‘Gardening leave’ is about as dull a term as you can find to describe an individual’s professional inactivity, but undeterred, Jose Mourinho remains a source of unceasing excitement in the minds of football scribes up and down the UK. Mourinho, himself, has yet to utter a public word since his Chelsea sacking five weeks ago, but such uncustomary silence hasn’t deterred the press from using the otiose Portugese to prop up sales with unrelenting speculation on the 52 year old’s next move.
Barely a day goes by without at least one piece speculating on Mourinho’s next destination, with the Guardian, Telegraph and almost all the red tops recently raising the spectre of the Portugese turning his hand to the England national team. With Mourinho’s dream position at Manchester United off-limits for the time-being at least and it being the Portugese’ stated desire to remain in Blighty, so it stands to reason (or at least the media’s version of reason) that the one-time ‘special one’ should take over from yesterday’s media darling Roy Hodgson.
So is this just wishful thinking on the part of a media who still mostly view Mourinho as some Godlike genius and not as a manager who’s delivered just two major trophies from the last possible twelve on offer? Before we look at the likelihood of a Fleet Street wet dream becoming an x-rated reality, let’s first of all look at the merits of ‘Mourinho for England’.
On the face of it, it seems like a perfect fit. The obsession the English media have with the national team manager would almost sate even Mourinho’s unquenchable thirst for attention. Where previous managers have wilted under the glare of the searing spotlight, one could easily imagine Mourinho’s only annoyance being directed instead at those organs impertinent enough to give more attention to such comparatively trivial issues as Isis, global warming and general elections. In terms of feeding Mourinho’s narcissism, the England hotseat wouldn’t so much tick a box as plant a smacker on the Portugese’ derriere.
But what of the actual management aspect of the role?
Again, there’s a strong argument to be made that at this particular juncture in Mourinho’s career, the more sedate, prosaic nature of the international game would better suit his undoubted strengths. Mourinho’s über-defensive, counter-attacking tactics have come something of a cropper in recent years with more and more opponents playing him at his own game with generally favourable outcomes. Where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for his teams to achieve success over the long hard slog of a domestic season, the part-time international schedule would, you’d imagine, be better suited to such limited tactics – as a desperately limited Greece team showed on their way to winning the 2004 European Championships.
Due to the seeding system of international football it’s entirely possible – even likely – that a team can win a major tournament having faced only two or three good teams over a two year cycle. Over such a short sample of difficult games Mourinho’s tactics are far more likely to succeed than over the course of a long arduous club season.
In fact, the sparse international schedule could also paper over another of Mourinho’s weaknesses – player burnout. With the sheer volume of ski-resorts, sea-stacks and fishing villages that populate the international game these days, it’s sometimes difficult to see the need for exertion of any kind, never mind to a degree that would lead to player burnout.
Another box to receive a massive tick would be Mourinho’s attention to detail. Famous for his forensic recces on upcoming opponents, the Portugese would no doubt delight in the generous time lapse between games at international level. At the last World Cup Roy Hodgson seemed to be taken by surprise that Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suarez were the pivotal players for group opponents Italy and Uruguay respectively and thus allowed both the freedom of the park with devastating consequences. It’s impossible to imagine a Jose Mourinho team being similarly unprepared, especially having had eight months to do his homework.
So, Mourinho for England then? Makes sense, right? So, will it happen? Not a chance.
For starters Mourinho is obsessed with one thing above all else: his CV. When asked prior to a Champions League semi-final during his time at Real Madrid what it would mean to win the tournament that year, Mourinho spoke of the dream of winning the European games’ greatest prize for a third time. It had to be pointed out to him that Real were, in fact, chasing their tenth such trophy. As far as Jose was concerned it could only ever be about him.
So, in order for Mourinho to add to his CV with England he would need to win a major tournament. Failure to win a tournament – by way of a dodgy decision, a slice of bad luck or, as is more likely with England, just not being good enough – would effectively mean that there would be at the minimum a four year gap on Mourinho’s precious CV. Such a blemish would be unthinkable for the former Inter boss, a man one suspects would prefer to win two Community Shields than one World Cup.
More pertinently there’s the problem of, well, England just not being very good. Since his initial success at Porto, Mourinho has studiously gone where he knows the cards are stacked in his favour. When he took charge of Chelsea in 2004 it was in the knowledge they had easily the best squad in England and arguably Europe; at Inter he inherited a team devoid of any serious competition with traditional rivals AC Milan and Juventus severely hobbled by the Calcioipoli scandal; at Real he inherited one of the strongest squads the game has seen and again at Chelsea, a team that had won the Champions League and Europa League in the twelve months prior to his return.
Over the past decade Mourinho has worked with some of the greatest players the game has seen and had unlimited funds to play with. Were he to take the England job he would have no such luxuries. While the English media may have convinced themselves that the likes of Joe hart, Jack Wiltshire and Raheem Sterling are world class, it’s quite another thing for such claims to be true. If Mourinho were to win a major trophy with England and their coterie of pampered, mediocre players it would eclipse his 2004 Champions League win with Porto and Mourinho the Pragmatist knows this is highly unlikely.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Mourinho – or any manager in his prime – willingly choosing international football over the Champions League kind. While the post of England head coach still retains a romantic place at the apex of the game in the minds of old school journalists, such views fly in the face of the reality of the modern game. So devalued is the currency of international football that almost every nation these days is managed either by up-and-coming types, hoping to put themselves in the shop window for a big club to take notice, or managers who’ve had their day and welcome an agreeable schedule that allows for plenty of time to play golf and visit the grandkids. The Italian national team manager Antonio Conte stands alone as an international coach coveted by Champions League clubs. With Mourinho as convinced as ever of his place at the top table of the management game, it would be anathema to him to turn his attention to the relative wilderness of the international game where he would only once every two years enjoy the comparative highs and adrenaline rush of Champions League knock-out ties and top four Premier League fixtures.
While it may not be difficult to see why a quote-hungry media would want such a colourful – and not to mention trophy-laden -manager to occupy the position of England head coach, it nonetheless represents a remarkable U-turn on their behalf. Where not so long ago figures like Terry Venables and Glenn Hoddle were hounded out of the job for behavioural reasons (correctly in the case of Hoddle), now it seems a more permissive media want the sacred position of national head coach to be occupied by a man who forced a referee into retirement, defamed a voluntary ambulance service, poked a cancer patient in the eye and bullied a female doctor into quitting her post, but not before calling her ‘hija de puta’ (literal translation: ‘daughter of a whore’.)
Whether this ethical about-turn owes to the aeonian longing of the fourth estate to see any kind of international success, or can merely be chalked down to yet another breath-taking display of the kind of moral acrobatics at which they so often excel, only the authors of the recent spate of ‘Mourinho for England’ pieces can say for sure. From the industry that introduced the concept of ‘acceptable racism’ and ‘unacceptable racism’ in their coverage of John Terry and Luis Suarez’ respective 2012 incidents, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to now see so many within that industry endorse the figure once described by Uefa as ‘the enemy of football.’
One things for certain though; were the highly unlikely to occur and Mourinho did indeed take charge of the three lions, it would signify not so much the sullying, as much as the outright defecation, of the memory of England’s only successful manager, Sir Alf Ramsey. Ramsey, who famously hauled his players off the pitch after their 1966 World Cup encounter with Argentina owing to what he felt was the South Americans penchant for play-acting and gamesmanship, was a firm believer in old-fashioned English values like fair play and honesty. That so many of Ramsey’s disciples should now be championing the cause of Mourinho, a manager who takes gamesmanship and all the dark arts to previously unimagined heights, would be a cause for sorrow if it wasn’t so damn funny.
So although the likelihood of Mourinho ever managing England is about as high as a snakes belly, we can at least enjoy the hilarious spectacle of the media dropping their standards and hiking their skirts in a futile attempt to secure the services of a manager many believe to be past his best and for whom the dark arts of the game can never be dark enough.