He's no Harry Potter
Sometimes the blizzard of sound bites and tidal wave of trophies obscure the fact that it was Jose Mourinho who decided to christen himself "The Special One" when he is, in fact, flesh and blood like you and me.
Occasionally foolhardy, often fallible -- Mourinho is certainly not invincible.
Sure, the Portuguese possess immense talent. He also works so exhaustively hard that if it is a competition between him and the next guy to win a match, an argument or even the Champions League, the odds tilt in his favor. But, as Michael Laudrup -- the man whose Mallorca side spoiled Mourinho's La Liga debut on Sunday -- has observed, coaching Real Madrid represents Mourinho's biggest challenge yet.
Even Mourinho has admitted as much, telling his team's fans not to expect any amazing results because he's "a coach" and "not Harry Potter."
Indeed, Mourinho could be in for a rough ride. For one thing, the Spanish public and media don't call him The Special One but have nicknamed him Mou -- as in the sound a cow makes. And let's not forget that Barcelona fans used to line up at the airport and spit at him when Chelsea came to town for the Champions League.
Granted, Mourinho is the manager of Real Madrid, a club that has lifted soccer from sport to art form while dominating Spain and Europe. But in recent years, Los Blancos have become weak and shortsighted, which is why both Mourinho's employers and his critics need to understand that it is not imperative that he win the Primera Division in his first season.
Of course, finishing first is what he's known for. In each of his first full seasons at Porto, Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho conquered the country he worked in. And, yes, it is feasible that he is good enough to cope with the politically daunting and unforgiving workplace that is Real Madrid and outdo the brilliance of Barcelona. But Mourinho's most important task -- the first job at hand -- isn't conquering Spain. It's laying the foundation for a new Real Madrid dynasty.
To do this, Mourinho will have to overcome five key challenges this season:
1. Real Madrid has lost its identity
Since Florentino Perez swept to power in 2000, Los Blancos have forgotten that they were subjugating Spain and conquering Europe with panache instead of telling everyone how great they are. Winning with style -- this is what made Real the world's No. 1 soccer brand name.
The majestic brilliance of Alfredo di Stefano, the power of Ferenc Puskas, Raul's relentless scoring, and Zinedine Zidane's inventive genius spanned generations. Because of them, Madrid won nine Champions Cups. But since the club's last title in Europe, at Hampden Park eight years ago, it has become a Euro-weakling that is no longer competitive or even seeded among Europe's top eight. Which is why winning the Champions League title at Wembley in May must be Mourinho's primary trophy task.
2. Real Madrid doesn't have a cogent philosophy
Mourinho has already said as much. "Barcelona have a football philosophy which dates back to Rinus Michels in the 1970s, and most of their coaches [Johan Cruyff, Louis Van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola] only need to upgrade rather than change the ideology," Mourinho pointed out last week.
Los Blancos, on the other hand, have appointed and sacked nine managers in the past seven years; Mourinho is the 10th. Each time, the coaching staff, the fitness staff, the playing staff and the playing formation change. As with the tide washing in and out, all you are left with on the beautiful sand is detritus.
Mourinho's task in the face of all this change? Bring a semblance of stability and clarity to Madrid's system.
3. Real Madrid doesn't have a proper left back
Since Roberto Carlos left the club in 2007, it has been emblematic of Real Madrid's stubbornness that it has failed to lock the back door. Crucial goals are often conceded because Marcelo has the positional sense of Gen. Custer at Little Bighorn. "Oops, I shouldn't be here" must be the phrase that flits through the Brazilian's head more than any other. And he never learns. Why wasn't Real's last coach, Manuel Pellegrini, allowed to buy a better left back? Why hasn't Mourinho been given cash to get one?
4. Real Madrid's players don't know each other all that well -- and can't even effectively communicate with each other
This season's new arrivals Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira can't speak Spanish, and one of last season's acquisitions, striker Karim Benzema, still hasn't learned it. Six new players must cope with the blistering pressure of playing for Real Madrid. And every last man -- except for Ricardo Carvalho, a Mourinho favorite at Chelsea -- has to raise his game to satisfy the brutally demanding manager. For Real Madrid to keep pace with Barcelona, a playing style needs to evolve rapidly and bonding needs to be almost immediate. It won't be easy, given that the team has started the season with eight key injuries and an out-of-form Cristiano Ronaldo.
Want more Graham Hunter? Check out his work on all things Spanish football. Zidane -- the diplomat • Clasico madness is coming • The Other Fernando • Barca best of all time • Pep's labor of love • Giuseppe Rossi in fine form • Write off Ronaldo? • Nadal saves Mallorca • Valdez's Herculean effort • The Special One is no Harry Potter
5. Real Madrid isn't the best club in Spain -- Barcelona is
Unless Barcelona is hit by injury and fatigue, it will remain the world's best club. Lionel Messi is a genius; David Villa brings 40 million pounds' worth of aggression and goal power; and Guardiola has finally got rid of dead weight Zlatan Ibrahimovic. World Cup final winner Andres Iniesta seems fit and injury-free for a change; Victor Valdes has never looked so unbeatable; and, above all, Barca is a team forged in the heat of battle, victory and pride. Unless ill fortune hits the club, it is not only better, man for man, than Real Madrid but is better than everyone else, too.
Real president Perez has always wanted instant gratification, but Mourinho will need to remind him of the values that originally made Real Madrid great. If Mourinho can do that, as well as win the Spanish title this season, it'll be his finest work. Ever.
Graham Hunter is a freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
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