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Mourinho, Benítez and the Endless Pursuit of the Past

In the sudden flood of spare time he had after departing Manchester United, José Mourinho filmed a commercial for a bookmaker. A couple of years and a couple of jobs on, it is still running on British television. It still works, after all. Mourinho is still a household name in Britain. The ad’s central concept holds up.

Mourinho’s acting might be just a little hammy — as you might expect — but it is quite deft, too. Looking as tanned and healthy and relaxed as we all did in 2019, he earnestly walks viewers through what it takes to be “special.” The joke is that he should know: He is the Special One, after all. Get it?

He plays it all, though, with a wink and a smirk. The tone is entirely self-deprecating. Mourinho variously pokes fun at his vanity, his boastfulness, his penchant for chicanery. He willingly, happily satirizes the cartoonish villainy that has, for 20 years, made him possibly the most compelling manager of his generation.

It is worth noting, though, quite how dated so many of the references are. One of the gags is about him getting into a laundry cart, a nod to an incident that happened before the invention of the iPhone. There is another involving a piece of topiary shaped to look like three raised fingers, a gesture he first adopted before “Game of Thrones” had aired on television.

Indeed, the commercial’s prime conceit, the idea of Mourinho as the Special One, predates the existence of YouTube by almost a year. That particular schtick comes from a time when it was still called The Facebook, Netflix was a mail-order DVD rental company, and DVDs were things that people wanted. It is a struggle to describe it as current.

That all of the jokes still landed, that they were all immediately comprehensible to their intended audience, is testament both to Mourinho’s enduring relevance and to the spell he has long cast over English soccer, which has long been and possibly always will be hopelessly in love with him. England has never really been able to move on from him.

And nor, it would seem, has Mourinho. He is, increasingly, a manager in the same way the Rolling Stones are a live band. They have become, in some way, a tribute act to themselves. Nobody has any real interest in hearing their new material. The only appeal, now, lies in playing the hits.

Mourinho, for his part, keeps on doing just that. A couple of weeks ago, as he chewed over his Roma’s team’s engrossing defeat to Juventus — squandering a 3-1 lead to lose by a single goal — he claimed, variously, that his players were too nice, too weak, too afflicted by some sort of deep-seated psychological complex that he simply could not solve. Everyone, it turned out, was to blame except him.

It was not the first time he had delved into his back catalog in his six months in Rome. After a humiliating 6-1 defeat to Bodo/Glimt, he claimed that the Norwegian champion had “better players” than Roma, despite operating on a fraction of the budget. He has squabbled with referees. He has highlighted the shortcomings of his squad after almost every defeat.

And defeat has come more regularly than he would like. Mourinho’s tenure has not quite been a failure by the club’s standards: Roma sits seventh in Serie A, still at least theoretically in the race for a Champions League slot, roughly where it might have been expected to be. By Mourinho’s standard, though, it has been beyond deflating.

Winning is not just central to Mourinho’s reputation, it is the cornerstone of his identity. For two decades, he has earned some of the most illustrious posts in soccer — Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United — not for the way in which his teams play but for the way his games end. Mourinho is a winner. He might be an acquired taste, but he gets results.

It is tempting to wonder if, perhaps, the reason he has seemed so much more fractious in recent years, that the warming charm that always used to balance out the lurking snarl has all but disappeared from view, is because he has lost that sense of himself. He is a winner who no longer wins.

His last few seasons have served as a case study in decline. First, he celebrated finishing second with Manchester United, something a younger, more bellicose Mourinho would never have done. Then he took on the job of rebuilding Tottenham, but seemed to lack the patience and indulgence and gentle touch such a project required. It turned sour, fast. Choosing outcome over process, it turned out, is not a viable approach when that outcome is not predicated by economics.

And now he finds himself at Roma, a fine and historic and weighty club, but hardly in a position to meet his ambitions. Roma, after all, is not Real Madrid. It is not capable of winning every game, of delivering the trophies and the glory that Mourinho craves, the ones that affirm his status and burnish his legend.

The question that lingers, then, is why? What does Mourinho get out of this? He does not seem to elicit any joy from it: He looks far happier in that three-year-old ad than he has in his day job for some time. Is it greed, then? Perhaps, but then elite managers are paid handsomely to win, and then paid off equally handsomely if they do not. Mourinho has earned enough, in salary and in compensation, to buy all the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs he could ever want and never need.

It may, then, be the status: not that of a winner, but that of a manager. Roma, like Tottenham, may be a second-tier post, but it remains prestigious and powerful and high profile. It means Mourinho can still command a crowd, a stadium, a room; it means, most importantly, that he is still what he has always been: a manager.

Perhaps he, like his old nemesis, Rafael Benítez, simply cannot countenance the idea of not working. Certainly, it is hard to understand why else Benítez would have chosen, last summer, to sacrifice the lingering affection in which Liverpool’s fans held him to take charge of Everton, his former team’s bitter city rival.

It cannot have been because Everton had an upwardly mobile air: The club has employed five managers in as many years, possesses the disjointed squad to prove it, and was turned down by at least one contender for the post last summer because the club looked so chaotic from the outside.

It was operating under severe strictures in the transfer market after years of wild spending. Its expectations far outstripped its opportunities. Benítez’s background, meanwhile, made it obvious that the atmosphere would turn toxic at the first hint of trouble, and he would be fired. In many ways, it was remarkable that the inevitable denouement to an unhappy marriage of convenience did not come until last week.

Benítez will have known all of that, and yet he took the job anyway, and for precisely the same reasons that convinced Mourinho to sign on at Roma and at Tottenham. It is not just a need to manage — their work long since having fused with their identity — but the pursuit of the one victory they now, truly, cherish: vindication.

They are driven on by a furious refusal to relinquish their primacy, by an avowed belief that they will be proved right in the end, by a conviction that they will have the last laugh. The game may change — the tactics and the training methods and the tools used, the data and the nutrition and the sports science — but it is striking how managers do not.

Benítez remains wedded to the core approach that brought him his halcyon days at Liverpool and, before that, Valencia. Mourinho has seen how damaging it can be to hang his players out to dry in public, at United and Tottenham and Roma, but he keeps on doing it anyway, because that is what worked back before YouTube.

As they age, managers become avatars for the systems they once merely adopted. They become one and the same as the approach they are seen to represent. They become set in their ways in a literal sense: They want not only to win, but to win in the way that they once did, as if to demonstrate that they were right all along, that the game has not moved on from them. It has happened to Benítez and to Mourinho, just as it once happened to Arsène Wenger.

And so they keep moving, keep trying, keep working, taking jobs that bring them no joy in the vain hope that, one day, the innate superiority of who they are, of what they stand for, will be clear once again. And in doing so, they grow ever more calcified in their own ideas, their own pasts, unable to accept or admit that all those things that made them special were quite a long time ago.

Not once, in more than 30 years, has a player based outside Europe won FIFA’s men’s world player of the year award, no matter which guise it has taken at the time. None has, in fact, even come close.

Martín Palermo did not make the top three after inspiring Boca Juniors to both the Copa Libertadores and a club world championship in 2000. Nor did Neymar, despite his youthful brilliance sweeping Santos to South American glory in 2011. By 2019, when Gabriel Barbosa won that year’s edition of the tournament for Flamengo by scoring twice in the dying minutes, nobody would even have considered voting for him.

And, as unfortunate as it is, there is a logic to that. It is hard to dispute that, for at least 20 of those 30 years, the best players in the world have been in Europe. They have not all been Europeans, of course — Brazilians have won the FIFA award five times, and Lionel Messi has a collection of them — but they have all played in one of Europe’s major leagues. That, after all, is where the strongest teams are. It is where a player’s talent is tested most exhaustively.

(The geography of the women’s award has been more varied: It has been won by players based in the United States, Australia, Japan and, for a stretch a little more than a decade ago, basically wherever Marta happened to be playing. That the last couple of years have been dominated by Europe perhaps says something about the shifting balance of power in the women’s game.)

What is less simple to understand is why that same Eurocentrism should be applied to managers, both in the men’s and women’s categories. No manager of a men’s team outside Europe has finished in the top three since FIFA started handing out the prize in 2016. (Jill Ellis, the former coach of the United States’ women’s team, and her former counterpart with Japan, Asako Takakura, have both taken a podium place in the women’s voting.)

This year, the omissions were especially egregious. FIFA’s own rules state that the prize should be judged on a coach’s performance between October 2020 and October 2021. In that time, Pitso Mosimane, Al Ahly’s South African coach, won the African Champions League. Twice. Abel Ferreira of Brazil’s Palmeiras won one Copa Libertadores and was well on the way to picking up a second in the same calendar year. Neither was even nominated.

The logic that can be applied to the players’ awards does not hold with managers. It does not automatically follow that the manager who has won the biggest trophy has performed better than all of their peers. Management, after all, is about making the most of the resources available to you. It is about exceeding expectations in your own personal context.

It is why, for example, it is possible to make a case that David Moyes’s taking West Ham into the Champions League would be a more impressive achievement than Pep Guardiola’s winning the title with Manchester City. Or why Chris Wilder leading Sheffield United to seventh in the Premier League was a better feat of management than Jürgen Klopp’s making Liverpool the league’s champion.

And it is why there is no reason that neither Mosimane nor Ferreira were officially recognized for their remarkable success over the last 12 months or so. They were overlooked, instead, because soccer, on some structural level, has bought into the bright lights and the ostentatious self-importance of Europe. And in doing so, it sells itself short.

The easiest way to handle the main theme of my inbox this week is to list all the people — Mark Brill, Bob Shay, Christopher Dum, Alex McMillan — who sent emails that contained the words “José Luis Chilavert” and “Rogério Ceni” in response to last week’s newsletter on Manchester City’s flirtation with having Éderson take its penalties.

The readers are quite right, too: There have been a handful of famous penalty- and free-kick-taking goalkeepers, particularly in South America. As Christoph von Teichman mentioned, it has happened in Europe, too. “Hans Jörg Butt, a Bundesliga goalkeeper, scored 26 goals from the spot for three different teams (Hamburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern), as well as one for each of these teams in Champions League games, curiously all against Juventus,” he wrote.

As a man who considers himself an insufferable know-it-all, the fact that none of them were mentioned is a heavy blow to my self-esteem. Still, I think, the point holds: Pep Guardiola has wrought a drastic shift in English soccer’s conception of what is acceptable if we are open to an idea that always used to seem like something of a carnival trick.

Firmer ground was provided by Will Allen, who asked a deceptively tricky question. “Why is an odd number of substitutions sacrosanct,” he asked. He’s right, too: The debate is either for a return to three or an increase to five. “How about everyone has four?” I don’t know, is the short answer. I mean, yes. Obviously. They should just have four. That’s a fair compromise, isn’t it? It is. So why does it seem morally and spiritually wrong?

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