Machiavelli & Mourinho

This is the first in a series of posts attempting to explain football through international relations theory; or international relations theory through football; or drawing tenuous links between both.

Jorge Valdano may have left Real Madrid but Jose Mourinho will continue to provoke his employers and opponents, and succeed.

I am not so convinced that what managers say in public is as convincing as the media wishes it to be.  With a manager like Kenny Dalglish it is more about what he doesn’t say, than what he does.  His second coming at Liverpool has seen press conferences characterised by jokes, and sarcasm so cutting you can almost feel the reporters wincing before summoning the courage to ask another inane question.  Nevertheless when looking at a manager like Jose Mourinho, his press conferences have become so legendary it can be interesting to see what they reveal about the man and his methods.  Other managers may detest the media relation part of their job but I suspect Mourinho loves it.  I have no doubt he uses press conferences to shape the agenda of the game and season in front of him.  He uses them to put pressure on to referees and opponents, and to further the image of himself he has been developing since his managerial career began in Portugal.

Alex Ferguson, too, has been able to display an image to the world of little self-doubt, and in the process has concocted an aura around Manchester United and himself that is intimidating to opponents, authorities and journalists.  This is then transmitted to his players.

Imbuing players with a powerful belief in the manager’s method, and an absolute unshakeable resolve to carry out the game plan to the death, has won Mourinho two European cups with teams less-talented than their opponents.  Porto and Internazionale both overcame superior opposition on the way to the trophy.  Porto beat Manchester United in the first knock-out round in 2004 and Inter overcame Barcelona over a two-legged semi-final in 2010.  The occasions when he has been defeated on the biggest stages, the champions league semi-finals in 2005, 2007 and 2011, and the first knock-out round in 2006, he has immediately found excuses, Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’, Barcelona’s simulation and ‘dark forces’ of UNICEF being the most well-known.

The fault never lies with Mourinho himself, for all the talk in the media about how he got his tactics wrong against Barcelona in 2011 season’s semi-final, Mourinho has emerged from the fallout more powerful at Madrid than he was before.  The departure of Jorge Valdano, a noted critic of Mourinho, means that next season Mourinho should be free to run his team how he wants.  He wanted to run Madrid according to a more ‘English’ model, with the manager having far more control over team affairs.  Now he can.  Now also he has no-one else to blame if he is unable to knock one of the best club sides ever to play the game off their perch.

This though is how Mourinho likes it.  How he wants it to be.  About him.  He attracts more attention than the players, and thereby protects them from the media.  He invents arguments were there are none.  He is feared by the game’s authorities and opposing managers.  He is, mostly, loved by his players.  Dissension within his ranks is rare but swiftly dealt with if it happens. If a player speaks out of turn criticising Mourinho, as Ricardo Carvalho and Cristiano Ronaldo both have done, his reaction is swift, condemning them to miss the next game.

Mourinho has often been compared to that arch-schemer Niccoló Machiavelli, whose name has become a byword for deviousness and deception.  It is interesting to compare some of Machiavelli’s advice for would-be leaders and Mourinho’s own actions.

The relationship between Mourinho and his players discussed above links to one of Machiavelli’s most famous pieces of advice.  He says that when considering whether it is better to be loved or feared it is always better to be feared, if you cannot be both.  Some players clearly love him, others don’t.  Mario Balotelli at Internazionale is an interesting exception.  Balotelli clearly didn’t love, fear or even respect Mourinho.  But it is difficult to say what, if anything, Balotelli loves, fears or respects.  Eventually they both left after the 2009-10 season.

In Machiavelli’s most famous book, ‘The Prince‘ he tells the reader that he is writing primarily for a particular kind of leader (or potential leader), one that has achieved his power through his own cunning or force.  Not for him the man who had power handed to him.  Instead he thinks more highly of the men (always men in Machiavelli’s day) who have a special kind of ambition, a love of glory and charisma.  Mourinho was never a great player, instead was a translator for Bobby Robson at Barcelona.  If anyone can be said to typify Machiavelli’s kind of leader Mourinho is surely it, in this respect.

Throughout The Prince Machiavelli talks of virtú, from the Latin root vir, meaning man.  Virtú in the sense used here means something along the lines of prowess, or even manliness.  Everything is available for those with virtú.  Paramount in this is the ability to act swiftly and decisively.  Taking decisions and having courage to stand by them sends a powerful message.  Acting like this has a powerful effect on people, claimed Machiavelli.  In particular he believed that fast, decisive action left others ‘stunned and stupefied’.

The characteristic of virtú is best observed in extreme situations.  Audacious men thrive in extreme situations.  Creating a chaotic situation out of nothing, and using that chaos to your own benefit is something Mourinho has often tried to do.  The Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona this year and when he was at Chelsea and Inter Milan are good examples of that.  The youtube link at the top of the page is from the film ‘The Third Man”.   In this clip Orson Welles states that in 30 years of warfare, terror and bloodshed under the Borgias Italy produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance, while in Switzerland 500 years of brotherly love and peace only produced the cuckoo clock.  This is a perfect example of what Machiavelli is talking about, and it can be argued Mourinho is trying to use similar tactics to achieve great results.  The creativity that tension and conflict can stimulate is his goal.  He cultivates, and excels, in the maelstrom of life.  His unbeaten run of nine years of home games without losing, and his European cups with Porto and Internazionale, show that Mourinho thrives in the chaos, where others can only watch in amazement.

Above all Machiavelli advocates being a consequentialist.  The ends justify the means.  This is something Gianluca Vialli notes in his book ‘The Italian Job‘ also applies to Mourinho.  Being willing to behave badly if it will get you what you want is also something that can be applied to Mourinho’s teams.  Neither Porto, Chelsea, Internazionale or Real Madrid have been described as playing beautiful football.  More often the labels ruthless and efficient are given.

Later in the book Machiavelli talks of using ones own forces instead of relying on mercenaries.  Your own forces are more reliable.  Taken metaphorically the advice means that you should rely on yourself instead of others, in fact you should resist any intrusions on your independence.  The departure of Valdano from Madrid exemplifies exactly this.

The Prince that Machiavelli talks of and the public persona of Jose Mourinho are similar in many ways.  It is almost impossible to believe that the latter hasn’t read the former.  One important section though suggests that a prudent leader should imitate great men, Mourinho has learnt directly from Robson, Louis van Gaal, and has said he admires Ferguson.  It will be interesting to see if Andre Villas-Boas, who despite following Mourinho’s career path from Porto to Chelsea seems to be trying to distance himself from his countryman, will take this advice.  Imitating Mourinho sounds like a path to success but only a few have the virtú to carry it out to its fullest. 

See the other posts in this series here: Football & IR Theory

Stefano Gulizia also wrote a marvellous piece on Mourinho here.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s