José Mourinho has been keeping himself busy. It has been almost a year since he finally checked out of the Lowry Hotel, his tumultuous, compelling and not entirely unsuccessful time at Manchester United at an end. He had not necessarily planned a sabbatical, though by the time he left Old Trafford, he rather gave the impression he might welcome one.
Still, Mourinho is not the sort to sit on his hands. He started to appear as a studio guest on beIN Sports in the spring, sparring with his old foe, Arsène Wenger, across the desk on Champions League nights. Then, last summer, he agreed to a more permanent arrangement to appear on Sky Sports’ coverage of the Premier League.
He has agreed to a number of promotional gigs, too, most recently an advertising campaign for a bookmaker in which his bit centered on highlighting how frequently the bookmaker paid out on wagers. “I know what it takes to be special,” he intoned. Winning a jackpot, the joke went, is so common that it is not special at all.
It is strange to think, really, that it is 15 years now since Mourinho came up with that line in his inaugural news conference in England. Even after all this time, that phrase — the Special One — is still indelibly associated with him. It is his public persona, both self-styled and externally imposed, both his catchphrase and his nickname, an accepted substitute for his name when newspapers indulge in elegant variation.
It has survived the unhappy denouements of his last three jobs: at Real Madrid, a return to Chelsea, and then United, three clubs at which he lost first his players’ faith and then control. It has endured an ever-decreasing trophy return and his failure to live up to his own guarantee of success. It has lasted even though, rather like Neil Armstrong, he never actually said it. “I think I am a special one,” was the direct quote.
It has done so because English soccer is addicted to Mourinho — hopelessly, forlornly, destructively in love with Mourinho, unable to form a lasting bond with anyone quite so intensely as Mourinho.
His glittering record, of course, explains part of that fixation, but there is something else, too. Mourinho bridges the divide between the old conception of what a manager should be — an omniscient potentate, his fingerprints on every aspect of day-to-day life at a club, not answerable to a sporting director or a recruitment committee — and the more modern vision of what one should look like: handsome, charismatic, all brooding intensity.
He is box office, too, the quality the Premier League prizes above all others. He is a recidivist for mind games — that puerile playground taunting that falls somewhere between boxers’ trash talk and a movie trailer — and, when no particular foe presents themselves, he is more than capable of arguing with himself, his players, even his owner. There is nobody better at keeping the plotlines bubbling in a quiet week.
And so it was inevitable that, at some point, Mourinho would be a participant once more, not merely an observer. Mourinho fluttered his eyelashes at Arsenal, where Unai Emery is embattled, but it is Tottenham who seduced him first, jettisoning Mauricio Pochettino only months after he took Spurs to the Champions League final. Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, has always had eyes for Mourinho, by all accounts. Of course he has. He is only human.
The fit is not, on the surface, an obvious one. Mourinho has always had nothing but contempt for those of his peers who talk airily of philosophy and long-term planning; he separates the world into people who win — him, and a couple of others who he is willing to tolerate — and everyone else, who doesn’t. (He and Pochettino are close, though his predecessor always seemed to fall into the latter camp.)
At United, Mourinho fell out with his superiors over a failure to invest heavily in the squad. Though he resents the idea that he does not develop young players, he has always been plain in his belief that what matters most is winning now.
Spurs, where Levy is famously parsimonious, refusing to approve moves for anyone too old to maintain a resale value, where several current players are considering their next move, and where Pochettino had identified a need for a rebuilding job, does not immediately look to be a natural home for the new boss.
The appeal, by contrast, is easier to comprehend. For all the progress Pochettino made, transforming Spurs into a genuine contender both domestically and in Europe, he did not win a trophy. That is one area where Mourinho cannot be questioned. He has won everything: three Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies, La Liga, an unprecedented treble in Italy.
The question mark is how relevant any of that is now. Since 2012, he has won one Premier League, two League Cups and the Europa League (a competition he had previously disdained). It is better than most coaches have done, of course, but it is one national championship in seven years. Mourinho is, undoubtedly, the finest coach of his generation. What is not clear, at this point — and what his time at Spurs may answer — is whether that is the current generation or not.
Levy has gambled that Mourinho is not yesterday’s man, but that is not the only risk he has taken in appointing him. There is another, one that has a resonance beyond Tottenham, beyond London, beyond this season.
Levy has made, in his mind, a cold, calculated business decision — the sort he is employed to make — but he has done so in an environment that is neither. For more than a decade, Mourinho has been Spurs’ foe, both at Manchester United and, in particular, at Chelsea.
Tottenham has not always been the chief target of his animosity — Mourinho regards Liverpool, in particular, with much more consistent spite — but his association with one of the club’s great rivals means there has never been much affection. When Pochettino’s Spurs beat Mourinho’s United at Old Trafford last year, the Spurs fans taunted him that he was “not special any more.” “They didn’t have that song when we beat them at Wembley a couple of months ago,” he replied.
Now, those same fans are being asked to sing his name, to throw their weight behind his team, to assume that their enemy has always been their friend, that we have always been at war with Eastasia. They are being asked to reassess their understanding of reality, to wipe out 15 years of enmity, to accept what once would have seemed unthinkable.
And they are not the only ones: Chelsea fans, too, some of whom remain faithful to him, despite all the heartbreak, must make the reverse journey. Mourinho has said, previously, that he would never coach Spurs, such is his fealty to Chelsea, the club that first won his heart in England.
In the soap opera of the Premier League, they too are being asked to act like everything that came before was just a dream. Both are being asked to test their loyalty to the limit, and all because, when any elite club in England starts to struggle, thoughts inexorably drift to Mourinho, to the Special One, to a love that conquers all, an addiction that cannot be beaten.