By Jordan Brown
The chant rang around Tehrir Square over the weekend—the chant of the revolution, the chant that brought down deposed Mubarak, ‘The people want to bring down the regime!” They shouted it this time for a new leader, the democratically elected Mohammend Morsi—a man who is suddenly discovering the confines of power, the limits of his reach.
Somewhere in London a dour Frenchman was ending his day, and if he were to have seen the scenes in Cairo, heard the chant of the young revolutionaries, it would probably sound to him much like, “You don’t know what you’re doing.” A game as ubiquitous in global culture as football finds itself mirroring many other spheres of human society, none so often as politics, and no role in football is so neatly politicized as Manager.
Football is a republic built on popular momentum; it is the modern circus maximus played out in coliseums of steel and glass, and the mobs are still the masters. In every seat of the stands sits a revolutionary, a fan who holds their own individual ideal of their club’s perfection. They know the way their team should play, who they should sign, and exactly what great heights of achievement each season should hold. Their minds are filled with gleaming trophy cabinets and memorable performances, and to all of them the one standing in the way of the dream made life is the flesh and blood man in the puffy jacket pacing the byline in front of them. Everyone is the best fit for the job except for the one who currently holds the title.
After Arsenal’s draw to Aston Villa this past weekend, Arsene Wenger’s barely restrained post-match interview substituted the fourth estate for the supporters as the target for his anger, “How many games have you managed? I promise you if you manage one I will sit in the stands and chant ‘you know what you are doing!’” He was baited of course by the journalists, and the chant from the travelling supporters was not universally carried, but Wenger’s response is telling nonetheless.
His fifteen years at Arsenal have brought a consistency of success shared only by few clubs in the modern game. The Gunners have become a global phenomena—third most valuable club in the world, depending on your source the third most supported—every year under Wenger has seen Arsenal qualify for the Champion’s League. This is success by any metric, especially relative to the oceans of clubs who have never, and most likely will never see such heights. It frankly isn’t in question that Arsene Wenger knows what he’s doing, but that isn’t what will keep him in floor length parkas. It will be the popular perception that fells him, the living narrative, spurred only ever forward by interviews so contentius; Roberto Di Matteo is evidence enough of that.
The model of private club ownership has gifted us the era of the uberfan, and the apex predator of this money-talks ecosystem is Roman Abramovich. Whereas the average person must support their team behind layers of stewards, glass, and gates—sat in the mass of all—an are left to share their club directives amongst friends at the pub, Roman has bought his team. His directives are the club’s directives, shared amongst the board and wondered at by the media and the rest of us.
Roman Abramovich is a mob of one, a Maximilien Robespierre to the revolutionary Parisians of the Chelsea’s support, swept up by many a popular narrative—the purchases of Shevchenko and Torres, the hiring of Andre Villas Boas, and his current obsession with Pep Guardiola. Also like Robespierre, Roman has a love of the guillotine; the parade of managers that have entered Stamford Bridge only to face the unceremonious chop, some short time later, has become almost an absurd expectation.
Di Matteo is merely the latest victim—at fault for winning a Champion’s League and being in the job his only real crimes—but at some point the crowd will have had enough, and Rafa Benitez seems to have met their limit. Rafa’s role as a seatwarmer for the Roman’s true fixation of Pep won’t sate them if he can’t bring wins.
The man under heaviest siege though, is the one there by his own design. Jose Mourinho now finds his Real Madrid in third, eleven points behind a raging Barcelona, and set to play their other La Liga rivals Atletico Madrid who are eight points ahead in second. A loss on Saturday will not sit well with the willful Madrid faithful—it could very well be a surrender of the league season, and they are already at odds with themselves about Mou. Tuesday’s Copa del Rey match against Alcoyano had the Bernebeu in uproar; as their team played to a 3-0 win, the supporters battled each other for sound—some chanting Mourinho’s name in support, while a vocal opposition booed and whistled him.
Mourinho seems to have been born in the fire of contrarian boastfulness, preferring to view the world of football as an attack on all sides on a weekly basis as opposed to any supportable challenge against a fair opponent. Every match is an opportunity for UEFA to steal a result, each referee is at best unprepared or at worst conspiring with outside forces to ensure the least favorable result. Jose Mourinho has made a career of the perceptively impossible, conquering the ghosts of impartiality and railing against any conspiracy manufactured in the way of perfection.
The spectres are not his foes here though, the Madridistas have seen the outcome of this season and they are not impressed; Marca for all its polemicism will not be an ally, and he faces the ignominy of besting Barça in one year only to see them run riot upon him the next. The Bernebeau demands nothing but perfection, beauty and aggression to pen all rivals to heel, remorse never on offer. In the midst of the Catalan’s historical push for independence,the symbolic Barça have shot themselves to a clear superiority, while Madrid finds counsel in any trophy but the league.
Jose is finally discovering the Madrid of Capello, Schuster, Ramos, and Pellegrini. For all his canny maneuvering against Jorge Valdano, and his solidification against the board, Mourinho must finally see the mantle of Los Blancos for what it is - a continuous battle which you ultimately lose. The Bernabéu, as much as they may cheer you, will eventually turn. No regime can hold, and only the spectacle sustains. They may have been dubbed ‘The Evil Empire’, but the truth is the ouroboros devours itself, every rise must fall, and Jose is reaching his nadir in Spain.
This is the narrative. The world turns and every legend falls into the past—managers are insulated the least from this as anyone bothering to hound Mark Hughes could discover—a man so full of promise, or so the press would say, went from the shame of a Manchester City exodus to a failure at Fulham, to an even further fall at QPR. It was all so public, every moment of every match was a referendum on his career—if we see him again it will not be in the Premier League first.
Managers live off of their stories. Arsene is the Professor, Sir Alex is the Conqueror, Pep is the Innovator, Jose has become the Mercenary. Whatever they are, the fans have approved their titles, every coach is only as good as their story, and the tales are told by the people. The press plays its part, journalists frame every window, every moment—placing each man in his own station for the next job. ‘Arry will fix it, Moyes will punch high, Houghton is too nice, Martin Jol will always surprise.
The carousel of leadership exists because of the sports page. Thank the Sun for the drama.
Convention should be broken though—this is exactly the kind of prospective article which plays all sides to nothing and offers no stakes, so I’m here to give some predictions. Wenger will keep his job. Arsenal will come into it’s own—as they always have. The youth grow, Wilshire is back, Giroud will find his way, and everyone else knows what’s expected.
Manchester United will win. Sir Alex is a man who gets what he wants, and even without Van Persie up front, he would drag this team to the finish line, because make no mistake: THIS IS HIS LAST YEAR. The man has a wife and, she’s had enough of the silly game.
Mancini will fold, and so will the clown-car front-line of City. Tevez/Dzeko/Balotelli cannot hold sanity, leaving Aguero to make the hay, and Mancini seems incapable of putting it all into a formation.
Chelsea will find a top four spot with Benitez, Torres will look reminiscent of his old-self but never glow. His team will turn around him to a third place finish, looking forward to Pep, who they will not get. The man left Barca because of the stress, and Chelsea is no place for a manager to find peace.
He will sit in the Theatre of Dreams for the departed Alex, or in Arsenal’s throne of Idealism. Manchester City for all its shiny organization will only scare Guardiola off, shame on them. Most importantly, Mourinho will flee. Madrid will find late the truth we all knew—Jose stays only as long as he wants. Between fan anger and organizational doubt, he’ll leave for England or sabbatical. Either way it will be eminently quotable—Jose always is.
So there is the life of the manager. Faced with the impossible dreams of we the people, they fly or fall. Let’s be honest, we ask miracles and expect the world. There are surely greater problems than the weekend’s sport—ask the Egyptians, or Israel, or Gaza—but it consumes us nonetheless. Spare a thought for the men—the utterly normal men who drill their teams for the weekend, and face the microphones for good or ill. Spare a thought for the man who walks the sideline, vulnerable to wind and rain, snow and sun.
It really could’ve been us out there, and can you honestly say you would have lasted?
This article was written by Jordan Brown, a Senior Writer at AFR. You can follow him on twitter @Jordansig. Comments below please
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