Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Like clockwork, the day before a Manchester United match, Sir Alex Ferguson will criticize the appointed referee or speak kindly about an opposing coach. Manchester United's star-studded lineup will typically win the match and may get a favorable call or two. Also, the opposing coach, typically overmatched in terms of personnel, may make an odd sub near the game's end in desperation. The next day, a soccer-scribe with a deadline will vomit out a story about how "Sir Alex the Wordsmith wove a Jedi mind trick." This recycled story-line about Ferguson’s savvy makes sense, but it’s wildly overused. What’s more, the simplicity of Sir Alex’s head games pales in comparison to the complex press conference performances of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola in Spain. Spain's top two coaches, like its national team, flamenco to their own cadence and audience.
When Jose Mourinho arrived to manage Real Madrid a 18 months ago, we salivated at the prospect of dueling words between him and Barcelona's coach Pep Guardiola. Last season, at the pinnacle of the mania over four Barça-Real games over a few weeks, Pep caved and admitted that Mourinho was the puto amo of the presser, which roughly translates as "f'ing master." However, Pep enjoyed the last laugh when Barcelona won the Champions League and La Liga. Despite Pep’s admission, the two have not traded barbs with the frequency or tenacity we expected. Our hopes were high, especially after Pep battered Manuel Pellegrini, the previous Madrid man, with an endless wave of backhanded compliments. Why haven’t Pep and the Special One sparred more? Well, it's complicated.
At United, Sir Alex is king for life. He’ll step down from his throne at a time of his choosing and his alone. But neither Mourinho nor Pep Guardiola enjoy similar job security. While English clubs generally are privately owned, in Spain, the clubs are technically owned by the fans. Club presidents are elected, face term limits, and are accountable to the public in all their wisdom and glory. When debt problems first hit English football, many pointed to fan ownership as a panacea. Fan participation has benefits, but La Liga shows it is not a guarantee of running in the black. While Real and Barcelona regularly post profits, both clubs carry significant debt loads. Why? Well, most fans want to win the next game and their team to buy the best player. Thus, the future is mortgaged to improve the present eleven. The fans’ incessant demand to spend today to win today, and their added influence on ownership, makes the life of the coach that much more complicated.
In short, Sir Alex simply does battle with opposing managers and tabloid journos. Guardiola and Mourinho, though, must deal with elected presidents and shifting political allegiances. The guy (or gal) who hired them will probably not be the one to fire them. And Real Madrid and Barcelona have especially bitter recent political histories. Florentino Pérez was the president of Real during the early 2000s, when he bought several high-profile players and gave birth to los Galácticos. However, he also fired quite a few coaches, signed players by name and not position, and eventually resigned in disgrace halfway through his second term in 2006. The next president, Ramon Calderon, won trophies with lower-profile players, but was forced to resign amid a vote-rigging scandal. In Barcelona, the current president, Sandro Rosell, checked the books upon getting elected, saw some lavish expense accounts, and filed a lawsuit aginst the former president Joan Laporta. Isn't representative democracy wonderful?
In order to cope with these shifting and shady alliances, each coach has developed a unique press conference routine to protect their job security. Jose Mourinho has played Florentino Pérez (now in his second stint as Real president) with a combustible hot-cold one-two rarely seen outside of a middle-school girl’s flirting. At the onset of his tenure at Madrid, Jose openly toyed with the idea of coaching the Portuguese national team on the side. How bad did it get? Pérez felt compelled to personally call the president of the Portuguese football federation to tell him to keep his mitts off Madrid's man. During the winter, things got even stickier. Real's sporting director, the equivalent of a general manager in American sports front offices, Jorge Valdano, set off a public hissy fit by criticizing Jose for not playing French striker Karim Benzema in a game. Jose was openly disgusted by Valdano’s insolence and told the players he was on his way out, but then later made a public appearance with general director Jose Angel Sanchez to talk about the next season's preseason. And the current season had not even ended. Huh?
He loves me, he loves me not. Pérez, dizzy from the highs and lows, eventually stopped plucking petals and sacked Valdano. In fact, after a meeting with the board of directors, Pérez went so far as to say that the club needed a new organizational structure. Guess who wanted that new structure? And guess who that new structure revolved around? Here's a hint: he wouldn’t be the next coach of Portugal’s national team. Pérez, the man that breezily fired several coaches during his first Madrid presidency, was and is smitten with Mourinho.
Pep, for his part, has consistently played the tune of the classic bachelor: "You love me but I'm just not that into you." For the past few years, Barça has accumulated trophies but Pep has constantly stirred speculation over himself. He is a wonderful coach both as tactician and motivator, but perhaps is the greatest champion of his own inability to commit. Before a game, he is just as likely to talk about a key player's injury as he is to discuss his own desire to not reveal his potential future as not-coach of Barcelona.
In January 2010, when Pep's first contract was about to expire, he refused to negotiate an extension before the end of the season. Before the Champions League final in May 2011, Pep refused to dismiss rumors that he may quit after the final. And very recently, in October 2011, Pep talked about leaving Barcelona. The spin from Pep's own mouth is that the uncertainty keeps him motivated. Sympathetic soccer scribes talk about the personal pressure of being a Barcelona coach. However, his refusal to commit also puts pressure on the club to keep signing quality players. It also firmly puts the club in the position of the possibly left-behind lover. And the presidents always take the bait, immediately extolling their love and commitment to retaining the coach. Pep ingeniously has put himself in the position of a player to be coddled and retained, not a coach to be blamed.
So, as Sir Alex complains about refs and most of us are thankful to have a job, if we have one, the coaches of Spain’s two elite soccer clubs coyly bat their eyelashes for the press and wistfully insinuate a hundred hypothetical future heartbreaks for somebody else. Now you know of whom, and to whom, they speak.