Spy Versus Spy as Mourinho Finds Madrid’s Not Forever

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Jose+Mourinho+Florentino+PerezIt’s one of those expressions that work equally well in Spanish and English: “Mourinho Tira La Toalla A 22 Jornadas Del Final” – “Mourinho Throws In The Towel With 22 Games Left”. AS’s front page had put it in a nutshell: the game was up in the league. Maybe the game’s up for The Special One in Spain as well.

AS’s front page: Mourinho throws in the towel”

Real Madrid went into Sunday night’s game against Espanyol under yet another cloud of Mourinho’s making. Radio Marca reported last Thursday that Real’s squad are uncomfortable with goalkeeping coach Silvino, whom they consider to be a spy for Mourinho.

According to the author of the claim, Anton Meana, Mourinho summoned him for a private meeting before the Espanyol game and exploded spectacularly, making the brilliant announcement: “”In the footballing world, me and my people are at the top and in the world of journalism you are a piece of crap!” He went on to imply he’d get his revenge once he was no longer coach of Real Madrid.

So far, so fractious, but intrigue is nothing new when Mourinho is around. His departure at Chelsea was, to a small extent, precipitated by his belief that Avram Grant had been installed as a spy for Roman Abramovic, and Silvino was a player in one of Mourinho’s most entertainingly Machiavellian manouevres.

The coach was serving a touchline ban and confined to the stands, barred from contacting his coaching staff for a Champions League game against Bayern Munich, but Silvino was seen constantly shuttling between the changing room and Mourinho’s seat in the stands carrying pieces of paper. His forays were usually followed by a substitution.

Perhaps Mourinho had been enjoying a boxset of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that afternoon: during the match, Mourinho also appeared to be contacting his fitness coach by an earpiece hidden under the latter’s woolly hat, and reportedly departed the ground hiding in a laundry basket!

Mourinho loves constantly stirring the media waters. The problem is, in Real Madrid he has found himself at an institution which has an inflated sense of the importance of its own dignity, and crucially is too huge to be changed or manipulated.

Which is not to suggest that before Mourinho arrived Real never knew such dramas: on the contrary, it is possibly the most political football club in the world, with an attendant media closer to a Parliamentary lobby than a sports press. Mourinho has bitten off more than he can chew by taking on such a well-established set-up.

A couple of factors mark this incident out as significant. One is the nationality of the accused coach.

Don’t picture Silvino as some supine lapdog: he played in two Champions League finals, captaining Benfica in 1990, won 23 caps and has carved out a significant career as a goalkeeping coach, following Mourinho from the days he arrived at Porto. You’ll have worked out he’s Portuguese by now, and this, coupled with his ten year association with Mourinho, fits neatly into the perceived split in the camp.

We’re regularly told the Madrid camp is split between the Portuguese-speakers and the Spaniards and last season’s success was achieved through an uneasy truce between the two camps, often by people who know what they’re talking about.

Fuel was added to that fire by Meana’s assertion that Mourinho had gone on to have a Brendan Rodgers envelope moment: “There are 21 players that get along great with Silvino and, like anywhere, there are three black sheep that harm the group.”

Mourinho often thrives by creating a creative tension, but it seems to have bubbled out of his control this season, with tales of changing room defiance and anger that he has abandoned a promise made to the senior Spanish players to draw in his horns and not court controversy so eagerly.

The other issue about Silvinogate is the fact that it was reported at all. The highly-politicised Madrid media take their lead from the club, and it was no coincidence when they speculated on Mourinho’s future in the wake of the recent defeat to Real Betis. Clearly Florentino Perez, or his people, had let the papers of the leash, a move interpreted as either a message to Mourinho or a sign his days were numbered. And now here is Marca revealing tales of changing room disharmony and distrust of the coach. You don’t have to be a Kremlinologist to work out that the tide is turning against Mourinho.

Still, at least they had an easy home game against Espanyol to improve everybody’s mood. That would be poor, useless Espanyol, in the bottom three all season and looking absolutely doomed despite the recent arrival as coach of lost cause specialist Javier Aguirre.

However, the visitors failed to roll over and die: they led for 15 minutes before conceding with the last kick of the first half, held Madrid at 2-1 through a combination of stubborn defending and heroic goalkeeping by Casilla, and snatched a point in the 88th minute when Real failed to deal with a corner.

The Madridistas weren’t happy, their dissatisfaction penetrating even the suspicious presence of a cheerleader with a megaphone who kept the positive atmosphere going in a marathon ninety-minute effort, before no doubt popping to the local Ear Nose and Throat for a retread of his vocal chords.

Mourinho didn’t really help matters after the game. While his players came out with all the right noises, defiantly claiming the league ain’t over till it’s over, he declared that the race was run and winning the league is “practically impossible.” Unaware of this, Xabi Alonso was even picked up by reporters and asked why he was contradicting his coach, and had to explain that Mourinho had surrendered the title when speaking to the team after the match.

Ominously for Mourinho, Perez has sided firmly with the players on this, pointedly repeating more than once the message that the side should not give up, before driving his point home face-to-face at Monday night’s club Christmas meal: “Together we can achieve what we have set out to. Real Madrid never gives up its sporting principles, however difficult it may be to face the challenges.”

“One should not yield, either in sport or in life.” Tuesday’s Madrid papers lead with pictures of a sour-faced Mourinho sat next to his president, who appears to be lecturing him over his Brussels sprouts, with headlines declaring “Florentino reminds Mourinho about the spirit of the team” and suggesting he has “rectified the situation” with his coach. The implication seems to be it’s the sort of rectification Tony Soprano brings to a situation. Meanwhile, Barcelona-based paper Mundo Deportivo gleefully revel in Real being “Fed Up Of Mou!”

Mourinho’s analysis of the game will hardly have helped the perceived split in the changing room to heal either. Cristiano Ronaldo had a poor game. Admittedly he scored the equaliser (though it ought to have been disallowed for a high foot) and set up the winner, but apart from that he did little, constantly losing possession in promising positions. Three shots on target in nine attempts was a serious dip from a season average of 56% of his shots being on target, although he had 50% more shots than usual. The stats didn’t lie this time: he was looking desperate.

Still, Mourinho sought to single Ronaldo out for praise in a manner unlikely to quell any jealous accusations of preferential treatment among the rest of the team:

“Cristiano played well, but his teammates, no.”

Surely Florentino Perez’s trigger finger is getting itchy. Watching his side stutter in the league – they’ve already dropped more points than they did in the whole of last season!- will have been hard to take; if he’d then tuned into Barcelona’s destruction of Atlético and heard the home fans chant to Real’s coach “¡Mourinho quedate!”, essentially “Mourinho, know your place”, he will have felt his club’s traditionally proud stature had been further eroded by his coach.

The thirteen point gap between his side and Sandro Rosell’s will be what hurts Perez most though. The last time Real allowed Barcelona to get so far ahead of them in the table was in 2008, and coach Bernd Schuster paid with his job.

There are remarkable echoes of the current situation in what happened four years ago. The German had made a similar declaration of impotence to Mourinho’s, declaring after his final match (a 4-3 home defeat to Sevilla) that it would be impossible to win the next game, against Barsa, a claim publicly contradicted by then-President Ramon Calderon and senior players Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos. Unlike Mourinho, his side were only nine points behind the Catalans at the time.

The Special One is an arch-strategist both on and off the pitch. He needs to chose his next moves very carefully.

Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born

vadillo Messi makes history, but a Betis star is born
Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

Lionel Messi hogged the headlines, of course, when he finally broke Gerd Muller’s record for most goals in a calendar year.

Although the Madrid papers were delighted that Radomel Falcao gave them an excuse not to lead on this astonishing achievement: AS led on “Insatiable Falcao” and tucked Messi into the top left corner, Marca’s online edition’s top two stories were on the Colombian.

However, while Messi was rightly the centre of attention in Sevilla, something happened on the other side which might turn out to be of genuine significance. Real Betis’ bright young hope sparkled excitingly.

While the angle the press took was naturally that Messi had finally done it, the actual story of the match was less straightforward. He didn’t have the happiest of games apart from those two goals: an absurd notion, but a reflection of how much Betis troubled Barcelona.

They had to show courage to haul themselves back into the game though. Messi’s two strikes deflated Los Verdiblancos and even managed to suck the life out of the typically fearsome atmosphere the ever-fervent Béticos had created at the Benito Villamarin.

It almost seemed as if they felt it would be the churlish for the hosts to intrude on Messi’s party; at 2-0 Betis appeared on the verge of collapse, scared of asking their pushy guests for their ball back.

However, a brave move by Betis coach Pepe Mel turned things around. When his left–sided attacker Juan Carlos pulled up he ignored the two obvious options on the bench, Jorge Molina and Alejandro Pozuelo, and instead threw on eighteen-year-old Álvaro Vadillo. He would be rewarded for his boldness.

Vadillo was elegant, played with his head up and brought incision to Betis’ creative department. With Beñat beavering away superbly behind him (and probably putting another €5 million on the price tag for any prospective January bidders!) the tide turned.

Switching flanks comfortably, Vadillo always posed a threat. He provided the assist as Rubén Castro pulled one back, drifting laterally before delivering a lovely disguised reverse ball to send the striker one-on-one with Víctor Valdés.

It was a refined moment, combining technique and confidence: the kid had entered the game like he belonged there. After the year he’s had, it was an announcement that an exciting talent had returned.

Vadillo has history, despite his youth. He was hailed as a hot prospect when he broke through at the start of last season, becoming the youngest player in the history of the club and the second youngest in La Liga when he made his debut in an opening day derby win at Granada sixteen days before his seventeenth birthday.

Pepe Mel was clearly looking to ease the youngster into the first team picture and gave him two fairly lengthy substitute appearances in the next five matches before deciding to be bold and starting him at the Bernabeu. It would prove to be a fateful decision.

Twenty one minutes into the match Sergio Ramos clattered into him with typical subtlety. The result: massive damage to his anterior cruciate ligament and a serious setback to a sparkling talent.

Vadillo’s injury might have hampered his development, but equally it took him off the market. Fiorentina, Real Madrid and Manchester United had all made bids for the prodigy, United offering €3 million to take him to Old Trafford.

Betis rejected the deals, and local boy Vadillo pledged his loyalty to the club. He certainly has genuine Bético credentials, but the fact that he attended English classes during his recuperation implied he knew his long term future probably lay elsewhere.

He finally returned thirteen months later, for a Copa del Rey tie against Real Valladolid, and dispelled any doubts that he might not be himself with a superb thirty minutes from the bench, setting up two goals as Betis overturned a first leg deficit to go through 3-1.

Vadillo then made his first bow of the league campaign last weekend, coming on with half an hour left, shortly after his side had squandered a 2-0 lead at Deportivo, and helped them go on to win 3-2. He followed that up with his exciting supporting role at Messi’s big show.

Betis are enjoying a fine campaign, and have plenty of talent in the line behind the striker. It’s the perfect scenario for Pepe Mel to bring Vadillo through without rushing him, although there’ll be a real temptation to throw caution to the wind if he continues to captivate like he did against Barcelona.

The Inevitable Demise of Jose Antonio Reyes

From Soccerlens
When Jose Antonio Reyes scored the fastest goal in the history of the Seville derby last weekend, snatching that record from opposing manager Pepe Mel in the process, it seemed too good to be true.

Jose Antonio Reyes celebrates during Sevilla’s remarkable derby win

When he added another goal and an assist before half time Sevilla fans wondered if they’d died and gone to heaven.

By the time of the final whistle, when a final score of 5-1 was confirmed, ending the home side’s disappointing win-less run against their great rivals, it must have felt like football just couldn’t get any better.

Sadly, it was too good to be true, and things won’t get any better. Sevilla will return to mediocrity, and Reyes will revert to being a disappointment, starting this weekend when he returns to Atletico Madrid with the world waiting to see what he does next. It’s the cruel way football is.

Some basic, unbreachable laws of football are sacrosanct. Reyes’ goals might have raised hopes among the Sevillistas of a wonderful, touching resurrection, but it isn’t going to happen. Football doesn’t work that way.

Jose Antonio Reyes was the golden boy of Sevilla in his youth: a lifelong fan of the club who made the transition to the pitch and immediately established himself as one of Europe’s most exciting young talents with his searing pace and dazzling footwork.

And what did he spend his money on once he hit the big time? A mosaic of the Sevilla badge in the bottom of his swimming pool. Even when he was embroiled in  moments of controversy, they only served to enhance his cult hero status: a brilliant goal led to team mate Francisco Gallardo embarking on a highly unorthodox celebration, going down on his knees and then going down on Reyes!

The Spanish media erupted, but the bemused Reyes merely had another crinkle added to his public persona.

In terms of his game, things were going swimmingly. With a youthful Dani Alves in support and Julio Baptista feeding off him, Reyes was at the heart of a template which would serve Sevilla well in their decade of glory, a side with width and pace, devastating on the break.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Jose Antonio Reyes was destined for better things. The big clubs of Europe were lurking, and they were not to be denied. Arsenal had been long term suitors, and seemed the ideal location for a boy with a small town mentality with their reputation for nurturing young talent and playing constructive passing football in the hurly-burly of the Premier League. The deal went through.

reyes The inevitable demise of Jose Antonio Reyes

Reyes celebrating in an Arsenal shirt

It didn’t work out. Reyes actually didn’t play too badly, but the perception of him as an unhappy export was accurate. He wasn’t happy, but the tie had been cut. He was now operating in a higher sphere than Sevilla’s, trapped in the spiral of an itinerant existence, schlepping around Europe, never finding his form, never finding happiness.

His return to Sevilla last season, his currency reduced, was greeted with delight. But that glee ignored a key tenet of football: you should never go back. He has failed to catch fire at all at the Sanchez Pizjuan, surely leaving Sevillistas wishing he’d not returned, and they could have been left with warm memories of his greatness rather than constant, if fleeting, reminders of how his promise was never fulfilled.

Until El Derbi Andaluz, Reyes’ performance was bewitching. In taking Mel’s record for fastest goal in the fixture he not only set the tone for the match, he also stuck it to one of the totemic figures of Seviila’s great enemy, and to fans that sort of thing matters. A lot.

And that’s why that performance is so cruel. It represents a false dawn. Jose Antonio Reyes won’t hit those heights again. This isn’t the beginning of his rebirth. Sevilla fans will be buoyed by the hope that he can maintain this level, but the fact is that his display was a fluke, an isolated bubble of memory rising from the wreck of a promising career.

It won’t happen again and the fans’ expectations that it will merely adds to this self-fulfilling prophesy: the pressure to repeat will ensure Reyes can’t do it. He’s not cut from that sort of cloth. Defiance isn’t in his nature.

In the future, the last spasm of Reyes’ talent will be revered by Sevilla fans. The perspective of memory changes everything, and long after Reyes has retired, his legacy will be created and his career reinvented. He will be recalled as the kid genius who went off to see the world, but returned to set up one of the club’s greatest moments.

Living through the mediocrity, the disappointment, the bitter betrayal of thinking he was back but finding he wasn’t will be forgotten. It’s like when cricket fans deify Ian Botham, lionising his great feats but selectively forgetting his long, impotent decline in a weak England side.

Jose Antonio Reyes will disappoint. Football disappoints. If you don’t know that yet, you’re young. But you’ll learn.