There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many titles.” José Mourinho has never been one to wax lyrical on the ideals and virtues of the so-called ‘beautiful’ game, his perspective epitomised by his thinly-veiled barb at the ‘poets’ that critique his own philosophy after lifting the Europa League in May 2017.
For as long as Mourinho has been in the footballing mainstream, starting with his unlikely Champions League triumph with Porto, his divisive nature has brought upon countless detractors that view him as a narcissistic dictator who will use any means necessary to ensure victory.
Whether that be through dark psychology or overt pragmatism, it is evident that Mourinho has gone further than any manager before him in search of glory, much to the disapproval of the romantics and purists of the game. However, there is a man who would advocate and encourage Mourinho’s leadership complex had he not been born 500 years ago: introducing Niccolò Machiavelli.
Machiavelli was a Renaissance diplomat, philosopher and politician among other careers who lived in Florence in the early 16th century. He was part of the Republic of his home city for 14 years, overthrowing the famous Medici family with his political acumen and rebellious nature before his exile from government in 1512. Following on from his tenure in office, Machiavelli set about writing works on his experiences in politics and the philosophy he had devised from this.
He released his first and most famous work The Prince the year after his exile, and it is from here that much of his influence in the modern world stems from. The Prince tackles the idea of leadership; how people come to be leaders and what makes them effective. What intrigued Machiavelli was the dilemma of whether somebody was capable of being a good leader and still adhere to Christian morality or, in other words, be a good person. Machiavelli concluded that it simply wasn’t possible.
He saw that the aim of leadership in politics was to protect your state from potential threat. To do this, one must know how to fight and do whatever is required to achieve his objective, even if these actions are seen as insidious or perfidious. A leader must also govern his people in a certain way to ensure order.
While Christians believed leaders should be gracious, generous and peaceful, Machiavelli saw these qualities to be weaknesses that could be exploited. Instead, he theorised that to rule effectively, one had to strike a balance between being feared for his strict regime but not being oppressive and loathed by his followers.
Machiavelli is one of the most consequential philosophers of all time because of this belief, inspiring countless intellectuals such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Adam Smith. The term ‘Machiavellian’ still holds resonance to this day as a means to describe politicians who use underhanded methods to achieve their goals and his pragmatic approach can be compared in other walks of life, including football.
This is where the connection between Mourinho and Machiavelli lies; the art of pragmatism. Football doesn’t have a strong correlation with philosophy but it has been said before that Mourinho is a Machiavellian leader and it would be hard to disagree. Mourinho, as aforementioned, is an unquenchable winner, it is his only purpose in football and he believes that winning should be the only objective of the game. This is why he objects to the “poets” who laud the importance of aesthetics as equal or superior to that of victory.
He is unapologetic in his methods that polarise the footballing community unlike any other: his enigmatic and cunning oration in press conferences that draw more attention than some Champions League games, the deviously intricate web of psychology he weaves to unnerve his opponents and drive his own team, and the “negative” football he masterminds in order to extract every last piece of silverware. These are all elements of his leadership style, the Machiavellian style. Mourinho has even acknowledged Machiavelli, saying in a Telegraph interview in 2015 that he had read some of the Italian’s work and was aware of the similarities with him.
In that very interview, however, Mourinho said that he wanted to put an end to his cunning streak and distance himself from the dark arts, so to speak. Three years on, it is a promise he has not kept.
The cult of personality that Mourinho has created to ingrain himself into the fabric of the sport has only become grander and more histrionic than ever, while the football his teams have produced has been at times direly cautious and restrained, like putting harsh, steel-bounded clamps on a flaming Ferrari. Well, at least, he’s winning things, right? Alas, Mourinho’s get-out-of-jail-free card has expired, the wondrous sweetness of silver and gold’s glorious kiss has degenerated into the biting cold of what seemed to be a never-ending winter at Old Trafford.
Gone are the heady days of Mourinho’s reign atop the world seated on his throne, the dashing and suave rockstar of the dugout. We now see a beleaguered man who seems to be confined by the past, seemingly obsessed with his persona rather than his success. The catch with Machiavellians is that unless their methods have the desired effects, they are not only ineffective but unnecessarily unscrupulous. As the world gawks at the passion and dexterity of the Guardiolas and Klopps, Mourinho is left out in the cold.
Signs of his spiral were beginning to come to the fore long before he arrived at Old Trafford; in fact long before he returned to England after a six-year hiatus. His time with Real Madrid, a job he had coveted from the beginning of his managerial career, had been tumultuous. Mourinho arrived in the capital of Spain the star of the show and left the pantomime villain after countless feuds externally, most notably with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, as he attempted to derail the all-conquering Blaugrana through venomous words and a vengeful approach – to kick, knock and scrap to victory.
Though Guardiola fended off Los Blancos to win a second Champions League trophy and LaLiga in Mourinho’s first year in Madrid, he left the following season exhausted after the unmatched war between the two juggernauts of Spanish football. That year, Mourinho and Real lifted their first LaLiga title in four years with a record number of points and goals scored, a battle won though perhaps not the war.
The Real vintage of 2011/12 was Mourinho’s final classic side, incorporating all the facets of their manager’s philosophy that had been so dominant in the previous decade. They were defensively stern, as every Mourinho team is, but were also by far his most potent outfit with an abundance of pace and power in their ranks that could obliterate teams in a blink of an eye.
With a strike force including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María, Real were ruthless on the counter-attack in a way none of Mourinho teams had replicated and were packed to the brim of individual brilliance, perhaps more so than Porto, Chelsea and Inter, where the Special One had managed previously.
But for all the prowess Mourinho had at its disposal, there was an issue that he had never faced before in his career. It is well-documented that the dressing room of Real Madrid is by far the most political in football, the dynamic of the world’s most famous team constantly teetering on the verge of chaos.
If the squad is kept happy, managers of Los Blancos usually reap the rewards – see Zinédine Zidane, who is now one of only three coaches to lift the European Cup three times. However, if there is disruption in the camp, it will largely be the undoing of the manager – see Rafa Benítez, who was sacked after just six months in charge despite being third in the league and just four points off the top.
Coming off the back of a hugely successful league campaign, the 2012/13 season was critical for Mourinho and Real in the hopes of winning La Décima, a historic tenth Champions League trophy, as well as continuing their domination of LaLiga. However, Real had faltered in the opening games as their eternal rivals Barcelona raced off the blocks, setting out an almost insurmountable lead by Christmas with a record start to a LaLiga campaign.
Perhaps disheartened by falling away from the runaway leaders, cracks began to show at the Bernabéu. Mourinho, it seemed, was almost paranoid over the power afforded to the players and began to feel like a rebellion was imminent.
To combat this, he delved into his Machiavellian bag of tricks to invoke fear into the dressing room in a bid to wrest back control. When he discovered that captain and club legend Iker Casillas had called Barcelona skipper Xavi to call for peace between the two warring sides of El Clásico, Mourinho had the perfect excuse to target a God-like figure and fully centralise power.
Added to this was the fact that Casillas’ girlfriend was a prominent journalist in Spanish media who could potentially leak information, a factor Mourinho was hoping to exploit. The Portuguese coach took the bold move to drop Casillas on numerous occasions around the turn of the year, replacing him with back-up keeper Antonio Adán and then signing Diego Lopez from Sevilla to further isolate Real’s number one.
This approach split the fan base: the Madridstas were outraged with the negligent treatment of “San Iker” whilst the Mourinhinstas believed the man at the helm was acting in the club’s best interests. One place where the verdict was unanimous, however, was Real’s dressing room. They were apoplectic with Mourinho’s decision, and the leading personalities in the side took action. According to reports, His relationship with Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo quickly deteriorated over the season, in part due to the controversy surrounding Casillas as well as other personal issues.
By May, continuing the fractious marriage between Mourinho and Real was incomprehensible. Florentino Pérez announced their parting of ways days after Real played in a turgid 2-1 defeat to city rivals Atlético in the Copa del Rey final. Los Blancos had also crashed out of the Champions League semi-finals for the third consecutive year, losing 4-3 on aggregate to a Robert Lewandowski-inspired Dortmund. Barcelona predictably triumphed in LaLiga, leaving Mourinho trophyless but for the Spanish Super Cup that was won at the beginning of the campaign.