The Weekly Sweeper: Real Madrid Finally Grasps “Shit on a Stick”

Ye-Ye Legend, Alfredo di Stefano

Ye-Ye Legend, Alfredo di Stefano

The obvious big story out of this week was Jose Mourinho’s transfer to Real Madrid immediately following Inter Milan’s Champions League win.  Not one for subtlety, perhaps the most memorable image was that of Mourinho exiting his car to weepily embrace defender Marco Materazzi, presumably on his way to a similarly weepy exit interview with Massimo Moratti.

In the midst of all the tears and poorly-guarded transfer details, the Times‘ Oliver Kay cleverly reminded his followers what Real Madrid general manager Jorge Valdano said about “the Special One’s” managerial approach with Chelsea back in 2007:

Real Madrid’s Valdano “Mourinho/Benitez don’t believe in the talent of players or ability to improvise to win matches” (2007)

Valdano: “If football goes the way Chelsea/LFC are taking it, goodbye to expression of cleverness/talent we’ve enjoyed for 100 yrs” (2007)

Kay intended for Valdano to eat his three year-old words (“I found Valdano’s comments re Mourinho/Benitez disrespectful at the time. Interesting that Real have “sold out” though”), but he inadvertently underlined a massive change in the European footballing landscape.

This past season was supposed to be all about Real Madrid.  While spending millions upon millions of Euros on securing the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, and Karim Benzema in the summer of 2009 may have seemed preposterous in light of the success of the last generation of Galacticos, it followed a Madrista script that was written back in the mid 1950s: players are king at Real.

This was the ethos of the Yé-yé team that dominated the European Cup in the early days of the competition in the late 1950s, and it’s summed up best by Francisco Gento on the documentary, the History of Football, speaking of how Madrid beat AC Milan’s defense in the 1958 European Cup in Brussels: “we were Madrid, we broke down all systems.”  No one remembers the names of the managers from that period; all that remains is Santiago Bernebeu’s collection of individual talents who worked together to overcome top-down tactical rigidity.  This approach has marked Real Madrid’s player policy under president Florentino Perez.

It also sparked Valdano’s “shit on a stick” remarks back in 2007, which underlined his belief that talented players are still capable of winning games in the modern European game with cleverness, ingenuity, creativity.  This was the ethos that led to a Madrid first team packed with wildly expensive footballing talent with the skilled but hardly world-beating Manuel Pelligrini at the helm.  And it failed; Real didn’t win La Liga, and they yet again went out of the competition they first made famous, missing out on a Champions League final on their home ground. Real’s decision to acquire Mourinho is an admission of defeat.  Player power is over; Mourinho’s Real Madrid signing caps the Age of the Manager.

Yet Valdano was wrong in 2007 to ascribe blame for the modern lack of individual creativity in football on Mourinho; he is a symbol (a fascinating one at that) how talented soccer players are molded in Europe in the 21st century.  Hoovered up into academies or youth reserve teams at younger and younger ages, promising players aren’t given the space to improvise.  They aren’t given the authority to make on-field decisions that will guide the team as a whole.  They learn one or two on-field positions and are therefore incapable of variation.  They play precisely to the manager’s wishes, or they are shunted off for good.   Mourinho’s father-like embrace of Matrix on his exit from Inter Milan sums up the paternalistic philosophy of the modern manager.

This approach is also reflected in Mourinho’s remarks before the European Cup final last weekend that the Champions League is now bigger than the World Cup.  This is a view increasingly held by journalists and managers alike, who reason that the motley collection of individually talented players thrown together every two years could not possibly be as good as the Europe’s big clubs, precisely because they have much less time playing under the national team manager.

Which is why the team to watch in the World Cup in South Africa will be Diego Maradona’s Argentina.  Here is a manager with no discernible tactical approach but with a squad packed with some of the best players in the world, including Barcelona’s “Playstation player,” Lionel Messi.  Maradona’s sincere belief in the talent of his squad—and his consistent lack of any and all managerial direction or authority—makes perfect sense considering his own individual footballing genius.  Here is man who epitomizes Valdano’s football philosophy, using cleverness and ingenuity to give Argentina the World Cup in 1986.  Their success in 2010 could be Player Power’s last stand.  It will be fascinating to watch in any case.

It’s interesting that many still talk about 1986 as the last great FIFA tournament.  It would too broad to blame the deterioration of the world’s most popular sporting tournament on the rise of the manager and the racehorse-breeding mentality of youth team coaches, but the two are probably not unrelated.  Mourinho might be right: the Champions League could be the better competition, and the managers more than players are now the “Special Ones.”   That other football philosopher, Eduardo Galeano, put it best:

In the old days there was the trainer and nobody paid him much heed.  He died without a word when the game stopped being a game and professional soccer required a technocracy to keep people in line.  Then the manager was born.  His mission: to prevent improvisation, restrict freedom and maximize the productivity of the players, who were now obliged to become disciplined athletes.

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