I was going to write my EPL Power Poll today, but, in the aftermath of last week’s Spanish Super Cup incidents, twitter was exploding with more news about Real Madrid’s caustic manager, Jose Mourinho (culminating with this utterly rambling incomprehensity), which got me thinking on the subject. So the Power Poll will have to wait until later this week. A word of warning to the wise – this post starts out with cold indisputable facts and quickly delves into wild unsubstantiated speculation. It’s also rather lengthy and goes into a lot of Spanish history, which some might not find interesting. So, be warned. Or, if you just want to get to the meat of things, skip about halfway down.
This year’s Spanish Super Cup pitted the two Spanish giants, Real Madrid C.F. and F.C. Barcelona against each other. These two have an extremely old and passionate rivalry, and games between them are known as El Classico. The first El Classico was played in 1902, and over time, it became a game that is more than just a game of soccer between two largest clubs in Spain. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region in the northeast part of Spain. Catalonians consider themselves to be culturally different from the rest of Spain. They feel Catalonian first, and Spanish second. Everyone in Catalonia speaks Catalan in addition to Spanish, most as first language. Catalan history is emphasized over Spanish. The region, which at one point was an independent state, has enjoyed various degrees of autonomy and self-determination as part of Spain, until the rise of General Francisco Franco. Franco, a fascist who was preoccupied with the idea of unified Spain, forbade all expressions of Catalan nationalism as part of his dictatorship.
One of Franco’s targets was F.C. Barcelona. F.C. Barcelona was always one of the symbols of Catalonia to its residents. The crest of the club contains the colors of Catalonia, and the Cross of Saint Jordi, Catalonia’s patron. The club’s motto, “Mes Que Un Club”, “More Than a Club” is the based on the region’s egalitarian principles. But under Franco, F.C. Barcelona was repressed, both as a symbol and as a club. Notice that Real Madrid is called Real Madrid C.F. while Barcelona is F.C. Barcelona? The transposition of the letters C and F is not an accident. C.F stands for Club de Futbol, predictably Spanish for “Football Club”. But F.C. stands for “Football Club”, which by happy accident is Catalan for the same thing. Franco mandated that the name of the club be changed to Club de Futbol Barcelona, a not-so-subtle deemphasis of the team’s Catalan nature. To add insult to injury, Franco, who himself was a huge Real Madrid fan, has frequently changed the rules to help out his club on the pitch at the expense of their rivals (notable examples include intervening in order to assist Madrid in signing Alfredo di Stefano, one of the best players of the ’50s, despite the fact that he already agreed to a contract with Barcelona, and downright locker room intimidation which lead to Real Madrid beating Barcelona 11-1 in a second leg of a cup match).
But yet, unlike other football rivalries that were more than football rivalries, this rivalry never became particularly nasty or violent. It didn’t have to be this way. The Scottish rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, based on sectarian strife (Celtic fans are Catholics while Rangers fans are Protestants) has escalated to murder and violence on and off the pitch. The Balkan nationalistic conflicts between Serbian supporters of Red Star Belgrade and Croatian supporters of Dinamo Zagreb led to what only can be described as incidents of ethnic cleansing (I hope to devote some blog space to those two rivalries in the future). But by European standards, El Classico is a fairly tame affair. Contrary to Bill Simmons’ assertion in his latest Grantland piece, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans and especially players, didn’t hate each other. Not in the European soccer type of hate sense. (This, by the way, is how you know that Bill Simmons doesn’t follow soccer nearly as much as he claims – only a person who started following these teams in the last year would claim this). There are a number of reasons for this, I believe. The first is that Spaniards just do not seem naturally predisposed towards violence. The second is that in the last 50 years, Catalonia regained a lot of the cultural autonomy that was lost during the Franco years. The third is that Catalan people seem to be the most easy-going, chill people ever. They enjoy a beautiful city with gorgeous weather, economy that is much better than most of the rest of Spain, and the privilege of supporting the best team in the world that plays the most visually attractive football in the world. Literally, nothing phases them. In 1882, they started building this cathedral. The project suffered numerous setbacks, and as you can see, is still under construction. It, rather optimistically, is expected to be completed in 2026. And not one person thinks there’s anything wrong with that. Unlike the Basques, their neighbors to the west, who are true separatists, and even formed a charming terrorist group called Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (better known as ETA) devoted to their cause, Catalan people seem content to express their national pride by supporting F.C. Barcelona.
But the fourth, and biggest reason, might be the true pride and joy of Spanish football, the Spanish National Team. La Furia Roja, as it’s called, has traditionally been an underachiever in world football. This changed in 2008, when they won their first European Championship since 1964. Then, in 2010, Spain won their first World Cup title, and established themselves as the undisputed Best Team In The World. Now, they’re the prohibitive favorite to win the 2012 European Championship, and in case you think this is just a passing phase, they just won the Under-21 European Championship, and lost to eventual winner Brazil in Under-20 World Cup this summer. So the cupboard isn’t exactly bare. Even in lean years, but especially now, La Furia Roja is the common denominator of both Castilians and the Catalans. And for decades and decades, the main core of players for the team was supplied primarily by Real Madrid and Barcelona. This mutual cause has always ensured that the players of both clubs still treated each other with professionalism and respect, while passionately contesting each other when their clubs met. The national team captain is Real Madrid’s captain and the best goalkeeper in the world, Iker Casillas. His assistant captain is Barcelona’s captain and legendary defender Carles Puyol, who scored a crucial goal in the 2010 World Cup and then met the Queen of Spain naked (almost) in the locker room. These players play together, win together, and despite their club affiliation, respect each other. That attitude, to a certain degree, has always transferred to the fans of both clubs.
The hate Bill Simmons alluded to started with the arrival of Jose Mourinho at the helm of Real Madrid. Mourinho, widely considered the most talented soccer coach in the world (and quite possibly the most arrogant one – he nicknamed himself The Special One) arrived at Real Madrid from Inter Milan after Madrid’s previous manager, Manuel Pellegrini, failed to beat Barcelona to the Spanish League title (despite accumulating most points in club history) or to win the coveted European Champions League. His qualifications – winning the Champions League and domestic leagues with multiple teams, including with Inter Milan just that year (beating Barcelona on the way). The animosity started when, in Mourinho’s first game against Barcelona, a shock 5-0 defeat, with the game all but over, Madrid’s Sergio Ramos scythed down Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s star (and arguably the best player in the world) and followed it up by shoving down Puyol. And then the real shit went down. This spring, the two teams met an astonishing 4 times in a span of 17 days to play a league game, the final of the Spanish Cup and two legs of a Champions League elimination round. Mourinho instructed his team to play extremely physical, knowing that hard fouls and tight pressure disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm-based passing and makes them uncomfortable. Barcelona responded to hard challenges by increased playacting and diving, knowing that these tactics will frustrate and anger Real Madrid players, potentially causing them to cross the line. The tactic worked, as Real Madrid had a player sent off in each of these games. This devolved into a war of words, with Mourinho accusing Barcelona of having the referees in their pocket, and Barcelona publicly accusing Mourinho of being a poor sport. Madrid even resorted to the rather classless move of posting viral videos and twitter posts of other soccer players accusing Barcelona of playacting on their official website.
But then, the summer, and a 3 months break from football pushed these issues out of focus. It all came back last week, when, in the last seconds of the second leg of an extremely well-played Spanish Super Cup, Madrid defender Marcelo committed a dangerous scissor tackle on Barcelona’s new high priced acquisition, Cesc Fabregas, which lead to a bench clearing brawl in which Mourinho attempted to fishhook the eye of a Barcelona assistant coach (view the whole incident in glorious HD here. Which I was unable to do. Thanks for nothing, Comcast). The fallout has been epic. Iker Casillas, normally the voice of reason was quoted saying “In a match like this, there are many interests and of course a conflict can arise. Marcelo committed a foul and they threw themselves to the ground, like always” (ESPN). He later called Barcelona players to apologize, but his national teammates on Barcelona were upset that the calls were leaked to the press. And a number of Spanish national players who are not part of either of the clubs, as well as Spanish soccer officials, expressed concerns about the effect of the conflicts between the clubs on the national team. Pepe Reina, the backup Spanish goalkeeper who plays for Liverpool has suggestively tweeted, “The players have been the same the last 4 years but things only changed in the last season and a half… Why?”. As for Mourinho himself, well, just see the aforementioned letter.
Much has been made of Mourinho’s behavior towards Barcelona since he arrived. The simple reason is that Mourinho is an unscrupulous pragmatist who will do anything to win. He knows that he cannot consistently beat Barcelona on the field, so he tries to get into their head and throw them off their game. This is partially true – mind games are practically Mourinho’s second nature. Some have speculated that his dislike of Barcelona, and the joy he takes in beating, or, at the very least, tweaking them is due to the fact that his coaching career started at Barcelona in some minor role where he was passed up for any significant opportunity. And some suggested that he’s simply a sociopath. Allow me to offer another possibility.
Here’s where we leave the realm of facts and enter the world of speculation. Jose Mourinho is Portuguese. Like their bigger Iberian Peninsula cousins, Portuguese have also underachieved in world football, never finishing better than 3rd in the World Cup or runner ups in European Championship. And also, like Spanish, Portuguese are going through something of a golden era in football right now, with a number of very talented players available, highlighted by Cristiano Ronaldo. Buoyed by their proximity on the peninsula, Portugal and Spain have something of a football rivalry of their own going on. And, as good as they are, the Portuguese are simply not good enough to beat Spain right now.
Jose Mourinho knows he can’t stay with Real Madrid for long. Acrimony follows him everywhere. He left Chelsea despite tremendous success due to team owner not being able to coexist with him. He left Inter because the Italian Federation practically demanded that he gets out. With the controversy that follows him, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to stay at a traditional and proper club like Real Madrid for long, especially if he doesn’t win big, which will be difficult as long as Barcelona are in his way. His next step could be to go back to England, to take over Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retires… or it could be to take over the Portuguese National Team, a position he was already offered before and declined. And if this is a possibility that he’s potentially eyeing for the future, could it not be that his current behavior is a deliberate and tactical attempt to destabilize the Spanish National Team, to create an irreparable rift between its Real Madrid and Barcelona factions, a rift that would be destructive on a team like Spain, which depends so much on on-the-field collaboration? Doing so before jumping into Portugal management job would simultaneously greatly weaken their traditional regional rival, while at the same time eliminating one of the biggest obstacles to winning titles with Portugal.
Perhaps it’s far fetched. It’s also completely scheming and devious, two qualities that are a Jose Mourinho hallmark.