The breakup between Real Madrid and Jose Mourinho without either party’s seeking one cent in compensation is as rare in sports as it would be in any marriage or business.
But the “mutual consent” that was spoken of when the partnership was formally dissolved last Monday might be closer to loathing than loving. The real reason why Madrid tore up the contract so unconditionally was the fear that to do otherwise might have gotten in the way of the divorce.
Mourinho is now free to go back to Chelsea, provided the owner Roman Abramovich is ready to take him back six years after he paid him off to leave.
Soccer’s hire-and-fire revolving door is no different from what happens with some celebrity marriages or high-powered businesses. You love, you loathe, you pay for mistakes, and occasionally when the other partner has not replaced the original spark, you pay to start it all over again.
His first time around, Mourinho built something at Chelsea that was never going to suit Madrid. He lost very few matches in London, and if his team played with pragmatism, the winning was nectar to its owner and to the fans who had never seen a trophy collection like the one that Mourinho put in the cabinet.
Pragmatism is not commensurate with Real Madrid’s history. The club has 70,000 owners, not one oligarch. The supporters, called members in the Spanish culture, elect their board. And there happens to be an election on June 16, at which the incumbent president, Florentino Perez, will run, at the moment unopposed.
Even Perez, however, walks a certain tightrope at what he regards as the best club on earth. He could never change his allegiance – Perez’s name was put down for Real membership by his parents on the day he was born.
The Perez family is steeped in the illustrious image that Santiago Bernabeu set for the club in his 35 years as president, from 1943 until his death in 1978.
This vision was, and is, that the team has to have grandeur, has to win Europe’s biggest prizes and has to field memorable players.
Perez has had two very different attempts to be true to Bernabeu’s principles. His first term as president, from 2000 to 2006, was pinned on the recruitment of extravagant stars – Los Galacticos. They included Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, and a player you might have heard about, David Beckham.
Team coaches came and went quicker than players in that era, but it was the sacking of Vicente del Bosque a year after Real won its last Champions League final in 2002 that coincided with the loss of the club’s standing in Europe.
Perez, a construction magnate, won back the presidency four years ago. Once he has appointed his next coach – expected to be Carlo Ancelotti if the Italian can extract himself from Paris Saint-Germain – Real will have run through 11 coaching changes in 13 years. That compares to nine different coaches passing through Chelsea in Abramovich’s tenure. And, just for comparison, Bayern Munich, often held up as a paragon of stability, has also hired and fired nine, once they add their new coach, Pep Guardiola.
Mourinho’s legacy in Madrid is one La Liga title and one King’s Cup. But he lost both of those this season and was unable to take Real beyond the semifinals of the Champions League, and by his own admission, that amounted to failure. The president might have to revise his definition of the club’s ambition if second place, where the club finished this season, is the improvement for which he thanked the coach last Monday.
The members of Real Madrid are divided, and so is the locker room. Mourinho has alienated many by his treatment of the team’s captain, goalkeeper Iker Casillas, whom he dropped unceremoniously. He angered club members by the style – or in their eyes, the lack thereof – in how he sought to substitute winning with flamboyance with winning by any means necessary as the Real way.
And though it remains largely unspoken, Mourinho surely lost the respect of some of his senior players when he ordered them to kick and to hustle Barcelona to gain a competitive advantage. Telling the Spanish World Cup winners in Real Madrid white to harm the Spanish World Cup winners in Barcelona claret and blue must has sowed the seeds of resentment in proud and decorated individuals.
It undermined their own self worth. And to go back to the definition by Santiago Bernabeu – the one Perez sought through his Galacticos collection – a Real player needs to think of himself as one of the best players in the world.
Cristiano Ronaldo most certainly does that. He, too, has had periods of disaffection with life as a Portuguese in Madrid during this season. That passing mood has not affected his ability. He keeps on striking, sometimes with beauty, often with goals that others could never hope to contribute. And he does it with astonishing symmetry: This season he has scored 34 goals in 34 league games, 12 goals in 12 Champions League matches, and seven goals in seven Copa del Rey games.
His record since Real Madrid paid Manchester United a record figure to acquire him amounts to 201 goals in 199 appearances.
That makes him a champion, even if he is not one this season with his team. And while the club was more than willing to say adios to Mourinho, the word from the board room is that stories about Ronaldo being allowed to leave are totally false.
The Portuguese coach can go, but the Portuguese player is still seen as first-class. He stays.