Jose Mourino: A genius or scrooge?
Jose Mourinho: tactical genius or footballing miser? Footballing God or footballing antichrist? That is the question.
The answer might just be a bit of both. Wednesday night's Champions League semifinal appears to have reinforced preconceptions. Everybody's right. Or thinks they are.
As for Mourinho himself, a European Cup finalist and the undisputed centre of attention as he ran onto the pitch to celebrate and cameras turned their glare from his players to the coach doing a victory dash, he must be loving every minute of it.
Those that hated him already fear and loathe him more than ever before; those that loved and lauded him are in raptures - ready to start a family with him, eagerly awaiting the pitter-patter of tiny feet as a band of Mini-Mourinhos run about theatrically copying their dad. Mourinho has become the Marmite manager - either you love him or you hate him.
It's said that history is written by the winners but that's not true; the losers have their say, too. From exile and bitterness perhaps, but a say none the less. Especially when it comes to sports. Often it can appear that there is no greater comfort for the vanquished than to belittle the victors, to remove their right to celebration, to sully their success. To claim some morale victory - even if, deep down, they know it is a Pyrrhic victory, empty and cold.
Inter back in the final in almost 40 years
Jose Mourinho has taken Inter Milan to a first European Cup final in almost 40 years; his side have a chance of winning a first European Cup since 1965. He has emulated the legendary coach Heleno Herrera. That might just be the only thing that matters; it might also be just about the only thing that both sides of the divide can agree on.
Because not only did Heleno Herrera win two successive titles, becoming feted as a tactical genius, it has not escaped people's attention that the tactics in question were the (in)famous, ultra-defensive catenaccio ('locked and bolted') model. Add to that the posturing and the stirring, and you have a hero and a villain all wrapped into one.
The Italian press hailed Mourinho as "the tactician of a new great Inter"; the Camp Nou was renamed Camp Mou. In England too, where the media fondly remembers a man who made their job easy for them, providing continuous entertainment and headlines by the lorry-load, he was hailed a genius. As he himself announced upon his arrival, he really was The Special One.
But is lining up your entire team on the edge of the penalty area and booting anything that moves really tactical genius? Is never even trying to attack that clever? Is playing your forwards as auxiliary fullbacks really that clever? Couldn't any old fool could come up with that? Does it really take a genius to park the bus? Couldn't a bus driver do that?
Even allowing for a pro-Madrid press that enjoyed watching Barcelona get knocked out, the Spanish media certainly thought so. They also thought there was something a bit, well, grubby, about the way Inter played. Basically, they were a bunch of cheats. Cynical, boring, dirty cheats, who never even tried to play football.
After the game Mourinho admitted: "We didn't want the ball. All we thought a about was defending." The sending off of Thiago Motta justified that stance but it was an excuse not a reason, merely making Mourinho's plan even more entrenched, more inflexible.
Barcelona had over 80 per cent of possession, a Champions League record. Xavi Hernandez completed so many passes (142) that his graph went off UEFA's page. He completed more passes on his own than the enitre Inter team did put together. So, in fact, did seven Barcelona players. Inter only had one shot all match - if you could even call it a shot. They got a lucky break too when Barcelona's 'winner' was ruled out for handball.
Had that got in and Barcelona gone through, would Mourinho have still been a genius?
"With another referee in Milan, Barca would now have been through," moaned the Catalan daily Sport, conveniently overlooking the fact that Gerard Pique was probably offside for the first.
"Inter didn't come to play football, they came to destroy. Mourinho is the embodiment of anti-football, unscrupulous and a born provocateur."
AS, another top Spanish daily, described him as "mean spirited, believing he is the star more than his players - players who are merely victims of the system."
Only as they celebrated their passage to the final, they didn't look much like victims. And if in truth there was nothing especially inspired about Mourinho's tactics at Camp Nou, the point is maybe there was in the first leg, when Inter won 3-1. Yes, they had a goal that shouldn't have stood and Barcelona were denied a penalty, but they created three or four clear chances. Three or four more than Barcelona. It was that game that ultimately settled the tie, not the second leg. It is surely a little unfair to judge Mourinho on the second leg alone.
Victory at the Camp Nou
Yes Inter were defensive, exasperatingly so. One thing that has been overlooked is that they were defensive by Mourinho's standards too: this was not a typical, perfect portrait of his side. Mourinho was more defensive than ever before - Inter had scored in 45 of their 52 games this season. But these were, he insisted, special circumstances. Inter were almost a caricature of a defensive side. It was like watching a training session, attack versus defence, only for 90 minutes in front of 98,000 people.
Besides, there's no escaping the bottom line: Inter got through, Barcelona didn't. Mourinho insisted that there was no other way of playing Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Open up and they would have been battered. So they closed up and, ultimately, Barcelona created startlingly little. It's an easy tactic to think of but not necessarily and easy one to implement. Plenty have tried it and failed. Inter succeeded; just as they succeeded when they did open up and attack Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the previous round.
Forty years on from their last final, ask Inter fans if they care how their side got there again. Above all, Mourinho insisted, there is no moral obligation to play in a certain way. Mourinho's job is to win and he won. That is all that matters.
But is it?
At the same stage of the tournament in 2005, Chelsea were knocked out by Liverpool. After the game, their coach moaned: "The best team lost. After they scored only one team played, the other one just defended for the whole game".
Two years earlier when the same side was defeated by Spurs, their coach introduced the English to a new concept: "As we say in Portugal, they brought the bus and they left the bus in front of the goal," he complained. "I would have been frustrated if I had been a supporter who paid 50 pounds to watch this game because Spurs came to defend. There was only one team looking to win, they only came not to concede - it's not fair for the football we played."
That coach's name? Jose Mourinho.
About the Author
Sid Lowe lives in Madrid and writes a weekly column for guardian.co.uk. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, World Soccer, FourFourTwo, and the Telegraph. He works as a commentator and panellist for Spanish, Asian and U.S. television, and has acted as translator for David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Thomas Gravesen.