Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Ronaldo And Mourinho: A Decade of Domination

"Once Upon A Time in Portugal..."

Outside of the eight World Cup winning nations, it could be argued that Portugal possesses the richest football history of all. This is the country that gave us the world-conquering Benfica sides of the 1960s, the country that gave us the great Eusebio, one of the very best of all time. This is also the country that gave us the golden generation of the late 90s/early 2000s. Led by Luis Figo, this was arguably one of the most talented groups of players never to win a major international trophy, coming so close in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

More recently however Portugal has given us two men who have dominated the landscape of European football for the past ten years. Two giants. Icons. Legends of the modern game. Both can stake a valid claim for being the best of all time at what they do. They are Jose Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mourinho first came into the public eye with his memorable sprint down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate a late goal that send his Porto side into the Champions League quarter finals and knocked United out. Porto would go on to win the title that year, a massive achievement for a squad built on very little money. Jose himself would move onto a new challenge at Chelsea and bring several of his players with him. He took to English football management by storm, declaring himself ‘The Special One’ at his unveiling which made him an instant hit with the media and ensured the limelight would never stray from his presence.

Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Manchester United in the summer of 2003, immediately inheriting the iconic number seven shirt vacated that very summer by one David Beckham. A skinny, shy, long-haired 18 year old, his early performances at Old Trafford were certainly eye-catching but frustrating for the most part for fans. His game revolved around far too many failed tricks and stepovers, a far cry from the ruthlessly effective monster he would develop into in the years that followed. His first few seasons at Old Trafford were rather underwhelming given what was to come, the highlight being his FA Cup final goal in 2004.

Ronaldo joined a Manchester United team very much in transition, in a time in English football that would come to be dominated by Mourinho and Chelsea. Jose changed the face of English football from a tactical point of view. The 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation he used at Chelsea had been a rare sight in a league strictly devoted to 4-4-2 it seems. His use of Claude Makelele, a midfielder as a pure defensive outlet was alien to teams who found Chelsea impossible to break down and irresistible on the counter attack, spearheaded by the pace of Arjen Robben, the seemingly unlimited energy of Michael Essien, the power of Dider Drogba and the quality(?) (I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what he was good at, he seemed to score all the time and just generally play very well) of Frank Lampard. When it comes to any discussions about the greatest Premier League side of all time, anyone who can name a side better than the Chelsea outfit of 2004-2006 has pretty much nailed it.

"Growing up is a heavy leaf to turn"

Back to back titles came Mourinho's way in his first two seasons. But as all great champions rise, so must they fall. And Chelsea’s dethroning in the 2006/07 season was brought about in no small part by a 21 year-old kid from Maderia who had finally added the end product his game had been lacking in his first three years at Manchester United. It was in late 2006 that Cristiano Ronaldo shot to superstardom and became the Premier League’s finest footballer as his quest to wrest the title from his compatriot’s stranglehold gathered steam. Having returned to England that summer with pantomime-villain status following the World Cup, Ronaldo seemed to feed off the energy and he grew stronger and stronger both physically and mentally. The skinny boy seen crying by a worldwide audience after the Euro 2004 final was long gone. In his place was a heavily muscled yet lighting quick athlete, a man just saturated with self-belief to the point where it often blurs the line between confidence and arrogance. As the saying goes; “It’s not arrogance if you can back it up.”

And boy could Ronaldo back it up. Behind his efforts, United reclaimed the title from Chelsea in 2007 but he wasn’t done yet. Not satisfied with simply being England’s best player, Ronaldo went and became King of the World, both individually and collectively. He scored in United’s Champions League win over a now Mourinho-less Chelsea in 2008, wrapping up a 40+ goal season in which he had won both the Premier League and Champions League top scorer and best player awards. The big one came his way for the first time that winter as he was named the world’s best player for 2008, being awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or.

It was during this time that we saw Mourinho and Ronaldo interact directly in public for the first time. It got extremely personal at one stage towards the climax of the 2006/07 title race when the United-Chelsea rivalry was perhaps at its most heated. Mourinho, in anticipation of having to concede the title, claimed that Ronaldo and United had been on the end of some rather fortunate penalty decisions that season (not an unfair assessment). Ronaldo responded, accusing Mourinho of not being able to admit to his own failings (again, not an unfair assessment). Mourinho came out swinging as he usually does when his side are not on top in the pitch, branding Ronaldo a liar and blaming his ‘difficult childhood’ and ‘lack of education’ for his obviously mis-guided quotes. Ronaldo comes from a fairly poor background in Madeira. Mourinho himself came from a more privileged upbringing. His comments did lack class and reeked of a man attempting to divert scrutiny on his side’s shortcomings that season.

“No matter what you want, somebody else wants it just as bad”

Ronaldo’s 2008 Ballon d’Or success was to be his only triumph for the time being. His United side were trounced in the 2009 Champions League final by Barcelona, led by the man who would emerge as Ronaldo’s great rival in the years that followed, a diminutive Argentinian by the name of Lionel Messi. Losing to Messi, in that manner, on that stage, is no doubt something that spurred Ronaldo on to become even better. He now had a yardstick, a competitor who wanted everything he wanted. Cristiano Ronaldo would not be the player he is today without that night in Rome and without Lionel Messi.

That final turned out to be Ronaldo’s last appearance for United. That summer he finally sealed his dream move to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £80m. Ronaldo picked up right where he left off at his new club. Despite a couple of injuries in his first season he averaged a goal a game. Madrid did however end the season trophyless under coach Manuel Pellegrini.

"And all of a sudden I'm leaving"

And Ronaldo wasn’t the only Portugese superstar in new surroundings. Mourinho’s reign at Chelsea was cut short in late 2007 following a long-standing feud with owner Roman Abramovich. Many things conspired, a lack of funding being made available in the summer of 2007, a failure to deliver a Champions League triumph despite investing a solid £500m over the first three summers and a poor start to the 2007/08 season but the end result was a parting of the ways.

He began the next season at Inter Milan and again charmed the press at his unveiling, speaking in fluent Italian he claimed to have learned in three weeks, taking a sly dig at his predecessor at Chelsea Claudio Ranieri, who took several years in England before having proficient enough levels of the language to be able to talk to the media. Nonetheless Mourinho took Italy by storm, winning titles in his only two seasons there and capturing the Champions League in 2010, defeating Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona along the way and creating another sub-plot to the explosive rivalry that was about to begin.

It is at this point in the story that the two main characters, opponents for the most part, become unlikely allies for the first time. Jose Mourinho announced immediately after the 2010 Champions League final in Madrid that the stadium would soon become his permanent home. It was here that the unlikely Ronaldo-Mourinho alliance was formed and two of the most driven men in football history were tasked with toppling the Messi-Guardiola axis at Barcelona, a side acclaimed as being the greatest of all time.

It took them two years together, a herculean effort,  a record number of La Liga goals and points but The Portuguese double act managed to beat Barcelona to the 2011/12 La Liga title. The defining moment of the season came at the Camp Nou in April, Ronaldo’s counter attack goal late on gave Real Madrid a crucial 2-1 win and a seven point lead they would not squander.  This was one of Ronaldo’s mind-blowing 60 in all competitions that season, a figure bested by Lionel Messi's 73 en route to his fourth consecutive Ballon d'Or award. This no-doubt irked Cristiano beyond belief. Team success does matter to him of course, but he comes first in his mind. The idea of there being someone better than him would make his blood boil. No doubt he ended 2013 happier than 2012 where he ended as Ballon d'Or winner and Messi as La Liga champion.

The big one eluded them however. Madrid lost at the Champions League semi-final stage in 2011, 2012 (on penalties) and 2013. La Decima, Madrid’s tenth European crown which the club had become obsessed with, dangled tantalisingly out of their reach. But things did not end well. Mourinho and Madrid went through a very ugly divorce in the summer of 2013. Fans were unhappy at the style of play he brought. Details of dressing room bust ups with senior players became public knowledge with club stalworth Iker Casillas being Mourinho’s prime enemy within. He and Ronaldo's relationship also was far from harmonious, with Mourinho claiming Ronaldo's biggest problem was his reluctance to listen to criticism. They've both since blamed each other publicly for their collective failure to win a Champions League together. 

Ronaldo’s relentless quest to outshine Messi and be king of the mountain again bore fruit in the spring of 2014. Having been crowned World Player of the Year again for his 2013 efforts, Ronaldo and co, in the first year of the post-Mourinho era, finally landed La Decima. What could have been the duos crowning glory, the final in Lisbon, turned out to be Ronaldo’s spotlight alone. Mourinho was sat at home, licking his wounds on the back of his second consecutive trophyless season, his Chelsea side having tumbled at the semi-final stage to Atletico.

Ronaldo has since gone from strength to strength and only now in early 2015 has the baton of the world’s greatest footballer appeared to pass back to Lionel Messi. Ronaldo has now just one World Player of the Year title less than Messi, and the same amount as Zidane and 'Fat Ronaldo', neither of whom shared an era with a player as utterly dominant as Messi.

"Even by yourself, you can carry with you anyone else"

He is a phenomenon. His dedication to improving on his game is simply remarkable. Sure he has the talent but without the insane drive and commitment he has shown, Ronaldo would be held in no higher regard than Ashley Young today. Messi's talent is god-given, you can tell he hasn't had to do half as much work on his game. He was born to be the best player in the world, Ronaldo decided he want to be and made it happen. He put United on his back in many ways during their European runs in 2008 and 2009, spearheading the team's charge, similar to what he did for Madrid in 2014. When he decides he wants to accomplish something, it will take a phenomenal effort to stop him. He's just turned 30 and shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down. Even with the much younger Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez in the side now, Ronaldo remains the top dog.

Mourinho meanwhile has also rediscovered his mojo as of late. His imminent return to Chelsea was common knowledge even before the ink was dry on his ‘mutual termination’ at Madrid. It’s taken a year but he’s built what looks a fairly handy side.  Albeit not quite a patch on his first juggernaut, they should easily capture a first Premier League title in five years this May. His status as the best manager in the world has only been enhanced by how he systematically improved the side from what he had been given. Matic, Fabregas and Costa. Three purchases Mourinho made within his first twelve months, exactly what Chelsea needed to turn them into a ruthless winning machine again.

"Even on your own, you are not alone"

Mourinho's speciality, that the media haven't or either choose not to cop on to yet, is the Cult of Personality. Mourinho even criticised the Chelsea fans earlier on in the season for their lack of atmosphere at the Bridge and yet they remain fiercely loyal to him.He can do no wrong, his status in their eyes is beyond God-like. It's the main reason he wanted to come back to 'where he feels loved'.

What he does, in his various press conferences and post-match interviews, is choose every single phrase carefully in order to create an 'Us Against The World' mentality. Football fans are extremely tribal, no more so when they feel it is them against everyone. Mourinho's comments, whether they be about referee's, opposition players or managers, are always constructed in order to paint his side's as the victims. The underdogs. It is brilliant. Like I said, I'm amazed he's not been pulled up on the act so far. Not for one second does Mourinho believe there's actually a campaign against Chelsea. It's all an act. And it works a treat.

The paths of these two colossal figures are bound to cross again at some point, most likely in the later stages of the Champions League in the not too distant future. I think it highly unlikely we shall ever see them on the same side of the trenches again however. Mourinho has stated his desire to coach his national team before he retires but I can’t see that happening for at least ten years. For the time being, he’ll stay at Chelsea. Ronaldo too, despite endless rumours of a return to England, will see out his playing career in Madrid, save perhaps a swansong year at Sporting Lisbon in his late 30s.

Interaction between the pair may be limited in years to come as their careers take different paths but these two giants of twenty-first century football will forever be remembered as men who changed the game. Mourinho with his scientific methodological approach to management and Ronaldo with his insane physical conditioning and unyielding levels of drive. Portugal has given the sport two of it’s biggest icons of all.

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