A cautionary tale for Jose Mourinho
At a time when the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "J. Edgar" is playing large at cinemas around the world, I liked the image of Jose Mourinho turning up in Marbella on his day off to spy on CSKA Moscow. Not that there was a hint of him looking for Communist Party sympathizers in the squad -- which will be Real Madrid's next opponent in the Champions League -- but the timing and synchronicity were just too delicious.
For those who neither follow social history nor cinema, J. Edgar Hoover was the FBI director who disliked left-wingers, liberals, exhibited a worrying degree of curiosity and, allegedly, was experimental in his clothing tastes. If you weren't with him, then you were most definitely against him, and you could expect a wiretap or a knock on the door.
Mourinho -- well, he obviously shows none of the above tendencies. In fact, Cristiano Ronaldo is functioning quite nicely on the left wing for Madrid these days.
But if you step back and adjust your sights from the short term (Madrid versus Getafe in La Liga this weekend) and try to put Mourinho's next few months in focus, the big question, even ahead of whether he will leave the Bernabeu for the Premier League in the summer, is what could possibly prevent him from adding the Spanish title to his bulging chest of silverware?
The hard fact is this: Only if Mourinho and his squad somehow tie their own shoelaces together is there any real prospect of them tripping up. One way for the coach to avoid that is to take in the Hoover movie and tell himself, "I won't do that, I won't do that."
It's as simple as that. Barcelona is Madrid's only rival for La Liga. Los Merengues have a merited seven-point lead; Mourinho has never squandered even a three-point lead atop the Portuguese, English or Italian championships; and Madrid possesses a significant advantage in fit, talented players right now.
It should be a shoo-in.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
I know, I know -- Catalan cheerleaders will point out that this is precisely the kind of situation in which Johan Cruyff's Dream Team (with cerebral command in the hands of one Josep Guardiola, midfielder) used to consistently win the Spanish title in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, Guardiola won his first title when Barca beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 on the last day of the season and Madrid conceded a lead and lost 3-2 in Tenerife. Twelve months later, Guardiola and Cruyff managed a 1-0 win over some more Basques, Real Sociedad, while Madrid lost 2-0 to the same opponent, Tenerife.
Even if you skip forward to Xavi's first title, in 1999, Barcelona was ninth on Matchday 15 when the young midfielder's solitary goal won a victory against Valladolid that saved Louis van Gaal's job and sparked a fight-back. Some of the Barca sheen, certainly before this era of domination, came from their rear-guard underdog action in La Liga.
The current squad is so good that an odds-against fight-back can't totally be ruled out, even if the side is decimated by injury. But logic would dictate that if Madrid plays to anything resembling its potential between now and May, then even losing the remaining league Clasico would hardly be disastrous. Barcelona would still have to make up the four remaining points, and then match Real result-for-result to retain its title. (Spain works on a head-to-head rule -- if two sides finish equal, then the results between them dictate who wins).
What does remain a threat to Madrid, however, is team harmony.
Thus far I've made the point repeatedly that the patent disagreements on subjects like playing style, formation and media policy are not yet at a level that they will divide sufficiently to derail Mourinho and his squad.
It is clear that there are some Spaniards in the Real Madrid side who disagree with Mourinho over how to defeat Barcelona, over the attacking philosophy in other Liga games when Madrid finds itself on top, over how to defend, and over what kind of public persona is expected of a Real Madrid manager.
What counterbalances that dissent is the fact that Mourinho possesses a group of players -- particularly Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and the core Spaniards -- who are driven by the need to lift silverware, are accustomed to winning and are low-maintenance for the manager.
It may very well prove to be the case that some of the Madrid players actually knew all along, better than Mourinho, how best to confront Barca, but that's a different argument.
What can still threaten Madrid, despite all the previous points, is if the Portuguese coach is determined to seek out, identify and punish those whom he believes have been leaking information to two newspapers: El Pais, where the excellent Diego Torres has had a keen and interesting source from almost the first week of the "Special" reign, and Marca, where the catty exchanges between Sergio Ramos, Iker Casillas and Mourinho were reported on the front page after the second leg of the King's Cup quarterfinal against Barcelona.
Whether the source proves to be a coach, a medic, a physio, a player, a club executive or Alfredo di Stefano, the very process of seeking out dissenters and traitors is corrosive and dangerous by nature. Unity is stripped away, team spirit is crippled and it is next to impossible to keep the competitive edge at its sharpest. The media will be dragged into such a storm; a magnifying glass will be applied to every gesture, raised eyebrow, failure to celebrate winning a corner adequately -- you can imagine.
One of Mourinho's great strengths thus far has been man management. He won extra admiration from me when he took the flurry of criticism from his senior players after the defeat at Levante and the draw in Santander earlier this season and assimilated the information rather than lashing out in anger.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version will be available in paperback from Feb. 17 and can be preordered at BackPage Press.
The result? A stream of power performances, a flood of goals and a significant lead at the top of La Liga because Barcelona couldn't keep pace.
Right now, with Barca about to try to paper over the cracks against Valencia in the Copa del Rey, with the sublime story of third-division Mirandes having made it to the other semifinal, and with the Champions League knockout stage just about sneaking into view again, there is a danger that winning and losing the league is seen as something that only happens from April onward.
Not so. If Mourinho plays his hand poorly right now and decides to seek out and punish dissenters, J. Edgar Hoover-style, chaos could result. If the Portuguese is shrewd and serves his revenge dish cold -- that is, after the season is over -- then Madrid is not only well-placed, it should be uncatchable.
Don't miss a minute, as this is a human drama as well as sporting theater.
Renewable energy -- how appropriate
I guess one of the principal reasons for sponsorship is not just that established brands compete for our attention, but that if a company chooses its medium well, it can tell a story that introduces us to something we knew nothing about in the first place.
As such, I'm going to break one of the normal rules for a columnist and admit ignorance. I had never heard of the Chinese company JinkoSolar before it announced Tuesday that it is the new shirt sponsor of Valencia CF. Call me a dolt if you must.
However, there are two things I love about this deal. Number one: What could possibly be better for this phoenix-like club than a sponsor that deals in "renewable energy" at a time when Valencia is fighting its way back from the brink of financial insolvency with a formidable debt-reduction plan, an audacious sales policy, and the announcement that it is restarting construction of the new Mestalla?
Renewable energy? This is a full-scale resurrection.
And that's point two. I'm sure that when Valencia recently sat down with the banks, the local council that bailed the club out of trouble and the constructors who must work on good faith to kick-start the new Mestalla building project that this Chinese sponsorship deal must, at least, have been in the pipeline.
What this represents is one more piece of good news, on top of Valencia's consistent debt reduction, its overachieving in La Liga and its European revenue that will allow all its creditors -- all those they need to stand close to them in these recession-plagued times -- to garner a little bit more confidence.
And I write not as a Valencia fan or shareholder but as an independent, whose love for Spanish football across the board means I feel it is time for all good men (women and children) to come to the aid of the party.
Valencia and Levante's debt repayment and football performance are nothing short of miraculous. And let's not forget the wave of intelligence, hard work and optimism at Real Betis, plus the new stadium and rising league position at Athletic. Taken together, it can serve as something more than a motif for unilateral rebirth; I hope it acts as a template for all other right-minded clubs across the top divisions of this country.
I "heart" Copa
Finally, a little love letter, straight from the heart, to the Copa del Rey. Anyone who was raised in the UK would understand the sway of the FA Cup in England. And as an Aberdonian, how could I forget that it was winning Scotland's FA Cup that gave my city's club the gateway to its greatest glory -- defeating both Bayern Munich and then the mighty Real Madrid in the final of the Cup Winners' Cup?
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In Spain, it has been traditional to view the domestic cup with a bit of an upturned nose. Real Madrid, in particular, thought for many years that to try "too hard" in the Copa del Rey was a little blue-collar, only for the hoi polloi.
But since moving to Spain a decade ago, I have been at some absolutely earth-shatteringly good cup ties. I was a spectator at the 1996 final between Barca and Betis, and I will not forget the drama, noise and wonderful football for as long as I live.
So to see little Mirandes playing with such enormous panache, aggression and confidence to reach the semifinal versus Athletic Bilbao means that the final is absolutely guaranteed a barnstorming story.
Both Barcelona and Valencia, in the other half of the draw, are serial winners. If one of them triumphs, fine. But romance for the rest of the world it ain't.
Should Mirandes get to the Copa final despite its first-leg defeat then, for its community, the world will either stop spinning or seem like it's spinning at treble speed. Life will change forever. Should it be Athletic (without a win in this tournament for nearly 30 years), then a grand old dame of the Spanish stage will get a change to rouge up and avenge the bitter defeat she suffered in 2009. That's when, on the pitch in Valencia's Mestalla, the Basque players wept with the sheer effort of having given their best and come up second to a mighty Barca side that was en route to its treble trophy win in Guardiola's first season.
Right now I'm sending imaginary hearts to the Copa, to Athletic and to Mirandes. Football poetry.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.