“You couldn’t write it!”…..Well….actually…you could. George Lucas or George R.R. Martin could write it. Luckily they don’t have to, because Premier League football is about to embark on a real life storyline with almost 20 years of history behind it that would have the two Georges salivating. Those who despair at the mass popularity of a game where highly paid men kick a ball around a field in between launching foul-mouthed tirades at officials and feigning injury are probably missing the point. The actual football on the pitch isn’t that important. Football is simply the premise for a TV show about football. Something far more interesting. If you’re just tuning in and you missed the gloriously wacky 2015/16 series that culminated in the magnificent final scenes of Andrea Bocelli serenading the tear-filled hero Claudio Ranieri with ‘Nessun Dorma’ surrounded by a triumphant sea of 32,000 blue & white flags, then for time purposes it’s probably best that you just skip ahead to what’s about to come. ‘Coming Soon…..not quite a galaxy far far away….or even Westeros……but Manchester!’ The setting for a new chapter in the rivalry to end all rivalries: Jose v Pep. Quite how the footballing stars have aligned to tee up this magical showdown almost seems too good to be true, but after Mourinho’s elongated appointment as the new Manchester United manager this week, the battle lines have been drawn, it’s actually about to happen and people are getting very excited.
As the world’s two most successful, sought after managers pitch up their tents on opposite sides of the same city, they might reflect on where it all began for the two of them – back in Barcelona in the late 1990’s. It was here where the seeds were planted in what would become an era-defining feud. A young Guardiola, with hair on his head, the club captain, met Mourinho – the ‘translator’ turned Assistant Coach to first Bobby Robson and later Louis Van Gaal. At this stage both Little Mou and Pepito were already impressing those around them with their thirst for knowledge as they studied at the ‘Cathedral of Cruyff’, which in those days was beginning to build a footballing ideology that would later develop into the most dominant football club of the 21st century, from the first team down to the famous ‘La Masia’ academy which would produce the likes of Messi, Xavi & Iniesta. This was the period when Barca established a blueprint that other clubs around the world are trying to replicate to this day. While Guardiola’s reputation started to take shape at the heart of the midfield, Mourinho’s development was taking place behind the scenes. His tactical influence on the coaching team grew until he ultimately flew the nest and embarked on a management career that took him to clubs in his native Portugal, where he guided Porto to the Uefa Cup and Champions League in consecutive seasons. In 2004, the obscenely rich Chelsea had brought him to England where he immediately announced himself as “The Special One”, and quickly turned them into the top club in the country. By now, Jose was box office. Never before had the English media seen a suave, suit wearing quote machine who could both talk the talk, and walk the walk so successfully, while both offending and enthralling the public in equal measure with his arrogant victories and goading of opponents (think Conor McGregor pre 2016, minus the violence, but with slightly better English).
During this period Mourinho’s Chelsea locked horns with Barcelona, managed at the time by Frank Rijkaard. An ill-tempered Champions League tie saw Mou eliminate his former club, along with referee Anders Frisk, who had to retire following death threats from Chelsea fans after Jose had publicly targeted him and criticised his performance in the first leg. This combination of pragmatic, winning football and dirty tricks off the field had become Mourinho’s recipe for success, and it riled the Barcelona fans who tried to get under his skin by referring to him as merely ‘The Translator’. Jose continued to dominate English football but his heart was set on returning to the Camp Nou to claim the throne he had previously coveted as an understudy to Messrs Robson & Van Gaal, and in 2008 – having left Chelsea – his opportunity came when he was a lead candidate to take over from Rijkaard. Jose was confident that the job was his. But despite his successful trophy haul in England and Portugal, the undignified antics and unpopular playing style he employed on the pitch were not deemed to be suited to the ‘Barcelona way’, and instead they opted to promote the young manager of their B team – Pep Guardiola.
Pep shot to the top of the management game by winning the treble in his first season (a first for a Spanish side), and the Catalans would embark on a period of dominance that became the envy of the footballing world. With the magnificent Messi at the forefront, Barca’s ‘tiki-taka’ style began to re-define the way the game was played. Not only were they winning, but they were winning in a way that had not been seen before – a way that won them admiration from across the globe. Barcelona were THE club, and Pep was heralded as a genius. But what of Jose? Burnt by the rejection from his former home, he went to Inter Milan where he enjoyed even more success, winning a domestic double in his first season. But by now, the once charming and roguish Mourinho who had been the darling of the English media, was not being received well by the Italians, and his victories came against the backdrop of a feud between him and the press who were not receptive to his cynical and provocative tactics. Something had hardened inside Mourinho, and no matter how many trophies his teams won – until they produced a playing style that delighted the public they would never be celebrated like Pep’s Barcelona.
In 2010 Real Madrid’s ‘Bernabeau’ would play host to the Champions League Final. Barcelona were the team to beat as the competition progressed through the knockout stages, and the Catalans were on course to not only win a second consecutive Champions League trophy, but to do so at the home ground of their arch rivals. But standing in their way in the semi-final were Mourinho’s Inter. Now comfortable in his role as the villain, and having secured a surprise first leg 3-1 home victory, Mou sent his team to the Camp Nou as party poopers to smother the life out of the Barca attack and defend their lead. Having been reduced to 10 men, Inter effectively curled up in the fetal position and shielded their own goal as Messi & Co. circled them like sharks, trying to find a way through. While the football purists watched on in horror at Mourinho’s negativity, others admired his side’s resilience and defensive discipline – but most of us were just mesmerized by the gripping tension of it all. Somehow they held on for a 1-0 defeat, or as Jose would refer to it – “the most beautiful defeat of my life”. It was enough to put them in the final. ‘The Translator’ had conquered the mighty Barcelona, and at the final whistle he sprinted across the Camp Nou waving a triumphant finger in the air towards a small pocket of Inter away fans somewhere up in the rafters, as the 98,000 home fans howled in disgust. THIS was Jose’s moment. Not even a scuffle with Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes, or the pettiness of the Barca ground-staff quickly turning on the sprinklers could spoil it for him. Mou had stuck it to them and victory had never tasted so sweet. He marched on to win the final in Madrid, where he would decide to stick around for the following season.
If Pep thought that things couldn’t get much worse, then he was wrong. That summer, Real Madrid announced to nobody’s surprise that Jose Mourinho would become their new manager. His mission would be quite simple – destroy Barcelona, and re-establish Real as the top club in Spain and the world. In case he needed reminding, Jose’s office at the Valdebebas training complex would contain a life-sized cardboard cut-out of him sprinting across the Nou Camp waving ‘the finger of victory’ in the air. Now instead of occasionally crossing paths in the Champions League, Jose and Pep would do battle on both domestic and European fronts. At this stage most of Pep’s hair had disappeared. This was no longer simply a tactical duel between two football managers – a situation Pep would be perfectly comfortable with and would more often win – this would now become a psychological battle, something far more personal. Guardiola’s strength lay in his managerial ability – a footballing visionary, he obsessed over his tactical creations like an artist or a composer, inspiring his players through his innovative methods more so than any extraordinary social skills or personality. For him, to simply win is not enough – winning while staying true to his footballing philosophy is always the ultimate goal. For Mourinho, winning is all that matters. If securing a trophy comes at the expense of a perceived level of dignity or grace, then so be it. He used his charisma like a magnet and players would buy into his ruthless, ‘win at all costs’ mentality. Now both would be armed with the best players in the world – Pep with Messi, Jose with Ronaldo. The Battle of Spain started in the autumn of 2010 and it didn’t take long for things to get ugly.
To compete with Barcelona Mourinho knew that he would have to embrace the ‘dark side’ like never before, and he duly obliged. He waged war against the Catalans with a relentless campaign through the media, where he challenged their ‘whiter than white’ reputation as football’s good guys. He accused them of influencing referees. He created divisions between his and Pep’s players who were team-mates in the World Cup winning Spain squad. He even gouged the eye of Barcelona assistant coach Tito Vilanova during a pitch-side scuffle (who he would later refer to in an interview as ‘Pito Vilanova’…..knowing that Pito is Spanish for ‘Cock’). His ferocious desire to win by any means necessary was embodied by the number of red cards his players picked up during the many ‘Clasicos’ that took place between 2010-2012. The frenzied battles reached fever pitch during a period in the spring of 2011 where the teams met 4 times in 18 days. Spain was the centre of the football universe, and ‘El Clasico’ was the only game in town, as audiences across the globe were treated to a thrilling cocktail of dazzling football, shameful gamesmanship, and mutual hatred. Although Mourinho’s Real enjoyed some success against their arch rivals, including a Copa Del Rey in 2011 and La Liga title in 2012, Barcelona were never quite knocked off their perch as the top club in Europe. But by the end of the 2012 season, Pep was a broken man and decided to walk away and go on sabbatical. With his legacy as the world’s top coach cemented by a 4 year period of unprecedented success, many saw his need to take time off as a consequence of the psychological toll that the rivalry with Mourinho’s Madrid had on him. Jose only stuck around in Spain for another year, but in his final season the poison he had injected had started to turn inward, and his final months were soured by dressing room tension and accusations of betrayal, including his claims that a ‘mole’ was leaking details to the press from inside the club. Many felt that without his great rival Pep, there was little left to fight other than his own players, and by the summer of 2013 both managers had left Spain behind.
In the years that followed with Pep at Bayern Munich and Jose back at Chelsea, they haven’t crossed paths. Success continued to follow them around as both picked up some more league titles to add to their collections, but the ultimate glory of the Champions League eluded them and both have walked away from their clubs with a slight sense of unfulfillment. Having announced at the beginning of 2016 that he would finally be coming to England to join Manchester City in the summer, Pep now faces arguably his biggest challenge to date in turning an ageing and under-performing squad into the European super power that their investors would like them to be. But following this week’s announcement a new dimension to this challenge awaits him in the form of his old friend Mourinho, now not just in the same country as him, but in the same city. Nobody does showbiz like the English Premier League and if rumours are to be believed then this tale is set to get even juicier next year with the seemingly imminent arrival of the great warrior…..Zlatan!
In most cases, Zlatan Ibrahimovic arriving at Manchester United would in itself be exciting news for the viewing public. Zlatan has bags of skill, plenty of arrogance, an abundance of charisma, and he enjoys referring to himself in the third person. But the prospect of him arriving at United to join Mourinho, his former manager who he enjoyed working with at Inter, to take on Guardiola who he clashed with during an unsuccessful stint at Barcelona, is sure to send the Premier League circus into overdrive. In his book, Zlatan describes a dressing room row with Pep where he thought to himself “there is my enemy, scratching his bald head”, and later yelled “you have no balls! You are shitting yourself because of Mourinho!”. It’s easy to imagine Jose grinning from ear to ear as he recruits Zlatan as his new mercenary to try and take out Pep and conquer Manchester once and for all. Whichever way it ends up, the prospect of what lies ahead is mouth-watering for an audience that has been sucked in by the drama and the characters more than any mere sporting competition. Who would be bothered with watching football if you didn’t get to see a final showdown between two middle aged enemies trading blows as the city around them burns to the ground at the end of the season…..