It can feel like a trick of the imagination sometimes to remember there was once a time when José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola were comrades. Not friends, perhaps, but certainly allies and close enough that Guardiola saved his future bete noire from a tight spot back in the days before Mourinho, as Real Madrid manager, started referring to Barcelona only as ellos (them).
It’s a great story given what we know now. Barcelona were playing Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés and at full-time Luis Fernández, the home team’s manager, appeared ready to throttle the newly appointed coach who was beside Bobby Robson in the opposition dugout. Mourinho had gone too far with his insults and gestures and curling of the lip. He was surrounded by Basques, with only Luís Figo backing him up, until Guardiola, the Barça captain, suddenly appeared in Fernández’s face.
Guardiola did not use physical force because a man of his status had other means to settle the argument. He simply used his force of personality – the fact he was not just anyone – and the power of eye contact, staring daggers at the Athletic players, daring them to disobey him, before chaperoning Mourinho to the safety of the dressing rooms. “His intervention was achieved with pure charisma,” Paolo Condo, the Italian sportswriter, recalls in The Duellists, his book about the conflict between the two men. “He didn’t raise a hand, he didn’t make any threats, just using the weight of his own leadership.”
Condo was the international correspondent on Gazzetta dello Sport for many years and takes the title of his book from the 1977 film of the same name, Ridley Scott’s directorial debut, featuring the story of two French soldiers, Armand d’Hubert and Gabriel Freud, who had a trivial quarrel that escalated into a lifelong grudge. D’Hubert, like Guardiola, was cold, superior and detached. Feraud was stubborn, hot-tempered and over the top. “Pep is considered to be a figure of perfect sportsmanship, the flawless and fearless knight who offers his hand to his opponent before and after the battle,” the author writes. “Mou, meanwhile, subscribes to the football equivalent of Italian minister Rino Formica’s definition of politics as ‘blood and shit’.”
It’s nicely put, even if there might be a few Manchester United supporters who dispute the follow-up line – “That’s what the fans hunger for” – now Mourinho is going through another of those phases, as he does at every club, where he is picking fights that don’t really exist, walking into press conferences with the expression of an untipped waiter and showing, yet again, why Barcelona rejected him for their manager’s job because, as their former vice-president, Ferran Soriano, now of Manchester City, once wrote, he “generates media conflict almost permanently”.
The latest game of “What’s eating José?” is certainly nothing new and, though he is never an easy man to second-guess, it isn’t the greatest leap of logic to suspect his spiky mood might have something to do with being caught in Manchester City’s wing mirrors and the superlatives that are being attached to the team put together by his old adversary.
Mourinho may have a super‑sized ego but people with immense self‑belief are not immune to occasional insecurities. Or, indeed, jealousy. And, though these are still early days, there isn’t a lot to substantiate Roy Keane’s assertion that City might yet collapse because “it’s in the club’s DNA to mess up”.
The old City, perhaps. Yet Keane appears to be talking about a time when it was Kevin Horlock, not Kevin De Bruyne, in midfield and Alan Ball used to turn up for press conferences clutching a can of cider. These days, the phrase “Typical City” is probably best summed up by the fact they have scored 35 goals in their 10 Premier League fixtures, as well as knocking in four against the Serie A leaders in midweek, and could still greedily add Alexis Sánchez to their forward line in January. Apart from the colour of their shirts and the first letter of their postcode, the modern City feel a long way removed from the days of Jamie Pollock, Bernard Manning, Kappa shirts and Kippax melancholy.
Mourinho’s beef is because, as he sees it, his team have received a disproportionately low amount of praise. His comments in the last few days have made it clear he resents the way Tottenham Hotspur have become darlings of the media. He was desperate to portray Chelsea, a club where he now has few friends, as an ultra‑defensive team after they had sacked him, brought in Antonio Conte and won the league, and that was a classic Mourinho line when he referred to the way Liverpool were built up as “the last wonder of the world”.
The only surprise, perhaps, is that he has not brought City into it and has resisted any of the old urges to start playing with Guardiola’s mind. So far, anyway. We all know what Mourinho is like and, if City continue to shimmer so brilliantly, it surely cannot be long before the bee in his bonnet is buzzing out of control.
To be fair to Mourinho, he does have a point when it comes to his reputation for dull, anaemic football being over‑egged in some quarters. People seem to forget that in a dozen seasons at Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale and Real Madrid his teams finished as the top scorers in their leagues seven times. Or that in three years in Spain he came up against a Barça side who were acclaimed as the most beautifully constructed club team of all time – and outscored them twice. Madrid managed 121 goals for one season, a record for La Liga, and they scored five or more on 11 different occasions in all competitions.
As for boring football at Old Trafford, Mourinho’s critics ought to remind themselves what it was like under Louis van Gaal and the purgatory of watching the most joyless United side for decades. Van Gaal’s team managed 144 shots on target in his final year – on average, 3.8 per game. Mourinho had reached that number by the first week of February last season. The truth, however it is spun, it that Old Trafford, on his watch, has become a much better place to watch football.
The Guardian Sport