A sad fact of life is that there are few great soccer novels. There are many reasons: In soccer, the true drama is enacted on the pitch; great players, whose success is reliant on repetition and discipline, are cads at best, colorless characters at worst; the managers comply with the stereotype of the fatherly figure. The only serious runner for a great soccer novel is Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, narrated by someone who never gets into the fray—a committed fan.
But how is this for an early chapter of a gripping narrative: a brilliant young soccer manager from the Portuguese provinces is summoned to London by a Russian oligarch, who rapidly progressed from selling rubber duckies from his Moscow flat to blowing a chunk of his billions on the venerable English club Chelsea. The oligarch is impressed by the young man, recognizing a kinship of ruthless ambition. At his unveiling as the new Chelsea manager, the young man wears a suit a size too big and, on its sleeve, an ambition many times oversized. To the press accustomed to self-effacing Englishmen, the young manager offers: “We have top players and—excuse me if I’m arrogant—a top manager. Please don’t call me arrogant, because it’s not true. I am a special one. I’m a champion.” The following day a tabloid blazes with a headline: “The Ego Has Landed.” The British/global public is mesmerized by his fondness for confrontation and ubiquitous conspiracies, by the ease with which he coats the truth in layers of half-truths and outright lies, by his unrestrained desire to win. He’s charismatic and undaunted; he’s pepper-haired and wears a cashmere coat; he’s a master manipulator and thrives in conflict. He’s known as The Special One, his banner and his bane. The soccer salons are abuzz: Is he as special as he thinks he is? Is his ruthlessness his mask or his essence? Will his wax-and-feathers wings melt?
As any soccer fan knows, The Special One is none other than Jose Mourinho, presently managing, Real Madrid, the most illustrious Spanish and European club. Mourinho is a novelistic character par excellance—an English journalist living in Spain, described him to me as “half Dickensian character, half buffoon”—and his story is as narratively compelling as any.
Mourinho managed Chelsea between 2004 and 2007, when he abruptly resigned, having discovered that the oligarch—Roman Abramovich—liked meddling far too much. In 2008, the special ego landed in Italy, where he spent two seasons at the helm of Inter Milan, winning the 2010 Champions League, the most prestigious of European soccer club competitions. He’d already won it in 2004 with Porto, the Portuguese club he’d managed before Chelsea, so that he became the third and youngest manager, at the age of forty-one, to win the CL with two different clubs. On its way to the ultimate victory, Inter had to beat the mighty Barcelona—the antagonist crucial to the Mourinho plot.
The two semifinal games between Inter and Barca deserve their own chapters: the first one featured a deus-ex-machina in the shape of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjalla. Its cataclysmic eruption had grounded European air traffic, forcing Barcelona on a fourteen-hour bus ride to Milan the day before the game. Inter blitzed the tired Barca and won 3-1. In the second leg, a group of determined men defied a much stronger enemy: The Milanese lost a player to a red card early, then withstood Barca’s siege in a tactical formation Mourinho had specifically devised for playing with ten men. After Inter went on to defeat Bayern Munich in the finals, its owner Massimo Moratti was eager to keep Mourinho, the triumphant general, at any price. But then came a plot twist: Real Madrid came calling for The Special One, tickling his humongous hubris glands. They made him an offer that made the mighty ego soar: coaching the most famous and successful club on the planet.
The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona FC is so enormous as to appear eternal. Each meeting—known as el Clasico—between the two biggest Spanish clubs is fiercely contentious, instantly and simultaneously entering legend and history. The roots of the rivalry are myriad, but the important ones are in the Spanish Civil War, when Barcelona was besieged, shelled and then brutally purged by the fascist forces of Generalissimos Franco, who would rule Spain for nearly four decades and make Real Madrid his flagship club. Catalan patriotism and the grievances essential to it were formulated around Barcelona FC, while the club’s stadium Nou Camp was where those sentiments could be expressed. The recent ascent of Catalan nationalism is directly related to the brilliance of the current generation of Barca’s players, most of whom are born and loyal Catalans. The rivalry has been amplified by the fact that La Liga—the Spanish soccer league—has become a two-club race, no other club coming close to winning it since 2004.
Real Madrid have won thirty-two La Liga trophies along with nine European club championships, but, before Mourinho was called upon, they’d been suffering a trophy drought, with only three Spanish titles and no CL ones since 2002—the tenth CL title, la decima, has become the holy grail of all Real fans, the madridistas. The trophy thirst had been even more exacerbating for Barca’s domination, including a 2009 mauling (6-2) at the Bernabeu, Real’s home stadium.
Mourinho was recruited to alleviate the suffering by Florentino Perez, an important character in the story, and not only for his construction-business billions. First elected in 2000 as Real president (the club, like Barcelona, is owned by its fans, who pay annual membership and vote in elections), Florentino—as madridistas call him—conjured up the money to pursue high-end players like Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham and construct an all-star squad of the so-called galacticos. Real quickly won La Liga (2001) and Champions League (2002), but the more fancy-footed stars were brought in, the more severely unbalanced in the locker room and on the pitch the team was. The flow of trophies soon dried out and el presidente resigned in 2006. But in 2009, Real fans chose to forget the fiasco and elected Florentino once again. He immediately embarked upon a shopping spree with all the restraint of a suburban-Dallas housewife, spending amounts that could make a dent in Greece’s debt and acquiring, among others, Ronaldo from Manchester United. Florentino’s crucial purchase was the most Special One, whose particular specialty was putting down the uppity Catalans.
Mourinho and Barcelona had quite a back story of their own. The Special One’s ego found its first wings when he served as an interpreter to Sir Bobbie Robson, who managed in Portugal in the early nineties, and Mourinho followed him to Barcelona in 1996. Taken by the young man’s assertive intelligence, the stately gentleman listened to Mourinho’s advice, entrusting him with tasks well beyond his language competence. The story goes that the English-speaking Barcelona players could sometimes hear el traductor conveying tactical instructions different from what Sir Bobby Robson originally uttered. After the Englishman moved on, Mourinho lingered at Barcelona for another year to assist the Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal, who occasionally let him coach minor and friendly games. It was from Barcelona that Mourinho returned to Portugal in 2000, loaded with knowledge, to become a first-team manager. In 2003 and 2004 respectively, he won with Porto the UEFA CUP (the other prestigious European club competition) and Champions League, prompting the oligarch’s invitation.
The Barca storyline now requires a flash-forward to 2005, where we find Mourinho delivering a scathing soliloquy following Chelsea’s defeat at Camp Nou, where they met Barca (its fans chanting: “El Traductor! El Traductor!”) in a CL round-of-sixteen match. The decisive moment was Swedish referee Anders Frisk’s sending off of Chelsea’s Didier Drogba for a second yellow card. In his press-conference soliloquy, Mourinho submitted that the Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard had talked to Frisk in Barca’s dressing room at half time, which clearly implied collusion and would’ve seriously violated UEFA’s (European soccer authority) regulations. Frisk soon received death threats from Chelsea fans and retired from the game to return to his insurance salesman day job. Mourinho received a sidelines ban for his manipulative hogwash, but never apologized to Frisk. The chairman of the UEFA’s referees’ committee Volker Roth declared: “People like Mourinho are the enemy of football.” Mourinho’s suggestion that Barca needed to bully a ref to win was the first of the calumnies to be charged to his Catalan account.
But such is the underexplored novelistic world of professional soccer that just as the aforementioned Rijkaard was to be replaced as the Barca manager in 2008, Mourinho was departing from Chelsea. A secret meeting with the Barca directors was arranged. To have made a full circle and return to Barca, no longer el traductor but el mister (as Spaniards and Portuguese respectfully address a soccer manager) would’ve been rewarding to Mourinho in more ways than one. But the Catalan head honchos couldn’t swallow his manipulative techniques and went local and loyal, giving the job to Pep Guardiola. Only thirty-seven at the time, Guardiola had played for Barcelona since childhood, including the time he’d been in the audience for el traductor’s interpretations of Sir Bobby’s instructions. Guardiola’s CV was nowhere near as impressive as Mourinho’s: He’d only coached Barcelona’s second team for a year, while The Special One had racked up a lifetime’s worth of trophies at the mere age of forty-five. Being passed over for a homegrown novice was certainly a slight, as if Mourinho was not good enough for the family he’d thought he belonged to.
By the time Special One was greeted with the Madrid fanfare, Guardiola’s Barca, featuring the greatest player in the world, Lionel Messi, had endeared themselves with their philharmonic passing to soccer fans the world over—most concerningly, in Mourinho’s jaded opinion, to the media and referees. Diminishing the power of the Barca cult was Mourinho’s urgent job at Real. His resolve steeled after his first el Clasico, in the fall 2010. Fielding about $400 million worth of players, Real was crushed (5-0) at Camp Nou, Barca providing one of the most perfect performances ever. Toward the end of the game, as The Special One kept out of sight, Camp Nou chanted: “Come out of the dugout, Jose!” After the final whistle, the Barca center-back Pique raised his hand with five outstretched fingers—la manita—which ended up on every soccer-friendly front page in the world. It was the most special pounding of Mourinho’s career.
And then, in the spring of 2011, Real Madrid and Barcelona, by dint of draw, played four times in seventeen days—a La Liga meeting, a Copa del Rey, and two legs of Champions League semifinals. Mourinho was at his best/worst, providing his most destructive tactics, his most virulent complaints, his most memorable press-conferences. In the first Clasico, which ended in a tie that secured the La Liga title for Barcelona, the gigantic Pepe—Mourinho’s proxy on the pitch—chased and badgered the puny Messi, who at one point responded furiously by kicking the ball into the stands. The tension spilled over into the tunnel after the game, and carried over into the next one, the Copa del Rey final in Valencia, which ended 0-0 and went into overtime, where Ronaldo won it for Real. Then Mourinho disgorged his fury in a press conference before the CL semifinals, taunting and mocking his Barcelona counterpart—to which Guardiola, normally controlled, responded with a forty-five minute diatribe, thereby fully converting their former “professional friendship” into an archrivalry. In the first semifinal leg, Pepe was red-carded, for what Mourinho saw as a minor infraction. He sarcastically applauded the officials who sent him to the stands to witness Barca win, Messi scoring two late goals. In the post-game press conference, Mourinho delivered a monologue that has become a cultural-reference point in Spain. Dramatically seasoning his delivery with the question: “Por que? Por que?” (Why? Why?), he accused Barcelona of yet again being helped by the referee. He insisted he would’ve been “ashamed” to have won Champions League the way Guardiola had, concluding with an existentialist non sequitur: “It makes me sick to live in this world, but it is our world.” Subsequently punished by the UEFA, he watched the second leg in a hotel. Barcelona went on to the finals to gracefully beat Manchester United, Guardiola’s second CL trophy in three years.
The hurt must have been extra special. In August 2011, Real and Barcelona met once again in the Spanish Super Cup, the two-legged match the winners of La Liga and Copa del Rey play to kick off the season. After the first leg finished 2-2 at the Bernabeu, the second one was exceptionally violent even by el Clasico standards: As players tussled on the sidelines, Mourinho sneaked behind Guardiola’s assistant Tito Villanova and nearly gouged his eye out. You can revisit the incident on YouTube, along with other highlights of Mourinho’s career. The calculated malice of the act combined with its remarkable idiocy would not be out of place in Camus’s The Stranger.
Javier Marias, the bestselling author of the novels All Souls, A Heart So White and, most recently, The Infatuations, is arguably the greatest living Spanish writer. Predictably, he frames the Real-Barca rivalry in literary terms: “Barcelona is a very Hamletian team—doubts abound. Real is more Macbethian—they go and get it.” Marias has been a madridista since the age of seven. “We all change wives and husbands, tastes, political ideas,” Marias says. “The only thing that never changes is your soccer team.” He remembers Real’s great generation of Puskas and Di Stefano, who, for Marias, is the greatest ever. The gentlemanly Real he grew up supporting not only played well, Marias says, but also lost well.
We are talking soccer in Marias’s apartment in Madrid’s ancient Plaza de la Villa, furnished with a vast desk, a prominent typewriter, and wall-to-wall bookshelves. A TV set looks out of place, but it’s there for watching games. Marias often writes on soccer and has expressed his contempt for The Special One. When I quote the English journalist who sees Mourinho as “half Dickensian character, half buffoon,” Marias scoffs: “That’s an insult to Dickens.”
“Before Mourinho’s arrival, Real, the winners of nine European titles, never boasted,” Marias says, “they were never aggressive, never patronizing.” In contrast, Mourinho, “a very boasting man,” likes to claim victories for himself, while berating his players after a loss: I win. They lose.
“Old fans of Real Madrid are ashamed,” Marias says of the way Mourinho has gone about undermining Barcelona’s power. “After all these years, I have an automatic reflex to be happy when Real score a goal,” Marias told me. “But it is no longer a tragedy if they lose.”
The Madrid chapters of the Mourinho story contain a common novelistic theme: the traumatic generational transition, whereby the young ones violate the grand tradition to adjust to the cruel new circumstances (see: Mann’s The Buddenbrooks). The soccer journalist Guilem Balague, author of Another Way of Winning, a superb Guardiola biography, told me that Mourinho “has pushed [Real Madrid] into the twenty-first century.” The British journalist Richard Fitzpatrick, suggests in El Clasico, his book on the Barca-Real rivalry,that “Mourinho has rescued Real Madrid from its past. The club was hung up on its senorio, its grandeur.” The most important plot in the Mourinho story is perhaps related to the question: Will Real Madrid be willing and able to let The Special One dismantle their grandeur for the sake of future success?
In 2012, Mourinho finally dethroned Barcelona and, after four long years, recaptured La Liga for Real. In the process, they averaged a stunning 3.1 goals per game, playing some beautiful soccer. At the end of his second season, The Special One had one foot well in the 21st century’s door, not least because Guardiola left the game for a sabbatical due to exhaustion, partly attributable to Mourinho’s relentless hounding.
If Real is to move in the 21st century’s golden palace, this would be the season. But the room might no longer be available: From the very beginning of the season, Real kept dropping points and losing games in La Liga. By early February Barcelona was sixteen points ahead. Mourinho declared the gap unbridgeable, but that could’ve been another instance of his psychological shenanigans with the aim of Barca’s losing focus. The neurotic inconsistency Real has exhibited this season is perfectly consistent with the high-drama plots Mourinho compulsively perpetuates. “I don’t have a team,” he announced after a loss to Sevilla in September, ever willing to pass around the blame. In December, Real lost to Celta Vigo in Copa del Rey and Mourinho cast himself as the innocent one. "There are players who have disappointed me," he said. "[Some] didn't want to play because it was cold, raining and [only] a Copa match." For a December game at Malaga, he dropped Iker Casillas, the goalie reverentially referred to by madridistas as Saint Iker, who had not been benched for an important game in thirteen years. His replacement subsequently conceded three goals and Real lost. In no time did the global soccer commentariat come to a consensus: After the miscalculated throwing of Casillas on the sword, Mourinho could not stay at Real beyond the end of the season. “He kills before he dies,” tweeted Balague, as if quoting Shakespeare.
The wax on the special ego’s wings was melting. Mourinho’s many enemies in the media and Real locker room, as well as those who never forgave him the hubris of being The Special One, were eager to take the front seats for his Waterloo. Marca, the Madrid sports daily, normally blindly loyal to Real, claimed that Casillas and Ramos, the two senior Real players, had dinner with Florentino to present him with an ultimatum: “Either he goes, or we go.”
But, as in any suspenseful novel, the outcome is far from certain. Real has progressed, if not entirely impressively, to the semifinals, where they will meet Borussia Dortmund, the German club that had outplayed them at the group stage. But Mourinho’s greatness lies in his ability to tune up his tactics for the important games and grind out a win in which his team makes fewer mistakes. The Dortmund game promises to be exciting, but if Real reaches the finals, they might well meet Barcelona, which is playing Bayern Munich in the other semis. The El clasico in the finals of Champions League would be the final showdown novelists dream of. In one fell swoop, Mourinho would conquer Barca, render their all-but-certain La Liga title a minor achievement, and bring the coveted la decima to Madrid, at which point he would be able to ask for the world from all madridistas. Having already been buried by the gloating press and bloodthirsty enemies, Mourinho would then emerge from this season with more time and power to clear out the dressing room of dissent (adios Casillas and Ramos!), wrestle more control from Florentino and not only survive but reach the Olympian heights previously unknown to any soccer manager, living or dead. Whatever happens between now and May 25, when Champions League Finals is to be played at the Wembley Stadium in London, some finger-licking new chapters are sure to come, whether the novel is to be called The Further Adventures or The Fall of the Special One.
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Lazarus Project,which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, and three collections of short stories: The Question of Bruno; Nowhere Man, which was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Love and Obstacles.