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Where Did You Go, José Mourinho?

Tottenham fired Mourinho after 17 months in charge, but his influence has been waning for much longer. Go back a decade and you can find the point when his once all-conquering powers met their match.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

He didn’t even win the news cycle! José Mourinho is out as manager of Tottenham Hotspur, sacked after just 17 months, sacked only days before he was set to lead the team into the final of the Carabao Cup, and it wasn’t even the biggest soccer story of the day. Not even the biggest of the morning! The Carabao Cup would have been José’s first chance to win his first trophy at Tottenham, which hasn’t won a trophy of any description since George W. Bush was president. But the unceremonious firing of one of the world’s most famous managers was below-the-fold news compared to the announcement of the European Super League. And so the tenure of Mourinho at Spurs ended in the least Mourinho style imaginable—quietly, and while most people were paying attention to something else.

A decade ago, everything Mourinho did seemed like the biggest news the sport could produce, but for years now, José has projected a strange air of slow decline. It’s not just that he’s been winning less, though he has; his 13 defeats in all competitions with Spurs this season is the most he’s endured as a manager. It’s also that his stature has changed. Ten years ago, he possessed a sort of impish glamour that made him look like the universe’s favorite naughty boy; more recently, his constant trolling and picking and teasing has seemed less mischievous and more sour, the behavior less of an anarchic mastermind than of a grumpy dad with a headache.

When the Tottenham news came down I’d already been thinking about Mourinho for days. Specifically I’d been thinking about when the turning point happened—when he went from being the Special One, full stop, to being the Special One but Also Someone You Can Totally Imagine Being Fired by Tottenham. Mourinho’s jaunt through world soccer has always been a madcap sequence of befores and afters, crises looming, crises escaped, and successes snatched—or not—in the instant before the last bridge goes up in flames. But even in a run defined by the strobe-like frequency of its dividing lines, there has to be one great inflection point. Where is it?

My theory: It’s the stretch in April 2011 when Mourinho’s Real Madrid side played Barcelona four times in 18 days—the so-called Month of Clásicos. This stretch, 10 years ago this month, represents the peak of José’s José-ness. It’s the moment that ensured his short, long, glorious, inglorious career would never be quite the same.

Consider. When you take the broadest, most zoomed-out view of Mourinho’s career, when do you notice the biggest transformation? The Real Madrid years, right? Before Madrid, he won everything, shamelessly, as if he couldn’t help himself: two league titles, a UEFA Cup, and a Champions League title (!) at Porto; back-to-back Premier League titles at Chelsea, along with an FA Cup and two League Cups; then two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia, and another Champions League title at Inter, including a treble in 2009-10. In the eight years between 2002 and 2010, Mourinho won more than a dozen trophies at three clubs, masterminded both a historic David story (Porto) and a historic Goliath story (Chelsea in the early Roman Abramovich years, the first true billionaire’s-plaything superclub), captivated the global soccer media, and generally seemed to waltz through the universe with the twinkle of a happy rogue who knows he’s getting away with something.

It wasn’t always a smooth ride, of course. Mourinho’s preternatural gift for losing locker rooms, needling colleagues, and alienating his own allies was evident from the start. But in the early days, the relentless trolling and button-pushing seemed like part of a sly game, a way for José to keep winning by throwing everyone else permanently off balance. Keep Alex Ferguson steaming and Didier Drogba fuming and Arsène Wenger looking like a saint who ate a lemon, and snicker while you pilfer the trophy room. Shitpost your way to greatness! It wasn’t a tactic that could work in one place forever, or even for very long, because to use it you had to keep ratcheting up the tension, for yourself and everyone around you, and before long the atmosphere would be so toxic even you couldn’t breathe it. But that was fine, in those early years. By the time things became truly unlivable, José would be ready for the next heist. All he had to do was tap the reset button on his three-year doomsday stopwatch.

And it worked. It always worked. A dozen trophies in eight years! Then Real Madrid happened. And after that … well, the years went by at the same rate, the trophies not so much. Three seasons in Spain (2010-13) brought one La Liga title and one Copa del Rey. Two and a half seasons back at Chelsea (2013-15) brought another Premier League title and one League Cup. Two and a half seasons at Manchester United (2016-18) brought a Europa League and another League Cup. Not quite two seasons at Tottenham brought arguably the highest honor of all—me triple-captaining Harry Kane in Fantasy Premier League this week—and the one Carabao Cup final, but no actual first-place finishes in a footballing competition.

To be clear, these are still phenomenal returns! Mourinho remains a world-class manager. But it’s hard not to notice the drop-off. Pre-Madrid: multiple trophies per year, with the balance tilted toward the top-shelf stuff like Champions League titles and league championships. Post-Madrid: multiple years per trophy, and a lot more moments when you’re scanning the list and going, “Hey, you know what? Winning the Europa League is still really good.” And it’s post-Madrid when some of the trickster charm starts to wear off. Increasingly, his compulsive sniping seems to be throwing Mourinho himself, not his players or opponents, off-balance. Increasingly, he seems to be committing the cardinal error for any troll: He lets his targets get under his skin.

So. The time in Madrid is the line separating the early, all-conquering, winking-prankster version of Mourinho from the later, only occasionally conquering, self-sabotaging version that followed. But where’s the line within that time? Where’s the point when the tension—after being stoked and stoked and stoked, in classic Mourinho fashion—finally broke? The obvious answer is the 2012-13 season, which José called the worst of his career, and which led to his leaving the club “by mutual consent.” (A phrase that, whenever it’s invoked as Mourinho leaves a club, always makes me imagine a pitchfork-wielding villager announcing that Dr. Frankenstein and the mob have agreed that it would be in the best interest of both parties for Frankenstein to step away from his role at the castle.) In my opinion, though, the big shift occurred well before 2012. I think the real crisis point was those four Clásicos in 18 days in spring 2011. I think Mourinho was one manager going into those matches and a different one coming out the other side. And I think so even though Real won La Liga the following season. He hadn’t stopped winning—he still hasn’t—but the story had shifted under his feet.

Looking back now, it’s hard to remember just how much hype followed José’s move to Spain. His last match with Inter had been the treble-clinching win against Bayern in the Champions League final (played, incidentally, at the Santiago Bernabéu, Real Madrid’s home stadium). To secure his release from Inter, Madrid had to come up with a record compensation package. There was a sense that this move, after years of Madrid coming up second to the Messi-Xavi-Guardiola nuclear fleet in Catalonia, was ushering in the next phase of European soccer history. Madrid had Cristiano Ronaldo, and it was already clear in 2011 that Ronaldo and Messi would be competing for the highest conceivable stakes within the game. If Mourinho could lead Ronaldo and his extremely expensive supporting cast through Barcelona and its squad of homegrown artist-geniuses, that would be the making of one kind of soccer history. If he couldn’t—if Barcelona took the best shot from the game’s biggest talents and kept winning anyway—that would be the making of another.

Oh, and did I mention that Mourinho had been an assistant coach at Barcelona earlier in his career? While Pep Guardiola was there as a star player? And that the two rival managers had once been—whisper it, if you can whisper in a 96-point tabloid headline—friends?

Stories like this are always too simple, and this one was no exception. Once they take hold, though, they’re almost impossible to shake. From the outside, they have the power to shape the way we see a person. And from the inside … well, I’ve never been inside one, so what do I know? But I’d imagine that even as you’re sharply conscious of all the limitations and distortions in the public narrative, all the stuff most people can’t see or don’t understand, the sheer intensity of that much concentrated attention still exerts a powerful shaping force on your reality. Especially someplace like Spain, where major newspapers are affiliated with the top soccer clubs, whose wins and losses are treated as global events. Mourinho himself, before taking the job, had talked about the special significance of being the Madrid manager. In America, world soccer largely means the English Premier League and to a lesser extent Leo Messi; for much of the world, though, Real Madrid is the club. If I don’t do this, José said, my career will always have this blank in the middle of it.

It didn’t help that in 2011, Real Madrid and Barcelona seemed to represent diametrically opposed possibilities for the future of the sport itself. I won’t belabor this point, because chances are you already know it, but here’s a brief refresher. Madrid: galácticos, record transfer fees, Ronaldo’s Lamborghinis, Sergio Ramos, commercialism, crowds weeping outside Kaká’s house in Milan, Franco. Barcelona: La Masia, UNICEF, “more than a club,” Xavi being a literal elf, tiki-taka, hugs, rebellion against Franco. It was a simpler time, 2011. Colossal global marketing behemoths with carefully curated brand identities really meant something back then.

So Mourinho arrives in Madrid. Before he’s even off the plane, the tension knob is already turned up so high that there’s just a spring hanging out of a hole where the knob used to be. By November 2010 he’s won seven games in a row. Madrid’s flying. Then comes José’s first Clásico, and it’s sputtering, engine failure, nosedive. Barcelona annihilates Madrid, 5-0, in a match no one who watched it will forget. It’s the worst scoreline of José’s career, a loss so total that the president of Real Madrid says afterward that it’s the worst defeat in the history of the club. From inside the narrative, it looks like the most complete possible vindication of Barcelona’s claim to greatness, and the most absolute rebuke of José’s.

Fast-forward to April, when the schedule dials up four Clásicos in two and a half weeks.

This many rivalry games in this short a time would have been a lot to handle in any context, but in the context of that 5-0 result, it became one of those sports Armageddons that almost seems more frightening than exciting. I was writing about soccer full-time at that point, and I remember distinctly having the sense that nothing less than four matches in 18 days could possibly reset the rivalry after that loss. For Mourinho and Ronaldo, dominating those four games would at least reestablish them as Barcelona’s equals, and it was hard to imagine how that could happen in any other way. I think everyone had some version of that feeling. Heading into the games, the hype was approaching World Cup final levels—even worse, in a way, because opponents in World Cup finals don’t play each other that often. Tension-wise, it was like a subwoofer under the floor.

You can read more about the games themselves elsewhere on The Ringer. Suffice it to say that no one got exactly what they wanted, but Barcelona came closer, and the stakes were lower for them. Each club won once, and they drew twice. José’s side took the Copa del Rey final—Madrid’s first trophy in years—but Barcelona knocked Madrid out of the Champions League (which Barça went on to win) and held Madrid off in the league (which Barça also went on to win). Without overemphasizing the problem of style, or the feeling that Madrid was way too willing in this era to adopt sweep-the-leg tactics against Messi, it’s at least worth noting that Madrid had players sent off in three of the four matches. Mourinho himself was sent to the stands at the Bernabéu, in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals, for complaining about a red card against Pepe.

And what can you do, really? Madrid had an absurdly talented and absurdly expensive group of players; Barcelona had arguably the best team in the history of club soccer. (Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United squad lost to Barça in the 2011 Champions League final, has said they were the best team he ever faced.) It was never realistic to think that Mourinho would breeze into Spain like a smug Mary Poppins and single-handedly make Xavi and Iniesta obsolete. And José’s Madrid did win La Liga the next year, while Barcelona were in a sort of coming-down-for-oxygen phase at the end of Guardiola’s tenure at the club. Overall, my sense is that Mourinho’s Madrid teams are a little underappreciated—that the combination of José’s endless drama and Barcelona’s legacy makes it easy to overlook how good they really were.

Still, the fact remains that heading into that first season in Madrid, José seemed charmed, seemed like someone who knew a magic secret. And by the end of those four matches in April, he seemed like … well, like one more very good soccer manager, with the same limitations as everyone else. The character he’d created—with the media’s help, of course, but he seemed to relish playing it—no longer quite matched reality. And it never really would again. Mourinho has continued to win titles, lead big clubs, and command attention. But for almost a decade, he’d mischievously sold himself as bigger than the game, and he’d come close to justifying the image. April 2011 was the moment when something became clear that’s been ringingly reinforced in April 2021—that there were forces in soccer larger than José Mourinho.