Charismatic leadership can be like a conjuring trick which seems to defy all rational principles. But there are limits to what can be achieved, as Jose Mourinho found out at Old Trafford
The European Cup tie was billed as the clash of two great football managers as Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan team to Old Trafford [Wed 11th March 2009] after a goalless first leg at Milan. Manchester United and Inter headed their respective national leagues. United had won the trophy in 2008, and had since won a fledgling competition to establish themselves as World Champions. Most commentators considered United to be a stronger team. Inter had further problems from injuries to key players.
And yet …
And yet there was a degree of caution in the press in predicting a winner. On the home goals rule, a score draw would be enough for Inter to go through. But the main consideration the pundits mentioned in favour of the Italian team was Mourinho’s overwhelming winning record against Manchester teams (which means teams managed by Sir Alex Ferguson). This record, first with Porto, and then Chelsea, was part of the legend of Mourinho, the self-styled special one, and charismatic leader.
Mourinho may not have spooked Alex Ferguson, but he had had his usual effect at a distance on supporters and media alike.
Even the first leg could be claimed a minor victory for Jose. United played well but were denied by Inter in the first half, who then came back strongly after half time. Mourinho was assumed to have worked his magic during the interval or a team considered to have fewer world-class players in their prime.
The effects of charisma
The preservation of the image of a special one was captured in the post-match conference in Milan. Mourinho had, unusually, not acknowledged his counterpart on the touchline, when the match ended.
THis was not intended as a mark of disrespect. I have a special exit from the field, the special one explained. But he had left a message for Sir Alex with a ‘three houndred pound bottle of wine’ at his hotel, to say he would look forward to meting at Old Trafford for the second leg.
Two weeks later
Now at Manchester, Mourinho’s customary swagger is evident as comes into view on the touchline wearing his trademark black magician’s cloak (sorry, overcoat). The crowd in the theatre of dreams boo him energetically and theatrically. The contest starts.
Four minutes later, and the magic spell seems to have gone wrong. Slack marking from Inter, and United take the lead. Technically Inter win still win if they score one goal and United do not add to their tally. Mourinho paces around uttering incantations.
But maybe he still has inspired something special in his players. Manchester’s skill levels drop off (Afterwards, Ferguson was caustic on their sloppiness). His team gets to half time lucky to preserve the lead. United were still appearing scrappy and uncomfortable as the second half started. Then United score another goal, in one of the few world-class moves of the game. Even then, with Milan now needing two goals to triumph, the players played nervously in a way that was at odds with the score, and their record at Old Trafford for many months.
The limits of charisma
United repelled fluent moves from their opponents, cameras switching from time to time to Jose on the touchline. As his team created chance after chance and failed convert them, his body language began to change. It was like watching one of those cartoon characters racing over a cliff, and pedalling furiously in mid-air before fantasy yields to the reality of gravity, and the character plunges to earth.
The crowd chanted “You’re not special anymore” but more with a mix of relief and black humour than of spite.
We were witnessing the limits of charisma. Maybe not gone for ever, but vanquished in one particular battle in one particular place. Even the magician’s cloak looked more like a perfectly ordinary if expensive piece of clothing, more often associated with mourners at a funeral.
The final whistle blows. N special tunnel for Jose. The two great managers execute a clumsy embrace for public consumption. In the press conference shortly afterwards, Jose says Manchester United are ‘at their maximum’ and will win everything they compete for this year.
Of course. It takes super-special magic to defeat a chosen one.