Saturday, August 28, 2010

No contest, Jose Mourinho is Real Madrid's star signing of the summer

One by one, they emerged onto the Bernabeu pitch to take their bow.
By Ian Chadband

A couple of German kids who made a hit at the World Cup; two bright young things of Spanish football; an Argentine starlet and one battle-scarred old defender from Portugal.

Yet the first of Real Madrid's seven summer signings, evidently the shy and retiring sort, did not join the catwalk when the new boys' parade took place before the friendly against Uruguayan side Penarol this week.

Still, though, when the name of the coy José Mário dos Santos Félix Mourinho resounded over the Tannoy to be met with more thunderous acclamation than for any of his purchases, it was a reminder of the new order here: if you want a Galactico, forget the pitch and just ogle the bench.

Behold one of football's most fascinating revolutions. It feels a quiet one; indeed, when you take the tour of Real's cathedral, of its museum and its club store and find yourself being stared down upon by a portrait of President Florentino Perez or having a close encounter with Kaka's red boot inscribed with 'Jesus in first place', you still cannot find a single trace of the other Special One's existence.

Except you can feel Mourinho's presence everywhere. The institution where players and presidents are usually the stars is now in thrall to a greying, preening coach. Madridistas only talk about the new signings Mesut Özil, Sami Khedira, Sergio Canales, Pedro Leon, Angel Di Maria and Ricardo Carvalho in the context of how these marionettes, largely youthful and promising rather than tried and intergalactic, are going to be manipulated by the master puppeteer in the club's bid to smash the glorious, budding Barcelona dynasty under Pep Guardiola.

First things first; there will be no 'Mou' dynasty at the Bernabeu. As they prepare for La Liga opener at Mallorca on Sunday, not even Real's greatest optimist could conceive that this marriage between an impossibly demanding club, which has jettisoned 10 managers in seven years, and a volatile coach, whose modus operandi is to see, conquer, argue and then waltz off in search of silverware new, will carry Mourinho into his dotage.

Perez and Real are not thinking dynasty, so much as a quick fix to stop Guardiola's side becoming the first since Johan Cruyff's Barca predecessors of the early Nineties to win three successive La Liga titles. And Mourinho is the nearest modern football has come to witnessing a sure thing.

But even Madrid must now look on with a hint of trepidation to discover the consequences of giving away the keys of their kingdom to a man who, according to his detractors, knows everything about winning but nothing about winning the right way, the Real way; that is, with flair, attacking enterprise and style to match personal good grace.

"I will respect the cultural aspect at Madrid. I have an obsession to play attacking and attractive football at Madrid," Mourinho went out of his way to reassure everyone here this week. Then his side went out against Penarol and gave the same impression that Mourinho sides invariably do: that they're going to be tremendously organised, hellish difficult to beat but won't win any beauty contests.

What's new? The revolution is as ever based on graft, not glitz, and follows the usual conundrum: how can a man whose gigantic personal ego and showmanship dominates his club build collectivism and selflessness so skilfully? So far, the only surprise has been the extent to which Mourinho has eschewed any noisiness and bluster and plumped only for quiet business.

At Valdebebas, Real's vast 10-pitch training complex which is Mourinho's mission HQ, you hear the suggestion, told with just a hint of awe here, that no one has yet beaten him to be the first into work in the morning at 7am and that no one is left when he leaves 12 hours later.

He has attended religiously to every detail of team management and administration, even when on a brief family holiday in Kenya. Good grief, he even has to check that the water pressure sprinkler system is working to his exact specifications. Nothing is signed off without his say so; no coach has ever had greater control over transfer activity.

As for team training sessions, each one lasting exactly 90 minutes, they are described breathlessly by Cristiano Ronaldo here as "spectacular and incomparable".

According to Brazilian defender Marcelo "he's changed the spirit, every game is a war as we compete for a place." Ronaldo may be the galactico's galactico but he seems to have bought into the one-for-all mentality. "You can ask me to do anything," he claims to have told Mourinho. "I will obey your orders completely." Gulp.

Old treats have disappeared. The VIP area, where fans met players, is history. Players cannot nip home for lunch between training sessions; rest areas, complete with sofa beds, have been set up instead. Team bonding, from breakfast to home time, is everything. There are no princes any more – no Raul, no Guti – and just one king.

Yet King Jose does not get too high-handed unless he has to. If the making of Joe Cole and Mario Balotelli were pet projects at Chelsea and Inter, now he's working on Karim Benzema, scolding the underachieving young French superstar during one session: "If it was up to you, we'd all start working at noon! Wake up, it's 11am and you're asleep during training!"

"The most profound changes," Jorge Valdano, the club's director general, insists. Not as profound, though, as the idea of a supposed footballing aesthete like Valdano, who once compared watching Mourinho's Chelsea play Liverpool in a Champions League semi-final as akin to gazing at "s--- on a stick", now lionising a man whose footballing philosophy is all about pragmatism, not poetry.

So when Valdano, trying to convince himself that attractive-looking purchases like Özil, Di Maria and Canales will all add up to Mourinho adventure, added cautiously this week that "every style is valid in the search for success there are a thousand different ways to play football and each may be perfect at different times"; what he really meant is that Real have settled for Mourinho's way because they cannot think of any other method of downing Barcelona.

Two hundred million pounds' worth of footballers didn't work last year but the mind of a special coach who outclassed Guardiola in their Champions League mental duel just might.

Friday brought news of Barcelona's capture of Liverpool's Javier Mascherano. So, with David Villa now joining Lionel Messi and with Xavi and Andres Iniesta still casting their spells (in Özil, Real may have 'the German Iniesta' but Barca have the genuine article), could this be the final piece of the jigsaw for Guardiola as he completes his team for the ages?

The only antidote left then? A coach for the ages. And if, with his bargain bucket of kids, a new subservient No 7 called Ronaldo taking over from Raul and pitted against a Catalan nation which despise him with a vengeance, Mourinho can topple Barca for his greatest triumph yet, Madridistas would probably forgive him for even winning his way rather than the Real way. And wouldn't that just be Mourinho's greatest revolution of all?

Published in the Daily Telegraph on 27 Aug 2010