Image via Wikimedia Commons
Image via Wikimedia Commons
At heart, every football club is as pompous as a lord mayor's chain of office. For example, supporters of clubs from Anglophone lands are wont to sing, regardless of their side's actual stature, that theirs is "by far the greatest team the world has ever seen." There's a real sincerity to this, a parental certainty that the idiot overspill of their loins really is special. But it's modified by irony. Within football clubs, dopey romanticism and bitter realism exist alongside one another. They know that their grandiloquence isn't backed by the merest whiff of evidence. It's barely even an aspiration.
Whereas most clubs are scruffy hamlets hoping the world hasn't forgotten them completely, Real Madrid and Barcelona–who play each other in the Spanish league tomorrow–are empires. They are masters of self-aggrandisement, all royal flash and ermine undergarments. They do have the evidence to back up their claims of greatness, and boy do they know it. They flaunt their wealth–supplied by their worldwide fanbases, individualised TV deals, and flexible bank managers–which is made flesh in the form of the most dazzling collections of talent in the world game today. They are comfortably the most successful teams in Spanish history, and in recent years, the gap between them and the rest of the La Liga has become so chasmic that their seasons are basically separated into Clásicos and the times between Clásicos. So rampant have the pair been in the bits in between that their games against each other take on an outsized significance. When two great pomposities meet, the results are spectacular and inevitable, in the same way the dying sun swallowing the Earth will be spectacular and inevitable, except that we get to witness this particular supernova via television and web streams of dubious legality.
For such cold warriors, every defeat is felt twice, the second defeat being the enemy's triumph. Pep Guardiola became Barcelona manager in 2008, won a treble of league, cup and Champions League in his first years, and took the league title again in 2010. These seasons were punctuated by what seemed like ritual slaughters of Real Madrid, most pointedly a 6-2 at the Bernabéu in May 2009. Worse than this for Real was that Barça were being earnestly compared to the greatest teams in history, a pantheon which included the Real side that won the first five European Cups, between 1956 and 1960). Madrid were in despair. This was more than just an obstacle to overcome: it was a humiliation to be erased, a revolution to be reversed, a natural order to be restored.
Enter the smoothest, stubbliest sherrif around. José Mourinho had worked a small miracle in coaching Porto to Champions League success in 2004, and he more or less made the modern Chelsea in his image (with the help of owner Roman Abramovich's oil-gotten gains). When Barcelona decided to appoint Guardiola instead of him, he went to Inter, whom he led in 2010 to their first European championship in 45 years, defeating Barcelona along the way. Mourinho got things done, and made sure we all knew about it. In a few short years, he had constructed a self-image, an aura–a myth, in the non-pejorative sense–of a magnitude it takes most football clubs decades to amass. When Madrid hired him in 2010, they were arguably hiring the best. But by putting themselves in his hands, they were also dangerously close to acknowledging a demotion in their status. This was in effect, a test of the power of this most insane of rivalries.
Mourinho's first derbi español became a piece of instant football lore: Real lost 5-0 to an inspired Barcelona performance. Yet arguably more interesting was what happened towards the end of the season. Owing to a combination of circumstances (chief amongst which was the teams' own brilliance), the pair were scheduled to meet four times in three competitions in two-and-a-half weeks at the end of April and the beginning of May. The first game turned out to be a non-event, a 1-1 league draw which handed the title to Barça. The second, the Copa del Rey final, was a hard-fought and well-deserved extra-time victory for Real. But the real follow-up to the manita, and the key matches in the current slice of Clásico history, were the two legs of the Champions League semifinal.
In the 5-0 game, Real had attempted something of a proactive reply to Barcelona's dominant approach, pushing the defence up the field and attempting to disrupt Barça of their precious possession. Mourinho was onto something, but the latter part of the strategy failed, leaving the former amounting to a giant "KICK ME" sign. Mourinho's response in the first leg of the Champions League tie was not to modify, nor to find a new proactive approach, but to go entirely reactive. During his time at Chelsea, Mourinho introduced the phrase "parking the bus" into the English football lexicon to describe a team that played with as many players behind the ball as they could muster at any given time. In this match, Real parked the fleet. The playing of what might be described by some as football was hardly even an afterthought. One of the strongest images of the season was the sight of Cristiano Ronaldo--the Cristiano Ronaldo--reduced to flailing around upfront, all on his own with no help, like an insect sprawled on a pin and feeling damned grumpy about it too.
Just as Real and Barça could be said to consist of pure essence of football club, so too is Mourinho the Übermanager. Half a modern coach's role is public relations, because his career depends on it. A manager is a politician in perpetual reelection mode, a huckster whose product is himself. He must always give the impression that he's in control, because that is what sells: to supporters, to the media, and ultimately to his bosses. Paul Whitehouse's Mourinho send-up might be called José Arrogantio and end every interview with a pout to camera, but Mourinho is just better at it than other managers. Here was a man who would ride into town and do things his way, because he knew. He has a reputation for always making his teams play dour football, but this is inaccurate, and anyway, it misses the point. Mourinho does what's practical with a ruthless disregard for aesthetic, historic or diplomatic niceties. Or rather, that's the image he conveys. He's very good, but even he can fall short.
Perhaps he just backed his own judgement of himself when he sent Real out to play like that in the first leg. Perhaps Barcelona had just gotten under his skin. Either way, it was an extraordinary decision. "Parking the bus" is a legitimate tactic, one that had even had some success applied against Barça by other teams. But Madrid were not supposed to be just another team. In the previous season's league, they had amassed just three points fewer than Barcelona's almost incredible 99. Madrid may have been underdogs, but they weren't that far under: they were at least the second best team in the world. They may even have been the best, had they given themselves the chance. They had the weapons at their disposal to overcome their hated opponents; what they did was take an AK47 and try to poke Barça to death with it. They had fallen into the trap of playing the idea of Barcelona rather than just playing Barcelona. They played like one of the tame rabbits they and Barça corral to take potshots at in between Clásicos. All they had done was enable the myth of Barcelona's invincibility; they lost 2-0, almost dutifully. It was a gesture of submission. They were not Real Madrid: they were Generic Barcelona Opponents.
Mourinho being Mourinho, he and his team were, naturally, blameless. He had never looked so mortal, and his post-match press conference sounded like Kim Jong-il blaming the Americans for his cold soup. But he had enough willing dupes that he wasn't dismissed unanimously. More importantly, he wasn't dismissed by Real Madrid. Madrid presidents have been notoriously trigger-happy over the years, but Mourinho was getting a rare second chance. He had failed, but they still needed him. He was the high priest who might possess The Secret.
And he really might. In the second leg, Real played more like themselves; they played Barça, not the Wizard. They sought to impose themselves rather than merely disrupt. It may have been from necessity and not high concept, and the 1-1 draw was not enough to save their season, but Real found themselves again. In the Super Cup at the beginning of this season, again against Barcelona, Real took that attitude and applied it mercilessly. They lost 5-4 on aggregate, but Barcelona had never looked so uncomfortable in the Guardiola era. Madrid had laid down a marker for the season to come. What's more, in doing this, Mourinho has revealed two fascinating things about himself and the Real-Barça dynamic. Firstly: even a Great Man such as he can find it hard to impose his will on such a weird, weird world. Secondly: by easing off from being so Mourinho the whole time, he can unleash his full Mourinhoness on the situation. He still goes in for the same bluster and shit-stirring, but so far this season, he hasn't tied himself up in knots with his own cleverness. Real have a three-point lead with a game in hand, and they go into this first league Clásico of the season with a swagger unseen in years. But it's one thing to cultivate that swagger before a Clásico; it's quite another to display it in a Clásico. If they can do that, and especially if Barcelona can respond to it, stand well back.