The Definite Article

On José Mourinho's charisma and myth.
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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

And so the Champions League semifinals are upon us once more, stage upon which reputations—and indeed myths—are forged. On one side of the draw, facing the Bavarian behemoth of Bayern and on terra very much cognita, is José Mourinho; on the other, taking on Guardiola’s blaugrana thoroughbreds, is Roberto di Matteo, occupying the same semifinal bench where another cocksure Portuguese manager, the deposed André Villas-Boas, may feel he ought to be perched. Having left the “beautiful blue chair” at the Dragão Stadium clutching a fistful of medals, just as had his compatriot, this is certainly the arena in which AVB wishes to operate and be judged. However, had the protégé studied his mentor’s arrival in West London (particularly its myth-building aspects) with greater attention to detail—an arrival when explicit, inevitable, superficial, and probably unhelpful comparison was made between the two—then he may well have been pitting his wits against Dr. Pep this week.

Certainly, one cannot imagine Mourinho making such elementary political mistakes as did Villas-Boas—publically admitting he feared following Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti’s path to the guillotine; explicitly comparing a misfiring £50m striker to Czar Abramovich’s previous flunking mega-money vanity signing—since the former’s uncanny political instincts, his grasp of how to surf institutional situations, extend from the boardroom to the players. Indeed, both men had to deal with dissent from the troops earlier this year, yet where Villas-Boas, with his high defensive line, proved to be tactically rigid and was eventually confronted over it by Ashley Cole and other senior figures, the ever-streetwise Mourinho again demonstrated his resourcefulness and adaptability. Thus, faced with discontent from Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas over his apparent negativity against Barcelona (especially in last year’s Champions League semifinal second leg, when he instructed them to play for a 0-0 that would have eliminated them), Mourinho responded pragmatically, retreating a little (though not forgetting the ‘insolence,’ you imagine) and selecting an ultra-attacking lineup for the league fixture against Athletic Bilbao (won 4-1). By comparison, AVB left Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien out of the team that was beaten in Napoli in the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie, his personal authority by then fatally eroded.

Laying bare his soul when he needed to box clever, being dogmatic and idealistic when he needed to be pragmatic—demonstrably, Villas-Boas lacks the nous, and therefore perhaps the leadership and authority of Mourinho. But what exactly is authority and how does it connect to leadership? When a coach is prowling his technical area, or sitting in a press conference, or behind a desk in contract negotiations, or walking across to have a look at training, from where precisely does he draw the sort of authority that can establish order (not timorous subjugation, which even Sir Alex Ferguson admits is a thing of the past), the authority that, increasingly in the age of player power, is required to motivate millionaires?

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As just about all my friends know (don’t know about yours), celebrated German sociologist Max Weber defined authority as power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it, and discerned three basic types, ‘pure concepts’ that are rarely embodied by one person or situation. These are: charismatic, traditional (or sacred), and rational-legal (or bureaucratic).

Briefly, the traditional or sacred leader avails himself of inherited qualities conferred by customary beliefs that are established through rituals of succession. It is “the authority of the eternal yesterday” and often has supernatural anchorage, as with a king or shaman. Loyalty derives from culturally embedded allegiances and the feeling of having a common purpose. Examples of sacred authority are hard to find in football, although the Liverpool ‘Boot Room’ is perhaps closest: figures like Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, and Evans steeped in a methodology and attributed a kind of sanctity afore the Kop.

Rational-legal authority, which predominates in modern society, is seen in football in technocratic cultures of continental clubs. Here, the system itself is venerated and legitimate authority is exercised via rationally accepted functions through which are transmitted the norms and decrees to which people consensually submit. By contrast, charismatic authority is acquired through a dynamic personality, legitimized through success, and commanded through personal loyalty and obedience. As a result, it is potentially highly unstable. Perhaps the best examples of this charismatic leadership in British football have been Sir Alex Ferguson and especially Brian Clough, the occasionally demagogic figure with whom Mourinho is most frequently compared and whose teary valediction was relegation from the top-flight in front of a nevertheless eternally grateful Nottingham Forest flock.

Now, since there is little football parallel with sacred leaders, we can assert that there are fundamentally two types or ‘poles’ of leadership in football: personal and institutional. These forms aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to use an institutional position to acquire personal authority, and personal authority can solidify your institutional position, lest a reshuffle be on the cards. History is not short on leaders who emerge with only personal prestige (rather than institutional mechanisms) to draw on and end up commanding vast imperial structures (Genghis Khan) at which stage they usually attempt to reconstitute their authority as sacred (the Kim dynasty of North Korea).

Given AVB and José’s more or less identical institutional situation at Chelsea (working under an autocrat happy to foist strikers on his manager), the charisma of the coach is crucial. To this end, it is critical for the would-be charismatic leader that they not miss any opportunity to augment and cement their personal authority. Nothing is too trivial to redound to the magnificence of their powers. Thus, Mourinho’s celebrated tendency to put himself in the spotlight, widely construed as an attempt to protect his players from undue attention, is also a means of accruing personal authority. Wherever an event happens in which they are somehow implicated, the charismatic leader will be seen attempting to appropriate and get back behind the fountainhead from which the events flowed—in sum, to turn the product (charisma) into a cause. As Elliott Turner has perceptively illustrated, they have the wheels of this charisma machine greased by a media that ascribes too much (often bogus) power to them. Ferguson only has to raise an eyebrow and it’s a ‘mind game’ of some kind. But, as with the Heisenberg principle, what the journalists believe they are objectively and neutrally reporting, they are in fact directly causing. They act as amplifiers.

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Mourinho’s now mythical—and the word is not idly chosen—first press conference as Chelsea boss back in July 2004 constitutes as exemplary an illustration of the fabrication of charismatic authority as you will see (how all in attendance twitched afore the emperor), and should become compulsory viewing for a new coach taking their first steps in England, ‘special one’ or not. After all, given hypothetically equal resources, effective communication—be that to players in a man-managerial or tactical mode, or to the media in a strategic or political mode—is undoubtedly what separates the good from the great coaches. Villas-Boas may well be supremely gifted in this regard, a great thinker, but those gifts will remain virtual unless the communication side of the job enables people (staff, board, media) to buy into his methods and, ultimately, him.

Admittedly, Mourinho strolled into Stamford Bridge with an impressive swag (the hunting kind) and its attendant prestige (AVB only having the Europa League, of course, which José had snared the season previous to his European Cup triumph), but in and of itself this presser was the quintessential instance of Mourinho benefiting personally from a series of contingent events—among others, Paul Scholes’s dubiously annulled offside goal, Costinha’s winner at Old Trafford—so as better to inflate his powers. There was little point in him apologising for any of this, or in pointing out how different it all might have been (and might be today), how he might have arrived in London without the Champions League (assuming he would even have been offered the job at all) and thus how he would have been denied the opportunity to use his beautiful phrase, sketchily recalled in the fuzz of the morning-after. I am not one of… ‘of the bottle’. I am– I think I am a special one.

Again, a cursory glance through history’s slideshow of charismatic leaders will repeatedly elicit this device of self-mythologization: the proclamation of inflated powers through the appropriation of others’ energy, creativity, and force, always accompanied by the effacement of the messy origins behind their mythical, pre-ordained emergence. The birth of Empire is always the obliteration of real history by myth: the Beautiful Blue Chair (and the most expensively constructed squad in Portugal). However, what did Villas-Boas the technocrat say when he arrived in the London SW6 postcode some seven years later (again with the caveat that he was following Mourinho so was perhaps consciously trying to be different)? “I benefit from good players and when they are not here, I am … ‘The Shit One.’” Technocratic to a fault, he entrusted far too much faith in player discipline being engendered by System. Essentially, he misread the culture. Much as England struggled with Fabio Capello’s officious style and now seem to yearn for the genial, knockabout touch of a Harry Redknapp, so did AVB’s perfunctory bureaucratic approach fail to sit well with players who were too partial to charismatic Gaffers, too long in the tooth, too Mourinhified.

As for the puto amo of the presser, José understood the impression-forming debut at Chelsea as a huge opportunity to buttress the kudos and authority gleaned from Porto’s 3-0 victory over Monaco in Gelsenkirchen, by thrusting that success in the faces of the press. Thus came his famous statement, the one that has bequeathed him a famous nickname—the Special One—earned through (perhaps wilfully, perhaps unconsciously) false reporting and the credence given to his powers.

Yet,as Grant Wahl has observed (albeit without drawing out the full implications), what Mourinho said that day was “I think I am a special one.” Not ‘the’; just ‘a.’ As any student of the Romance languages will tell you, the phrase “a special one” is a simple example of the common habit of using a noun where we would use an adjective: ‘I am special,’ not ‘I am The Special One.’ But if the English media are intent on making a myth of him, far be it from the arch-pragmatist to set them straight over this subtle semantic slippage.

Given the proper meaning of ‘special’ as simply ‘out of the ordinary’ (extraordinary in its strict sense, not what it has come, hyperbolically, to mean)—a meaning that is better understood in Iberia than it is in Britannia—Mourinho is merely saying ‘I belong to the general category: special.’ I am not table wine. And if there can be objective measure of that specialness (which there isn’t, really, not absolutely, because all coaches have different resources), then winning the Champions League would be part of it: they are the ‘capital assets’ of his reputation (it being borne in mind that, while undeniably successful, he has won trophies with major clubs in big leagues with enormous budgets, capitalizing on his past exploits to earn this spending power). So, to spoil the conception behind a hundred rudimentary video montages and thousands of excitable, charisma-swayed devotees of this luso-winner, he never did say the unambiguously messianic “I am the special one”—a phrase that only cult leaders and members of Oasis are wont to say (or perhaps José in the bathroom mirror, occasionally). A myth.

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We have, then, undoubtedly the most significant ‘the’ in the history of football, the most wilfully, libidinally misquoted definite article and one that permitted the English media to portray him as, well, the Definite Article. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, he duly became a prophet: the Messiah and a very naughty boy (although, no matter how special ‘one’ is, one runs the team, not the club).

However much authority the figure that walked into the press conference on that warm July day could mobilize, the one that walked out was—precisely because of the sentiments he aroused—one of rare, maybe unsurpassed authority who had literally seduced (literally ‘literally’, not Jamie Redknapp literally) most of the press pack. Thereafter, The Special One™ would have his Anglophone audience—which, again, prefers its caudillos to its technocrats—largely eating out of his hand for the remainder of his three-and-a-bit years in charge, the most enjoyable period of his managerial career. The experience of Italy, in particular, made him uncomfortable, with its persistent scrutiny of the minutiae of the coach’s decisions. And if leadership is about drawing on sources of authority and making good decisions—decisions whose effects often feed back to affect authority—then scrutiny tends to demystify the coach’s powers.

The conclusion to all this, finally, is that charisma is less an innate property of the body, there from birth and manifest to all, so much as an aura or spectre that surrounds it, an active layering of cultural meaning that can be stitched together from anywhere, like a cuckoo’s nest. It is, then, less a once-and-for-all property than a continual process of production, the apparently inevitable effect of a singular, contingent history in which we are all bricoleurs seeking to shroud ourselves in prestige, charisma, and gravitas. And if the charismatic leader is to stabilize this aura into a truly sacred form of authority, then no source of glory should be overlooked. Not even a simple ‘the.’


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