The enduring influence of Jose Mourinho on the language of football

The enduring influence of Jose Mourinho on the language of football

For the best part of a minute, it seemed like it was going to be just another post-match interview.

Chelsea had just lost 1-0 to Aston Villa. Jose Mourinho, who had seen two of his players sent off by referee Chris Foy, was predictably tetchy. He batted back a couple of early questions and looked pretty keen to hit the road.

Then, as if by some alchemical reaction, the whole energy of the scene shifted. A bog-standard moan transmuted into something else, something oddly luminous. The words hummed in the way words do when they’re destined to be repeated a million times or more.

“I prefer not to speak,” Mourinho said to Sky Sports. “If I speak, I am in big trouble. In big trouble. And I don’t want to be in big trouble.”

That this is one of modern football’s most indelible quotes is not up for debate.

Written down on the page, it reads like something from a children’s book. Put those words in the mouth of Felix the Fox or Harry the Heron and you have a good starting point for a morality tale about holding one’s tongue.

It is also a study of basic logic. If I do X, I will get A. I don’t want A, so I shouldn’t do X. There is an elegance to the quote that would please a passing philosopher of language.

Neither of those considerations quite explains its enduring appeal, however. No, that is down to the mischief factor. If Mourinho had actually not wished to speak, he could have just… well, not spoken. In explaining the reasoning, he laid bare his feelings. It was the Platonic ideal of a no-comment comment.

As such, the quote has taken on a life of its own. People use it — and the image of Mourinho’s face, betraying only the faintest hint of chaos magic — on Twitter constantly. Friends, relatives and colleagues will have sent it to you on WhatsApp. It is applicable to a surprising range of situations, offering plausible deniability and usually denoting a winking submission to the eternal pleasures of gossip.

British rapper Stormzy’s 2022 track Mel Made Me Do It even features the lyric “I prefer not to speak, like I’m Jose,” with the Portuguese seen making shushing gestures alongside the Londoner in the video.

Today is the 10th anniversary of “If I speak…”. Hence the bluster and the entry-level linguistic analysis. But this is also an opportunity to reflect on the broader influence of Mourinho on the language of football — on the way his one-liners and digs have shaped, or at least chime with, the way we speak about the game in 2024.

In the first instance, we should take stock of just how many Mourinho-isms are knocking about.

Most obviously, there is ‘the special one’, the nickname Mourinho conjured for himself during his very first press conference at Chelsea (although he had actually referred to himself as merely “a special one”). You couldn’t exactly call this a trend — most managers prefer to keep their self-regard to themselves, or at least don’t go as far with the mythologising — but the aftershocks were still being felt as recently as 2015 when Jurgen Klopp reluctantly labelled himself “the normal one” after being unveiled as Liverpool coach.

Mourinho did not just come up with epithets for himself during his time at Stamford Bridge. He described his arch-rival, Arsene Wenger, as a “voyeur” (“He likes to watch other people”) and then, even more memorably, as a “specialist in failure” — a label that got stickier and stickier over the years and ended up taking on the weight of prophecy.

Perhaps his biggest contribution to mainstream football discourse is “park the bus”, which is now used so widely that its origins have been forgotten. Its first airing came in September 2004 after Chelsea were held to a 0-0 draw by Jacques Santini’s Tottenham Hotspur. So we have Santini to thank for all of those hilarious visual gags on Twitter involving team coaches arriving at stadiums.

Tottenham’s ‘bus’ featured Noureddine Naybet and Ledley King (Mike Egerton via Getty Images)

Other contributions have carved out more niche spots in the football lexicon. His use of the phrase “football heritage” — repeated numerous times during a mesmerising, self-exculpatory monologue after his Manchester United side lost to Sevilla in the Champions League — still pops up quite often, used ironically by fans when their club has just done something embarrassing.

Then there is my personal favourite, a line I use — if only in my head — roughly once a week. It comes from Mourinho’s time as Spurs manager after an away game against Southampton. In the subsequent press conference, Mourinho was asked about an altercation he had had with a member of the opposition backroom staff, for which he had been booked.

“The yellow card was fair because I was rude,” Mourinho said. “But I was rude to an idiot.”

(To briefly dip back into philosophy, this has always struck me as a genuinely interesting position when applied to the political realm. It correctly diagnoses that two sets of normative standards — ethical and legal, say — may not always overlap perfectly. It could easily be a defence of civil disobedience.)

Outside of England, too, Mourinho’s words have always lingered in the public consciousness.

“Scared people stay at home,” was one historic line ahead of his very first game as a manager, at Benfica. There was another after the Lisbon side lost that match. “This team needs a methodological whipping,” he said.

Before becoming “the special one”, Mourinho had another self-assigned sobriquet. “I go from my house to the stadium and from the stadium to my house,” he said in 2001. “I spend the evenings planning training sessions. I’m a football monk.”

Mourinho at Porto training ahead of the 2003 UEFA Cup Final (John Walton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

A year later, after swapping Uniao de Leiria for Porto, he delivered what is now considered his most famous quote in Portuguese. Like “If I speak…”, it contained hints of a persecution complex, gesturing at a refereeing conspiracy that he believed was making life tough for his side.

“In normal conditions, we’ll be champions,” Mourinho said. “And in abnormal conditions, we’ll be champions, too.”

In Italy, as manager of Inter Milan, his target was often Juventus. “There is only one 25-metre penalty box in Italy,” he said in 2010, referring to the number of penalties the Turin side had been awarded the preceding weeks.

More notably, there was the famous rant about “intellectual prostitution”, which culminated in him listing Inter’s title rivals and reminding people that they hadn’t won anything. The words “zero titles” were soon being printed on T-shirts in Milan.

Inter vs Juve often got heated on Mourinho’s watch (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

At Real Madrid, he called Tito Vilanova — then Barcelona’s assistant coach — “Pito”, which literally means “pipe” but is also slang for male genitalia, a fact he, a former translator, surely knew. His assessment of his own players was even more cutting. “Pedro Leon isn’t Zidane or Maradona,” could probably serve as Pedro Leon’s epitaph. Then there was his characterisation of Karim Benzema.

“With a dog, you hunt more and you hunt better,” Mourinho said of the forward. “But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.”

That final example captures a lot of what makes Mourinho the most quotable figure in modern football.

For one thing, it’s just a crystalline image. It has an internal coherence to it and he follows through. Given the muddle of similes and cliches that we’re so often subjected to, listening to Mourinho at his best is similar to looking at great art. You know you’re in the presence of a master.

But it’s not just the eloquence. It is the fact that it is so often employed in the service of nastiness. Not many wordsmiths are truly venomous. Not many dark lords know their way around a metaphor. Mourinho sits at the centre of that Venn diagram.

Case in point: his drive-by on Jesualdo Ferreira, one of his old enemies in the Portuguese game, delivered in a magazine article from the safety of London in 2005. He did not name Ferreira, but his comparison between two hypothetical managers left little doubt about who he meant.

“One is a coach with a 30-year career, the other with a three-year one,” Mourinho wrote. “The one with 30 years has never won anything; the one with three years has won a lot. The one with a 30-year career will be forgotten when he ends it; the one with three could end it right now and he could never be erased from history. This could be the story of a donkey who worked for 30 years but never became a horse.”

Jesualdo Ferreira was a rival of Mourinho in the early 2000s (Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images)

You don’t have to like Mourinho as a manager — or as a human being — to appreciate the potency of that passage. It’s like Machiavelli rewritten by Shakespeare.

This, surely, is one of the reasons that so many Mourinho-isms have made it into the football lexicon. They’re just… good phrases and good phrases have a better shot at longevity.

It is possible that the novelty factor of a foreign manager peppering his press appearances with back-page zingers also played a part. Other managers — Brian Clough, Alex Ferguson — had coined phrases that had entered popular usage, but this was an import from Portugal, unafraid to take risks in a language that was not his own.

The comparison with Wenger is instructive. Wenger spoke fantastic English but did so carefully and modestly, in line with his character. Mourinho, the swaggering prodigy, wielded his language skills like a katana.

There is, perhaps, a wider point here. If Mourinho updated the way we talk about football, this was also a partial reflection of the changing game around us: the ad hominem attacks, the creeping partisanship, the endless questioning of referees. And, yes, the sacrifice of reasoned debate at the altar of the soundbite.

Mourinho’s words did not cause any of this, but it feels fair to say that he rode the wave, maybe even gave it a little momentum here and there. This takes us back to that ageless no-comment comment, that missive from a near future when conspiracy would be served back to us as memes.

(Top photo: Sky Sports)

2024-03-15 06:14:33
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