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The Wages of Narcissism

You’ve got to be someone pretty special to work in the highest echelons of professional football in Europe, a most arrogant and self-aggrandising industry, and still be singled out for narcissism. As any media across Europe, maybe even the world, will attest though, José Mourinho snugly fits that bill.

Mourinho treads fine lines wherever he goes: between football employee and outright celebrity; between master protector of his players and master self-promoter; and perhaps most crucially, between healthy and destructive narcissism. But it can be Lady from Shanghaithe crossing of fine lines by even the finest of margins that can have the most far-reaching consequences. The sudden change of perception following the inevitably bitter climax to the Clásico series means his peers now see him as the most calculating of narcissists—deliberately antagonising for the sake of it, rather than pathologically self-believing—and it has dealt him a severe blow. The ‘uncontrollable narcissist’ is not an attractive moniker.

Defeat in the Champions League must have been especially chastening given the seeming validation of Madrid’s plan in the Copa del Rey—11 players for the majority, a stunning goal on the counter, the first trophy of the Spanish season. But as Real’s involvement subsided, Mourinho’s very public narcissism intensified and cracks appeared amid a swirl of conspiracy theories.

Mourinho’s challenge in European football, his arena lest anyone forget, was to topple this lauded Barcelona side. And he did not achieve it. Narcissism does not deal well with such a state of affairs and so apportions blame onto, say, UEFA. Their referees. Barcelona’s cheating. You name it. Suddenly all the things that were holding you back become obvious. But not as obvious as a very public fall from grace. The lack of class displayed in Mourinho’s accusations sticks in the throats of admirers and peers and continues to do so, particularly in Manchester, where one presumes spies monitor Mourinho’s movements with half an eye trained on Sir Alex’s pension fund.

In England, Mourinho’s dastardly arrogance was judged mischievous. In Italy, he appeared troubled, but protected himself with haughtiness, battled against a sceptical press and was ultimately vindicated. In Spain, he was relishing the good cop/bad cop dialogue the media created for him and Guardiola until the cloak of invulnerability was lifted. Europe was watching as the bad cop became a bad loser. A really bad loser.

That said, Mourinho has since won what could be one of the most significant battles of the summer. Jorge Valdano was relieved of his role as director general of Real Madrid by President Florentino Pérez on May 20, who then choked: “There were two people filling a sporting role between whom there was no understanding. Ignoring the evidence is not practical for anyone.” Somewhere, Mourinho smiled wryly.

The coming season is the acid test for Mourinho in Spain. Destructive narcissism could see the myth crumble further under the weight of his belief that the way to beat Barcelona is to kick them off the park. Falling short in a similar manner to this campaign could be disastrous.

Potential suitors at Old Trafford look on, weighing up whether the narcissism is a help or a hindrance and how this correlates to continuing the 20-odd year long legacy of an equally egotistical Scot. It’s often said that Mourinho wants Ferguson’s job and if he does replace Ferguson at United, he would be presented with a league far better suited to his special brand of self-absorption. It always has been.

In England, he wouldn’t face one rival for the title but four or five, diluting the crying foul in which he loves to indulge. Neither is the dual media of Spain an issue—the tit-for-tat exchanges between Real-obssessed Marca and the Barca-oriented Sport provide colourful and highly partisan reference points throughout the season and serve only to perpetuate the mammoth rivalry between the two heavyweights. But in the Premier League, there are not just two vying for the title so there is no black and white ‘us against them’. The dynamics of the Premier League are very different.

If he produces behaviour similar to that exhibited at this season’s conclusion next year, though, it is more likely that United would shun his appointment. A man as self-aware as Mourinho will know he has put one foot firmly over the line and will need to retreat accordingly if he isn’t to alienate all and sundry, which may explain the lack of soundbites through this season’s conclusion.

Even the English media, those who feel a sense of ownership that regularly approaches fever pitch over ‘our character’, found the fallout difficult to stomach. ‘We miss him’, they nevertheless concluded. He fills pages like no one else, though with a press so famously quick to tear people down as they are to build up their favourites, the tide can quickly turn.

As they need him, so he needs them. The self-absorbed maelstrom of the Premier League, separated from the rest of Europe by water, is the ideal environment for narcissists to thrive. Mourinho’s battle is to validate his approach in the face of Barcelona’s ongoing dominance. With Valdano gone, he has the autonomy he has long craved. But as public a dissemination of the victim complex as seen in April will not be forgotten. The healthy narcissism cannot be allowed to become destructive.

Adam Bushby & Rob MacDonald can be found at Magic Spongers.

Though in this regard he may be helped by Barcelona’s forecast decline.
Although, may we add, it was in typically sensationalist fashion.

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The Wages of Narcissism

by Adam Bushby & Rob MacDonald · June 10, 2011

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