The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
The mainstream football media are convinced that there is a ‘new Mourinho’ at Chelsea. Although I’m inclined to agree, I’m not entirely sure who this ‘new Mourinho’ actually is.
Of course, to even ask who this ‘new Mourinho’ is implies a form, a Mourinho, from whom to begin. José Mourinho was a Chelsea manager, young, Portuguese, poached from Porto after a blistering season domestically and in Europe, who was expected to grasp a small but ambitious club by the horns and haul it that final step which it couldn’t take under its previous (Italian) coach.
However, for this new subject to follow its form, it must follow its path both to and from the point at which they most strikingly overlap. In other words, the ‘new Mourinho’ can’t just arrive in similar circumstances; he must replicate the latter’s success, emulate him to the point of absurdity. The trouble is that last time, that wasn’t enough for Roman Abramovich. Mourinho brought the Premier League, the F.A. Cup and the League Cup but just didn’t quite make it to the Champions’ League Final. Combined with his prickly nature, his ultimate failure to deliver Europe’s grandest prize meant that Europe’s most demanding owner outside of Italy felt obliged to oust him.
Though you wouldn’t think it, Chelsea have hardly gone backwards since Mourinho departed. The perennially unloved Avram Grant, he of the hangdog expression and poor reputation, took them to a Champions’ League final, and the recently sacked Carlo Ancelotti regained the title fourteen months ago before a bizarre mid-season collapse saw his side drop back to second last season. His win ratio during his tenure was higher than Mourinho’s. Indeed, people forget that Mourinho actually left during what might otherwise have been Chelsea’s worst season since the Abramovich takeover and that since that messy affair, they have done quite well—particularly if we consider the sudden lack of investment in players from their previously profligate patron last summer.
It seems to follow, therefore, that the idea of ‘who’ follows a form—‘what’. The ‘new Mourinho’ is a return to an idea, the idea fostered by José during his tenure that he and only he could bring Chelsea the success their fanbase, football’s nouveaux riches, so desperately craved.
‘Mourinho’ as a concept works better than the man because the man is inherently—and loveably, at least in England—flawed; the man is arrogant, proud, and sometimes base in his poorly-veiled press conference insults. The man, however, feeds the myth: the infamous ‘us-versus-them’ mentality, the melodramatic swinging about of the arms at the ‘injustice’ of poor refereeing decisions, even the benevolent humour when things are going well, all serve to create the idea of the club as an impregnable fortress. This fortress is built on victories, of course—and in this sense the man and the myth are inseparable, because Mourinho delivers victories everywhere he goes, but the ultimate difference between the man and the myth is that whilst the man can fall (and he has fallen in the past), his failure serves only to fuel the fervour of the myth. It’s classic dictatorship; whilst the man, the leader, is fallible, the idea only gains in strength from his failure because expectations are so high and the individual observer’s dependency on them are so great that said failure is interpreted as nothing less than tragedy. Tragedy, by definition, affects the great. With Mourinho, Chelsea were great.
This is why it’s so important that Chelsea have a ‘new Mourinho’. The man, as he is keen to point out, is not that similar to his predecessor; though he shares Mourinho’s enjoyment of manipulating the media, he does not thrive on conflict. He does not build fortresses. His problem (or, potentially, the problem for Mourinho’s legacy) is that he has walked straight into a ready-made fortress. It’s in a bit of a state from the pounding it’s taken recently, but under the right leadership it can once again be great. Fortress Mourinho has haunted Chelsea since he left; it is Fortress Mourinho that makes it look as though Chelsea have been in crisis for years.
The idea of the doppelganger, or Double, has troubled Western culture for centuries. As an expression of the deepest insecurities of identity and self, the Double, as represented in Western literature, is always the superior manifestation of what the individual can never be. In Poe and Wilde, he represents conscience; in Dostoyevsky and Kafka, he is the emblem of a society from which the protagonist feels alienated and excluded. The protagonist is always egotistical—he must be, for the activation of the ‘double’ idea has to come from some form of insecurity, and insecurity is rooted in the positive ideas of self, subjectivity and individuality. It is egotism as internal conflict which annihilates him.
All the ‘new Mourinho’ has to do is succeed, and Chelsea will become his fortress. The tools are certainly there; whilst the principal conductors of the Mourinho machine—the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba—are in their late careers, additions have been made to the squad which make it more than a match for anyone else in Europe. David Luiz has the potential to be one of the finest central defenders of his generation, his former team-mate at Benfica, Ramires, is slowly settling in, and of course there’s the potential for Fernando Torres to suddenly explode into form. There will be more signings—quite possibly from last season’s all-conquering Porto side—and the ‘new Mourinho’ is already well-acquainted with the club and its infrastructure. All he needs to do is win, and his almost comical similarity to his predecessor will ensure that Chelsea will at last be able to look away from the haunting spectre of Mourinho.
In essence, the end of the persona could be the beginning of new life at Chelsea whose stagnant air appears to be wrapped in that Portuguese idea of saudade—the unresolved longing for a mythologised past—instilled the moment Mourinho left. It’s ironic that it took the arrival of someone so intimately related to Mourinho to revive the club. The ‘new Mourinho’ has the chance to make Chelsea great again, and in his own image. Whether his image is nothing more than that of Mourinho is difficult to say.
What can be said, however, is that there has already been a break with tradition. The ‘new Mourinho’ has been fast-tracked on the back of the success of his predecessor—he did the ‘brilliant first season’ part, but he did not have the chance to lead Porto in the Champions’ League. Chances are he would have taken his side into the second round or possibly the quarterfinals and then been dispatched by Barcelona, or even Mourinho himself at Real Madrid. His stock this summer was the highest it will ever be, and Chelsea bought it. He worked with Mourinho, everything about him is like Mourinho, he must be as good as Mourinho. Maybe he is. He’s certainly ‘made it’ quicker.
Is Mourinho’s doppelganger to be the haunting alter-ego of the flawed protagonist? Will he take Chelsea to new heights in a manner more pleasing, less abrasive, than old José’s? Or will he crash and burn, overwhelmed by a two-year jump from Académica in the nether regions of Portugal’s Liga Sagres to Chelsea at the pinnacle of the European game? Either way, Mourinho loses: any victory will replace Mourinho’s image with that of his ‘successor’; any defeat will strip the ‘new Mourinho’ of any individuality and make his failure a failure of the ‘Mourinho’ idea. If the rivalry with Barcelona didn’t mean José needed that Champions’ League trophy with Real badly enough already, he has Double the reason now.
Augusto Neto strings thirty passes together and hits the post at www.soccerlens.com.
Even Massimo Moratti didn’t do that. But then, Mourinho won him the Champions’ League and two Scudetti.
Indeed, one might argue that they have been—in terms of identity. The Abramovich effect was so great that the Chelsea of old more or less ceased to exist; all that spending was harnessed into an image by the strength of Mourinho’s personality. No coach, not even Phil Scolari, has ever come close to matching it.
Mourinho’s countryman and namesake, José Saramago, plays on this idea slightly in his ‘O Homem Duplicado’, transliterated as ‘The Duplicated Man’, but sadly it does not count among the finer literary achievements of Portugal’s only Nobel Prize winner. A better choice would be ‘All The Names,’ a reflection on the inhumanity of the bureaucratic cataloguing of individual lives whose chief protagonist is a certain Senhor José…
Mourinho’s feelings about his successor might be slightly reminiscent of the bureaucratic envy cursing through Doestoyevsky’s novel.
by Augusto Neto · August 2, 2011