Authors: Diego Torres
‘Think of this: When they present you with a watch they are giving you a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air.’
Julio Cortázar, ‘Preamble to the Instructions for Winding a Watch’
‘He was crying! He was crying …!’
On 8 May 2013, the employees of Gestão de Carreiras de Profissionais Desportivos S.A., Gestifute, the most important agency in the football industry, were to be found in a state of unusual excitement. José Mourinho kept calling employees. They had heard him sobbing loudly down the line and word quickly spread. The man most feared by many in the company had been crushed.
The news that Sir Alex Ferguson had named David Moyes as his successor as manager of Manchester United had caused an earthquake. United, the most valuable club in the world according to the stock market, were the equivalent of the great imperial crown of football marketing, and the position of manager, occupied for almost 27 years by a magnificent patriarch, had mythical connotations.
The terms of Ferguson’s abdication were the ‘scoop’ most coveted by the traffickers of the Premier League’s secrets. There were those who had toiled for years preparing a web of privileged connections to enable them to guess before anyone else when the vacancy would occur. Jorge Mendes, president and owner of Gestifute, had more ties with Old Trafford than any other agent. No agent had done as many deals, nor such strange ones, with Ferguson. No one had more painstakingly prepared an heir to the throne or succeeded in conveying the idea to the media that there was a predestined successor. If this propaganda had seeped into the consciousness of one man, that man was the aspiring applicant himself. Mourinho, encouraged by his devoted agent, believed that Ferguson was also an ally, a friend and protector. He became convinced that they were united by a relationship of genuine trust. He thought his own fabulous collection of trophies – two European Champion Leagues, one UEFA Cup, seven league titles and four domestic cups in four different countries – constituted a portfolio far outstripping those of the other suitors. When he learned that Ferguson had chosen David Moyes, the Everton manager, he was struck by an awful sense of disbelief. Moyes had never won anything!
These were the most miserable hours of Mourinho’s time as manager of Real Madrid. He endured them half asleep, half awake, glued to his mobile phone in search of clarification during the night of 7 to 8 May in the Sheraton Madrid Mirasierra hotel. He had arrived in his silver Audi in the afternoon along with his 12-year-old son, José Mario, with no suspicion of what was coming. On his left wrist he wore his €20,000 deLaCour ‘Mourinho City Ego’ watch, with the words ‘I am not afraid of the consequences of my decisions’ inscribed on the casing of sapphire crystal.
Mourinho was fascinated by luxury watches. He not only wore his sponsor’s brand – he collected watches compulsively. He maintained that you could not wear just any object on your wrist, stressing the need for something unique and distinguished intimately touching your skin.
That afternoon he was preparing to meet up with his team before playing the 36th league game of the season against Málaga at the Bernabéu. He was more than a little upset. He knew that his reputation as a charismatic leader was damaged, something he attributed to his stay in Chamartín. The behaviour of the Spanish seemed suffocating: the organisation of the club had never come up to his expectations and he was sick of his players. He had told the president, Florentino Pérez, that they had been disloyal, and to show his contempt he had decided not to travel with them on the team bus but make his own way to the hotel in a symbolic gesture that cut him off from the squad. He was met by members of the radical supporters’ group ‘Ultras Sur’, who unravelled a 60-foot banner near the entrance of the Sheraton. ‘Mou, we love you’, it said. When the squad arrived and the players began to file off the bus, one of the fans, hidden behind the banner, expressed the widespread feeling in this, the most violent sector of Madrid’s supporters.
‘Casillas! Stop blabbing and go fuck yourself!’
The suspicion that Casillas, the captain and the player closest to the fans, was a source of leaks had been formulated by Mourinho and the idea had penetrated to the heart of the club. Perez and his advisors claimed that for months the coach had insisted that the goalkeeper had a pernicious nature. When the suspicion was reported in certain sections of the media, the club did very little to rebuff it. The subject was the topic of radio and television sports debate programmes; everyone had an opinion on the matter except the goalkeeper himself, whose silence was enough to make many fans believe he was guilty. To complete his work of discrediting Casillas, Mourinho gave a press conference that same afternoon, suggesting that the goalkeeper was capable of trying to manipulate coaches to win his place in the team.
‘Just as Casillas can come and say, “I’d like a coach such as Del Bosque or Pellegrini, a more manageable coach,”’ he said, ‘it’s also legitimate for me to say the same thing. As the coach it’s legitimate for me to say, “I like Diego López.” And with me in charge, while I’m the coach of Madrid, Diego López
play. There’s no story.’
The atmosphere at the Sheraton was gloomy that night, with contradictory rumours from England circulating about the retirement of Ferguson. The online pages of the
offered a disturbing picture. Mourinho was certain that if Sir Alex had taken such a decision he would have at least called to tell him. But there had been nothing. According to the people from Gestifute who lent him logistical support he had not received as much as a text message. The hours of anxiety were slowly getting to him, and he made calls until dawn to try to confirm the details with journalists and British friends. Mendes heard the definitive news about Ferguson straight away from another Gestifute employee but did not dare tell Mourinho the truth – that he had never stood the slightest chance.
Mourinho was tormented by the memory of Sir Bobby Charlton’s interview in the
in December 2012. The verdict of the legendary former player and member of the United board had greatly unsettled him. When asked if he saw Mourinho as a successor to Ferguson, Charlton said, ‘A United manager would not do what he did to Tito Vilanova,’ referring to the finger in the eye incident. ‘Mourinho is a really good coach, but that’s as far as I’d go.’ And as far as the admiration Ferguson had for Mourinho was concerned, the veteran said it was a fiction: ‘He does not like him too much.’
Mourinho preferred to believe the things that Ferguson had personally told him rather than be bothered by what a newspaper claimed Charlton had said. But that night, the venerable figure of Sir Bobby assaulted his imagination with telling force. Mourinho had turned 50 and perhaps thoughts of his own mortality crossed his mind. There would be no more Manchester United for him. No more colossal dreams. Only reality. Only his decline in Spain devouring his prestige by the minute. Only Abramovich’s outstretched hand.
In the morning he called Mendes, asking him to get in touch with United urgently. Right until the end, he wanted his agent to exert pressure on the English club in an attempt to block any deal. It was an act of desperation. Both men knew that Mendes had put Mourinho on the market a year ago. David Gill, United’s chief executive, had held regular talks with Gestifute and was aware of Mourinho’s availability but he was not interested in him as a manager. He had told Mendes in the autumn of 2012 that Ferguson’s first choice was Pep Guardiola and had explained the reasons. At Gestifute, the message of one United executive seemed particularly pertinent: ‘The problem is, when things don’t go well for “Mou”, he does not follow the club’s line. He follows José’s line.’
What most frightened Mourinho was that public opinion would conclude he had made a fool of himself. He felt cheated by Ferguson and feared people might stop taking him seriously. For years, the propaganda machine acting on his behalf had made quite a fuss of the friendship between the two men; this was now revealed to be a fantasy. To make these latest events seem coherent, Gestifute advisors told him to say that he already knew everything because Ferguson had called to inform him. On 9 May someone at Gestifute got in touch with a journalist at the daily newspaper
to tell them that Ferguson had offered his crown to Mourinho four months ago, but that he had rejected it because his wife preferred to live in London, and for that reason he was now leaning towards going back to Chelsea. Meanwhile, Mourinho gave an interview on Sky in which he stated that Ferguson had made him aware of his intentions, but never made him the offer because he knew that he wanted to coach Chelsea. The contradictions were not planned.
From that fateful 7 May onwards Mourinho was weighed down by something approaching a deep depression. For two weeks he disappeared from the public eye and barely spoke to his players. For the first time in years, the Spanish and the Portuguese press – watching from a distance – agreed that they were watching a lunatic. On 17 May Real played the final of the Copa del Rey against Atlético Madrid. The preparation for the game made the players anticipate the worst. The sense of mutual resentment was overbearing. If Mourinho felt betrayed, the squad saw him as someone whose influence could destroy anyone’s career. If he had jeopardised Casillas’s future, the most formidable captain in the history of Spanish football, how were the other players to feel? A witness who watched events unfold from within Valdebebas described the appalling situation: the players didn’t mind losing because it meant that Mourinho lost. It didn’t matter to Mourinho, either, and so they lost.
On 16 May the manager showed up at the team hotel with a sketch of a
under his arm. ‘
’ was the term the players used to describe the tactical model that Mourinho claimed to have invented. It was executed by different players according to the circumstances. The plan, presented on the screen of the hotel, had Modrić, Alonso and Khedira as the chosen trio in midfield. This meant that the team’s most creative player, Özil, was shifted out to the right to a position where he felt isolated. Benzema and Ronaldo were up front. Essien, Albiol, Ramos and Coentrão were to play at the back, with Diego López in goal.
Mourinho’s team-talks had always been characterised by a hypnotic inflammation. The man vibrated. Every idea that he transmitted seemed to be coming directly from the core of his nervous system. That day this did not happen. He had spent a long time isolated in his office – absorbed, sunken-eyed, pale, melancholic. The players were at a loss as to why. Some interpreted it as sheer indolence, others saw him as quite simply lost, as if he were saying things he did not understand.
‘He looked like a hologram,’ recalled one assistant.
‘All that was missing was a yawn,’ said another.
The room fell into a tense silence. The coach was proposing something on the board that they had not practised all week. Incomprehensible, maybe, but a regular occurrence in recent months. He told them that after years implementing this system they should understand it so well that they didn’t need to practise it. They would have to content themselves with understanding how he wanted them to attack. As usual, the most complex job was allocated to Özil. The German had to cover the wing when the team did not have the ball. When possession was regained he had to move to a more central position and link up with Modrić.
The players understood that to gain width and get behind Atlético the logical thing would have been to put a winger on the right, somebody like Di María, leave Özil in the centre and drop Modrić back into Khedira’s position. But the coach believed that because Modrić lacked the necessary physical attributes, he needed to support the defensive base of the team with Khedira. No one spoke up against the plan. For years the communication between the leader and his subordinates had been a one-way street.
This time, however, it was because there was just nothing to say. The team-talk was brief. The players were left wondering why on earth they had to defensively reinforce the midfield with Khedira against an Atlético side who were hardly going to attack them. But, mute, they merely obeyed.
For the club with the largest budget in the world, the Copa del Rey was a lesser objective. Finding out that the final would be played in their stadium distressed the directors. After losing the league and the Champions League, the season had little left to offer. A final against Atlético in Chamartín was in many ways a no-win situation. The joke had been doing the rounds since the team beat Barça at the Camp Nou to qualify, that the president had been heard to say that a final in the Bernabéu against Atlético was about as attractive as a ‘punch bag’.
The ticket prices fixed by the clubs and the Spanish Football Federation set a new record. Despite the economic crisis that was crushing Spain this was the most expensive cup final in history. Prices ranged from €50 to €275. Attending the FA Cup at Wembley cost between €53 and €136, and German cup final tickets went from between €35 and €125. At the Coppa Italia the price ranged from €30 to €120. That afternoon, as was to be expected, there were empty seats.
Ronaldo headed in a Modrić corner, putting Madrid 1–0 up in the 14th minute. Following to the letter instructions that were now three years old, the team retreated to protect the lead, giving up space and possession to their opponents. Their opponents’ situation looked impossible. Madrid had a more expensive constellation of star players than had ever been brought together. And against them they did not have the Atlético of Schuster, Vizcaíno, Donato, Manolo and Futre that had faced them in the final of 1992. Here instead were was Koke Resurrección, Gabi Fernández, Mario Suárez, Falcao, Arda and Costa. For an hour and a half, both teams cancelled each other out in the most extravagant manner possible. They tried to see who could go for longer without the ball. It was a fierce competition. Atlético dropped their level of possession to 40 per cent. Madrid had the remaining 60 per cent, but did not know how to manage it because Marcelo had been marginalised, Alonso was tired, Özil was suffering off-radar and Khedira was unable to channel the team’s attacks. Atlético took cover and in two lightning counter-attacks settled the match. First, Diego Costa scored after Falcao had taken advantage of a mistake by Albiol. Then, in extra time, Miranda headed in to make it 2–1, after Diego López made an error coming off his line.