José Mourinho is a wizard, a magician, a master. He sees the world, and the pitch, a little differently than the rest of us.
I was looking at yet another back-page picture of José Mourinho. His eyes were burning twin holes in the newspaper. As usual. He’d just won the Premier League with Chelsea—you may have read something about that—and there was breathless speculation that he was already being offered a contract to keep him at Chelsea until 2019. How does he do it? What’s his secret? Does he really have powers denied to other football managers?
I looked at the image and realized that Mourinho is, in fact, Captain Beefheart. All at once I understood his method, his success, his failure, his strengths, his limitations. Like the Captain, Mourinho is the leader of a cult—a cult dedicated to the veneration of himself. There are examples of such people throughout history: Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Genesis P. Orridge. Mourinho is of that company—along with Captain Beefheart.
They are not all entirely dark figures. The Captain was a significant figure in the music of the 1960s and 1970s. He was promoted and produced by Frank Zappa. His masterpiece was the double album Trout Mask Replica, by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. Listen to it: 28 tracks of mayhem. It was a challenging work when it came out and is probably even more so now. It offends against the basic tenets of popular music: that it should first and foremost be pleasant. Not too demanding. Not requiring the listener to abandon comfort and accede to the demands of the composer and performers.
It’s been called the only Dadaist album in the history of rock, and it’s still hugely admired. It’s rated No. 60 in the Rolling Stone list of the best 500 albums of all time; there was praise for the “wild incomprehensible rampage through the blues” and the “avant-garde howl” of the tracks “Ella Guru” and “My Human Gets Me Blues.”
John Peel, the hugely influential British DJ, placed Trout Mask at No. 1 in his list of the greatest albums ever made. He said, “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of the art world understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.”
Trout Mask is great in a different way to your own favorite album. It excites unease and distaste even in its supporters. It forces those who listen to it to think and perhaps come to conclusions they wouldn’t have reached without listening to this uniquely challenging work. In other words, even if you don’t like what he does, the Captain demands respect.
In the same way, you may find Chelsea unrewarding to watch. You may even subscribe to the “boring Chelsea” theory, whatever that’s all about. But if you fail to be impressed by Chelsea and by Mourinho’s record, you’re not remotely interested in sport.
You can’t write off Mourinho as a freak show: He’s part of football history. And you can’t write off the Captain, either: He’s part of the history of popular music. He’s a success. And his methods were pretty much Mourinho’s: They were based on psychological domination of the people he worked with. The Magic Band was not a bunch of individual musicians; They were an extension of the captain’s will.
He even denied them their own names. This is not uncommon in cult leaders. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh rechristened new followers. They became newborn, having no identity but that given to them by the leader. Thus the Magic Band are credited on the album sleeve under names given to them by the Captain: Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged Eel Fingerling, Drumbo, Rockette Morton, the Mascara Snake. Sample dialogue from the album:
“Fast and bulbous!”
“That’s right, the Mascara Snake. Fast and bulbous! Also, a tinned teardrop.”
The music was laid down in a single take. The studio session followed a rehearsal that lasted eight months. During this time the Magic Band were holed up in a two-bedroom house and forced to practice 14 hours a day. They lived off a daily cup of beans under the total dominance of the Captain in an atmosphere described as “Mansonesque.”
All this sounds like the recipe for a nightmare. Yet what came out were 28 remarkable tracks that are praised to this day. The Captain’s methods were oppressive and perhaps abusive, but they produced an extraordinary piece of work to which everyone involved made a significant contribution, even if it’s the Captain that gets all the credit. It’s a curious dynamic. The acolytes are disempowered and empowered at the same time. They accept a subordinate role, but by doing so they become capable of far more than they could do without their leader.
That’s pretty much what Mourinho does. “I hate to speak about individuals,” he has said. “Players don’t win trophies. Teams win trophies, squads win trophies.” No player can ever be said to be the work of the manager, but every team and every squad can. In other words, it’s managers that win trophies, not players.
Alfred Hitchcock used the method of the personality cult to make films. His work was, of course, very good indeed. He once said, “I never said actors were like cattle. I said they should be treated like cattle.” Which is kind of what Mourinho thinks about players, though it would not be judicious for him to say so.
It doesn’t matter whether the cult leader is right. What matters is that you believe he’s right. It’s your belief that gives him power, and it’s his power that gives you the ability to outstrip your limitations. You find yourself doing stuff for him that you would never attempt for yourself.
A cult leader is not necessarily a phony. Some use the situation they have created—personal domination of a collection of individuals—to produce something effective or even marvelous. The Maharishi came up with a simple form of meditation that many people have found useful.
Mourinho and Captain Beefheart have both created marvelous things, things you can’t help but admire: Look at Chelsea, listen to Trout Mask Replica. You might not want to be a part of the Magic Band, you might not care for the captain, and Trout Mask may not be your cup of tea. But you sure as hell have to admire the achievement.
Mourinho is both laughable and alarming. That’s another aspect of cult leaders: They like to keep their followers on their toes. You’re never sure what the master is going to do next. A dreadful performance might be followed by a cuddle or rewarded with new responsibilities. A match-winning performance could be followed by a bollocking and a demotion. You never know.
Cult leaders use this kind of madness as a source of power. This unhinged quality gives a sense of danger to everything around them. And just when you’ve decided to hate him forever, he does something so damn wonderful that you want to be his slave forever.
This was at the heart of Brian Clough’s method, and Clough prefigured Mourinho in a million ways. My favourite Clough line came when he had just acquired David Nish, the first defender bought for a six-figure sum: £225,000, in 1962. Clough said, “He’s a nice boy. But now he’s come to Derby he’s going to have to learn how to play football.” That is to say, be molded into a new shape by the cult leader.
Here’s the archetypal Clough story. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but it’s bandied about as a classic example of the Clough method. His top defender and club captain had done something wrong, so he was suspended without pay for a fortnight. He was told not to come anywhere near the club. So he went home. Then there was a knock on the door. The player answered the door. It was Clough.
“Fuck off. I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to your wife.”
Clough presented her with the fabulously expensive, wholly exotic gift of a color television.
You never knew if Clough was going to go for your throat or give you a kiss. Rant or sing a sentimental song. His teams were built around the great man, dominated by his personality. And he won two European Cups, one with Derby County and one with Nottingham Forest. Even then these were impossible feats. Clough’s memory is revered to this day.
Mourinho gets the same sort of respect. He is probably the only living human to whom sober and serious newspapers attribute magical properties. He is supposed to have mysterious ways of controlling a football match and inspiring players. His power is said to affect referees and rival managers.
All baloney, of course, but that doesn’t matter.
Mourinho is not literally a magician. He doesn’t need to be. That’s because enough people believe that he has remarkable powers, powers that border on the supernatural. This intimidates opponents and match officials and inspires his own players and staff. And plenty of journalists.
I’m not suggesting that Mourinho has a cult leader’s power instead of football skills. This is top-level football: You won’t get anywhere without immense ability. Perhaps my favourite Mourinho match came when he was at Inter Milan. His team took on Barcelona in the semifinals of the Champions League of 2010. Inter won the home leg 3-1: Not enough, the experts said. But Barcelona fell short in the second leg, winning 1-0. The match stats show that every single Barcelona player made more successful passes than the most successful passer from Inter.
In other words, Mourinho exploded the myth of tika-taka as the ultimate form of football. He made the intricate passing game look futile—and went on to win the final with the same bunch of very good players, even if they weren’t players of earthshaking ability, like the ones they had outwitted in Barcelona.
Mourinho’s football skills complement his adroitly exploited cult leader’s power. It’s that combination that has made him irresistible: one of the best football managers in the world. And if you want to take out the words “one of” and strike the “s” at the end of “managers”—then I suspect you’ve fallen under the influence yourself.
If you’re going to operate as a cult leader, you need followers. And if you want to exploit cult-leader status to produce remarkable work, as the Captain and Mourinho have done, you need followers with remarkable skills. They need to be (a) talented enough to perform as you wish, and (b) meek enough to buy into your cult.
It’s worth wondering what would have happened musically if the Captain had recruited, say, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Ginger Baker into the Magic Band. I have a pretty good idea: nothing. There would have been a series of colossal rows and either the musicians would have walked or the Captain would have been forced out. None of those musicians is the type to sink his musical ambitions in another’s vision. They were the best of their kind because they had their own vision and they stuck to it.
We don’t need to speculate what would have happened if Brian Clough had been in the same position. We know. He went to manage Leeds United, a team full of alpha-plus footballers—Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles, Peter Lorimer, Alan Clarke, and Norman Hunter—who simply wouldn’t accept Clough and his methods. He lasted 44 days.
And we don’t need to speculate what would have happened with Mourinho in that position, for he did his stint at Real Madrid. It lasted longer than Clough’s disaster, from 2010 to 2013, and it was more successful, with a league title and two cup wins. But the prize the club wanted, the Champions League, eluded him.
He arrived announcing, “I am José Mourinho and I don’t change. I come with all my qualities and defects.” He then set about falling out with people, supporters, journalists, and players. He had immense clashes with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas, the club captain. And inevitably, he fell out with Cristiano Ronaldo. “Maybe he thinks he knows everything,” Mourinho said. “Maybe he thinks the coach cannot improve him anymore.” And maybe Jimi Hendrix wouldn’t take it well if the Captain told him how to play the guitar. “We must think more about our football and not play by instinct,” Mourinho said. Football must be controlled. A Mourinho team is defined by the control that he can exert.
It’s significant that Mourinho failed to dominate Real Madrid as he dominated Porto, Chelsea, Inter, and then Chelsea again. Madrid alone were immune to the Mourinho effect. The players, caught up in their own self-regard, failed to fall under Mourinho’s spell. At Madrid, Mourinho found himself in a tribe of atheists. Back at Chelsea he was back among true believers. And he has thrived again.
In other words, Mourinho works best with players who are a shade below top class. The greatest of all players—Pelé, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Ronaldo, Messi—have too many ideas of their own, and a realistically high opinion of themselves that puts them beyond Mourinho’s reach. The manager who has genuinely great players in his charge must build his team around them. He must be become egoless.
Mourinho prefers the egoless player. That’s why his teams will never attract the great love of the public, unlike the Brazil of the ’70s or Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. But they will be outstandingly effective, and they will win trophies. And Mourinho knows that you can’t put love in a cabinet or on the CV, and that if you win, enough people love you to make life pretty tolerable.
As usual, then, in sport or anywhere else, a person’s greatest strength is also his most glaring weakness. Mourinho’s great talent is to take very good players, combine them, and create a hugely effective team. In the course of his travels, player after player and team after team have found genuine inspiration through their belief in his baloney.
It has brought him the most remarkable record. But the fact remains that when he had the very best players in the world, he was found wanting. Or rather, the methods that worked so well in most circumstances simply didn’t work with footballers of a certain level of excellence.
I know it doesn’t sound so good, calling a person a cult leader. That’s because most of the cult leaders that stick in the mind produce bad things. But you can use the methods of Charles Manson without urging your followers to commit murder. The Captain and Mourinho both used their powers to create pretty impressive things: Trout Mask Replica, and Mourinho’s own double album, the Champions League titles of 2004 and 2010, with Porto and Inter. You have to admire these achievements, even if you don’t love them.
And as for the cult followers, they have a choice, do they not? They can refuse the domination and walk away, as some players have done. They can make Mourinho walk away, as they eventually did at Real Madrid. Or they can buy into the cult—and achieve more than they ever could without the leader.
As for us? We can play the album again and marvel at its brilliance, or turn to something a little less abrasive, a little less challenging. We can stare back into those Mourinho eyes—fall under their spell—or we can look away.
Illustration by Chris Buzelli