Since June 2004, when he anointed himself the “special one” on his very first day in English soccer, Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has proven a reliable source of press-conference mischief. In 2005, Mourinho labeled Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger “a voyeur” with “a big telescope to see what happens in other families.” He refused to apologize after television cameras caught him poking Barcelona assistant manager Tito Villanova in the eye. Over the past decade, he has launched a series of carefully timed verbal assaults on referees and opponents, a technique borrowed directly from the Sir Alex Ferguson media-distraction playbook.
But the events of the past week suggest Mourinho is beginning to lose his touch. On Tuesday, in a light-hearted interview with the Spanish newspaper La Region, Montserrat Benitez, whose husband, Real Madrid manager Rafael Benitez, has coached several of Mourinho’s former clubs, quipped that she and Rafa “tidy up [Mourinho’s] messes.” Mourinho was not amused. “I’m not laughing,” he said. “If she takes care of her husband’s diet, she will have less time to speak about me.”
Mourinho’s juvenile fat joke drew widespread criticism. (Though perhaps Benitez should be flattered. When Mourinho gets really angry, when his trademark smirk hardens into a sneer, he likes to emphasize the sheer unimportance of his critics: “I do not know who he is,” Mourinho told the Italian media after Catania CEO Pietro Lo Monaco publicly denounced him. “I have heard of Bayern Monaco and the Monaco GP, the Tibetan Monaco and the Principality of Monaco. I’ve never heard of any others.”)
On the face of it, Mourinho’s comments simply mark the latest episode in an ancient feud between two of the prickliest coaches in European soccer. (Benitez claims that “me and Jose were really good friends until Liverpool started beating Chelsea.”) But Mourinho’s recent misbehavior – a slightly unfair comment about Manchester United’s summer spending, as well as the gratuitous Benitez joke – feels fundamentally different from the years of tactical bluster that preceded it.
Last season, I wrote about the powerful symbiosis between Mourinho and the journalists who cover him: He feeds them explosive material for the back page, and they underplay the weaknesses exposed by Chelsea’s on-field setbacks. But Mourinho’s fat joke wasn’t part of some master plan to manipulate coverage; it was a desperate plea for attention, an immature, casually sexist temper tantrum.
Chelsea, the defending champion, remains the bookmakers’ favorite to win the 2015/16 Premier League title. Mourinho has by far the strongest squad in the league: a perfect balance of youth and experience, solid backup in most positions, one of the best attacking midfielders on the planet. And yet this summer the English press has devoted countless column inches to Manchester United’s resurgence, Arsenal’s resurgence, and Liverpool’s probably futile plans to launch its own resurgence. Chelsea, which has conducted some clever business in recent months, has barely registered.
This state of affairs can be attributed partly to Mourinho’s evolution as a celebrity. He’s still one of the best coaches in European soccer, but he’s no longer one of the coolest. There’s nothing new or hip or exciting about the Special One. He’s no Jurgen Klopp, no Pep Guardiola. On Wednesday, the website 101 Great Goals posted an unflattering photograph of Mourinho, his potbelly straining against a much-too-tight training jersey. Mourinho started his first stint at Chelsea as a handsome, debonair charmer with a penchant for amusing yet utterly calculated one-liners. Over the last couple of seasons, he has gradually transformed into an aging, insecure curmudgeon, the Sam Allardyce of coaches who actually are “well-suited” to high-profile jobs.
Mourinho will probably keep winning for the foreseeable future. But his old charisma, his effortless ability to mesmerize a room full of admiring English journalists, is starting to fade. He badly misread the tone of Monteserrat Benitez’s comments. The retaliatory joke wasn’t clever or witty; it was surpassingly stupid.