. Critical rigor takes time and arguably autonomy from corporate interests, and is thus usually found in blogs like this one, or in independent rags like When Saturday Comes or Jonathan Wilson’s The Blizzard. In other words, it isn’t obsequiousness but lazy corporate journalism beset by deadlines that is to be blamed.

Either way, the question I find myself asking is what are these commentators left with when mind games, and by extension the Mourinho factor, doesn’t work?

One reaction might be to suggest that Mourinho’s opposite is actually the mind master. In other words, Guardiola’s sweary outburst in the pre-match press conference was actually a calculated mind parry to Mourinho’s thrust. Sid Lowe suggests something close to this in his post-match comments and articles, although he is more critical than not regarding the usefulness of mental skullduggery, which he says tends to be confirmed only in cases when the supposed mind master’s team wins.

The other obvious option is to restrain all the talk of mind games and focus on the action on the field and tactical battles that often make the difference in matches, especially those over two legs. This doesn’t entail completely ignoring intangibles like mental toughness or psychological momentum. (After all, how might we even begin to consider covering Arsenal in a post-mental discursive universe?) It might not even require that we entirely dispense with the concept of mind games. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

We ought to ask, as Brian does here, how moments of interlocution between rivals play out in the context of all that’s going on within and between clubs. That is, focus on the mind game between rivals. This requires that we don’t reify the power of certain sexy or knightly figures like Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson as if their every utterance sends their rival to the proverbial booby hatch, drooling and cursing their way to capitulation. In postmodern jargon, it requires that we cease to consider the words of certain agents as performative or materially efficacious irrespective of context. It requires that we analyze the moments after provocation and response that put flesh on the psychological bones of mere speech acts. Like when Pep Guardiola was given a standing ovation from his team after he “exploded” at Mourinho’s mind games, thereby perhaps giving Barcelona a psychological edge in the tie.

It also requires us to cease talking about mind games as if they are things managers and players have rather than do. Psychology matters, but attempts at manipulating psychology are precarious by nature, and their effects are at best unpredictable. And to state the condescendingly obvious, the game is also won on the field, and no amount of brutally snide remarks can contend with moments like Messi’s fantasy dash for his second of the night.

Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.

For a critique of this tendency among British journalists, see Barry Glendenning’s April 28 and April 29, 2010 contributions to the Guardian’s “Fiver.” Glendenning pulls off what film critic David Denby refers to as “high snark” to perfection, as he barracks the British press by likening them to spit-licking geeks forever in awe of a Mourinho whom he depicts as neither funny nor clever, but, on the contrary, a little weird.

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On Mind Games

by Sam Fayyaz · May 2, 2011

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