Long live Marcos Senna
Plus: Jose Jekyll and Jose Hyde, Barca's latest gem
The football world is weird. Always has been, always will be.
Weird and superstitious.
Sharing a coffee with a favorite cameraman of mine, it was interesting to hear him tell of a well-known footballer who, with his teammates, was taking a "bronca" -- or ear-bashing -- from their La Liga coach this season. "It's all very well for you guys, out at night, picking up new girlfriends and enjoying yourselves. I've not been able to make love to my wife for weeks now!"
Such is stress at the top. It reminded me of my very early days in journalism, when John Lambie, the forceful, characterful manager of Hamilton, was in the midst of a long losing run. He publicly admitted that Mrs. Lambie was so superstitious about how their private life might affect his season that he and Mary wouldn't be enjoying any night moves until the team won again. The weeks became months you get the picture. By the time there was a victory, it must have been almost too embarrassing for Mrs. Lambie to collect the papers in the local shop the next morning given all the nudging and winking.
There are a million other superstitions. Luis Aragones, a player and manager of the highest order whose triumphs owe a lot to grass, cannot tolerate the color green. Go figure.
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 is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
But when I was at El Madrigal the other week, I was put in mind of another, happier, battle between logic and superstition.
When the brilliant, laudable, loveable Marcos Senna arrived at Villarreal in 2002, he wanted the (available) No. 19 shirt. One of the directors told him, "Don't take that one, son -- it's a cursed number around this club." Senna turned a deaf ear and insisted.
Within a short space of time, Senna's burgeoning value to the team was curtailed by cruciate ligament damage. The director wagged his finger. When Senna returned, he insisted on keeping his preferred "lucky" number. Not long after, he reinjured his knee and was effectively absent from January to December 2003. In terms of the medieval level of fear the football world holds for jinxes, superstitions and mania, that should most definitely have been that. Villarreal would rather he wore No. 13 and smash a mirror per week than keep 19 on his back.
However, Senna thought the whole idea was ridiculous and stuck to his guns. There's an iconic shot of him tucking away his penalty in the Euro 2008 penalty shootout against Italy -- beating Gianluigi Buffon, whom Senna considered to be the best in the world at that time, and ending what was an 80-something-year hoodoo of Spain not having defeated Italy in a competitive match.
In the shot, snapped from behind the spot kick, one's eye is drawn to Buffon going one way, the ball the other and the big, luminous No. 19 on Senna's back. Fair play. The first thing that Villarreal director did when Senna, Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila brought back the club's first major international medals was to humbly concede that 19 was no longer a cursed number at the Madrigal ... and that it probably never had been, of course.
So the No. 19 was there on the back of Senna's yellow Villarreal jersey last week as he cracked home an absolutely vital free kick against Real Madrid. Vital because it won a point that currently has helped put the Yellow Submarine five points clear of the relegation zone. Vital, too, because Villarreal took a brutally difficult decision in sacking its second coach of the season, Jose Molina, and appointing Miguel Angel Lotina. He's the right guy to make Villarreal much harder to beat but, in his time, he's also seen teams he's coached relegated. The Yellows have a squad to survive and a youth system that requires permanence in the Primera in order to yield fruit. That Senna goal gave hope and belief to fans, staff and fellow players alike. Down with superstition. Long live Marcos Senna.
Jose Jekyll and Jose Hyde
Speaking of stress, Jose Mourinho appears to me to be playing with fire. His excellence as a trainer and someone who makes groups of players more organized, fitter and clear on their roles is well established. Much of his work this season has been a tour de force. Noticeably, a couple of months ago, he switched back into "likeable Jose" mode. Calmer, more interesting, more tolerant in media appearances, conciliatory in many of his dealings with the senior Madrid players, more magnanimous with rivals, playing it calm while the team played it ruthless -- Mourinho has been a virtual role model.
Last season, Mourinho's errors on the pitch at the crucial April turning point contributed to Barcelona's victory in the league and Champions League. So did his errors off the pitch. He was left in the ring after the crowd had gone, swinging at faceless, nonexistent rivals like some punchy middleweight. Some of his actions actually corroded the vital "extra" power that can be harnessed when your squad, the fans and the media are energized, convinced and fully on your side.
Given the infinitesimally minute details that can work for or against you during this all-or-nothing period of the season, Mourinho turned a positive into a negative.
Which is why the way in which he's made peace with those players on his squad who see things differently, stopped goading the media and generally established a climate of we're-all-pulling-in-the-same-direction has added power these past few months since the showdowns against Levante and Racing away from home.
But with his team's gentle decline from peak form have come more missteps from Mourinho. Although he has a point, choosing to criticize the fervor of the Bernabeu fans (and allowing his personal spokesman/media officer Eladio Parames to do so) was an error. It still rankles Mourinho that his name was jeered and whistles by the Madrid crowd when the Curva Sur "Ultras" were singing it, and his only option if he wishes to stay at the club is to win over the fans, not attack them.
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Another error is the media blackout imposed since that draw at the Madrigal on March 21 when Madrid walked out of the stadium without attending the manager's news conference or any player pausing to speak in the media mixed zone. Reacting to perceived injustice (although there was none) by refusing to talk about that or anything else is not only immature, it's not healthy for the players and it makes an enemy of a very powerful media machine in Madrid.
Then for Mourinho to publically deny what Emilio Butragueno -- former player, director of football and vice president at Real Madrid -- said a couple of days earlier, when he commented that the media blackout was a decision taken by the technical staff and the players, was, effectively, to call Butragueno a liar. For all who know Butragueno, a thoroughbred gentleman, that sits uncomfortably. "It's absolutely not me who makes that decision," Mourinho said, which gives rise to the idea that someone, presumably only president Florentino Perez or managing director Jose Angel Sanchez, has ordered the coach and his players not to speak and did so by rushing down to the dressing room in Villarreal, barging in and ordering silence.
Not a good image for a coach who has consistently constructed a position of total power over his players. Mourinho also undermined his own words in Cyprus by tapping Sami Khedira on the back and ordering him to abandon the Champions League prematch news conference when questions about the media blackout annoyed him.
My opinion is that Mourinho has done a skillful job this season. Beyond the players who like, admire and understand his methods, there are some with whom he has an uneasy, collaborative peace -- but they have been giving everything for him, and a trophy or trophies beckon. However, such pacts are fragile, and it's important for Los Merengues that Mourinho, who is starting to appear more headstrong and less wary of breaching the peace, reasserts equilibrium.
In the end, Mourinho will be accountable for one thing -- trophies. And should he collect a Liga and Champions League double this season, all of this will be details and ashes. But if these current blips are signals that his temper is frayed, that his judgment is becoming skewed, Madrid's rivals will be content to see placid, shrewd, happy Jose beginning to transform into his Mr. Hyde alter-ego.
I, for one, am not. This season has been so gripping and interesting that I would thoroughly appreciate the league, Champions League and Copa del Rey, for that matter, being resolved purely on footballing terms rather than the corrosive effect on sporting excellence that bickering, name calling, bitterness and vendettas can have.
You heard it here first
Toward the beginning of the season, I noted that in Jean Marie Dongou, Barcelona has an absolute gem of a striker -- someone with Mike Tyson- and Wayne Rooney-style power, surgical precision in his finishing, and a lovely attitude toward learning and developing.
Dongou has caused a lot of excitement this week because, at age 16, he scored his first goal for Barca B, the squad that is one rung below Pep Guardiola's first team. I very much liked that this first goal for the B team came a couple of days after Lionel Messi broke the club's all-time scoring record. Synchronicity?
I'd like to think that you knew first, reader, but now it's time to learn more about Dongou rather than simply be aware he exists.
Over the past 20 years, FC Barcelona has won the most Spanish league titles, 10 compared to the six of Madrid, two of Valencia, and one each for Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid. No club has won more European Cup/Champions League titles in that time -- four compared to the three by Milan and Madrid. These have been the Johan Cruyff years. It was his dream team that won the European Cup in 1992, and it has been his teachings that fuel what we see now. His disciples remain in positions of power at the club -- Guardiola, head of youth development Guillermo Amor, assistant coach Tito Vilanova, Barca B coach Eusabio, director of football Andoni Zubizarreta and Juvenil A coach Oscar Garcia.
Dongou is at the right club.
One of the key concepts of Cruyff's teachings is that the pearls of the youth system must be promoted into teams where colleagues and opponents are bigger, more experienced and, often, more ruthless.
When Messi was in his all-conquering youth side with Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Victor Sanchez and Victor Vasquez, opposing teams picked on him. He was the best, he was the smallest and he was the most annoying to opponents. Messi learned to deal with the physical treatment, and Pique, particularly, learned to both protect him and deal out significant retribution.
At 16, Dongou is a physically stronger player than Messi was, but he has a massive amount of physical development and growth to achieve.
The Segunda B is a cutthroat place. It's a man's league, and, for some, it's the equivalent of a trophy if you can visit the Barcelona Mini Estadi, boot a couple of promising kids up in the air, intimidate and win. "Do that again, and I'll break your #$%$#%# leg" is a more common expression than "Well played, son."
Barca B coach Eusabio, a busy, intelligent midfielder next to Guardiola on the dream team, will use this kid sensibly. But he is being hot-housed -- partly, admittedly, because the same has happened to Cristian Tello and Isaac Cuenca with their promotions to the first team.
This isn't a nice, happy, cuddly, candy-floss time for Dongou. The Futbol Base coaches will be watching like hawks as they try to answer many questions about the player. "Does the attention go to his head?" (It won't.) "Does he follow team orders?" "Does he press the ball intelligently and consistently?" "Can he, like Messi (95 assists alongside his record-breaking 235 goals) see a better-placed teammate and opt for the goal pass?"
We should be watching, too. This lad is at least very special and might turn out to be utterly exceptional.
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.