Jose Mourinho has always had a way with words. “It is unfair, really,” former Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, himself a skillful communicator, once said. “He’s good looking. He’s got that sort of George Clooney bit in his hair…. [And] he can speak five languages.” Mourinho – who started his career as an interpreter for English manager Bobby Robson and has coached teams in Portugal, Italy, Spain and England – actually knows six languages. “I think I am a special one,” he famously said at his first Premier League press conference.
The nickname has stuck, and so has Mourinho’s penchant for outrageous one-liners. But his press conferences are more than just an amusing weekly performance. Mourinho’s ability to manufacture headline-worthy sound bites, in whatever language he happens to be speaking at the time, has consistently allowed him to manipulate media coverage. In Mourinho, the English tabloids have found a perfect accomplice: A sly operator as adept at twisting words, and as unapologetic about his real intentions, as the grizzled cynics on Fleet Street.
On Sunday, Mourinho’s post-match press conference, and the English papers’ subsequent coverage of league-leading Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Southampton, provided an object lesson in the powerful symbiosis between the coach and his press corps. Citing a series of unjustified yellow cards, Mourinho insisted that referees have launched a “campaign” against Chelsea. “I don’t know why there is this campaign, and I do not care,” he said.
Mourinho doesn’t really believe that referees have targeted Chelsea players. His comments were designed not to flag an actual injustice, but to intimidate the officials assigned to Chelsea’s next few matches. Mourinho is not the first Premier League manager to employ such tactics – Ferguson would say virtually anything to help Manchester United win games. But in his second stint in the Premier League, Mourinho has quickly emerged as the game’s leading spinner of press conference yarns.
Why do the English papers let Mourinho get away with it? Why don’t they simply ignore his BS and report real news? Because the tabloid business model relies on the sort of blunt hyperbole that Mourinho’s post-match tirades provide. In his book Englischer Fussball, German journalist Raphael Honigstein describes a press conference ritual known as “the huddle,” in which reporters from different papers gather to decide how to cover the day’s events. Premier League press conferences are not venues for legitimate journalistic inquiry; they exist simply as a means for lazy, unscrupulous reporters, many of whom would rather copy their peers than risk missing an exciting angle, to fill the backpage with explosive quotes. After Sunday’s game, the tabloids got a sensational headline, Mourinho got to bully the referees, and the real story of Chelsea’s draw – that John Terry lacks speed, that Andre Schurrle is no replacement for Oscar, that a very-good-but-not-yet-truly-great title contender dropped points at a difficult ground – was lost amid all the shouting.
Referees – who are not permitted to communicate with the public, except via best-selling memoirs – are the chief victims of this transaction. In 2009, Ferguson questioned referee Alan Wiley’s physical fitness in order to draw attention away from his team’s unconvincing 2-2 draw with Sunderland. Anthony Taylor, whose performance in the Chelsea-Southampton game Mourinho called “a disgrace,” will probably never be allowed to respond to his critics.
In the Premier League, coaches do all the talking.