Homeward bound

How you react to José Mourinho seems to depend on your nationality. Andy Brassell witnessed his return to Chelsea

It could have easily been HMV Oxford St waiting for JLS to do a personal appearance were you to substitute the sweating hacks present for screaming teenage girls. Taking a seat a full half hour before the Special One deigns to honour us with his presence, the clammy press conference room at Stamford Bridge is already packed and abuzz with gossiping whisper. Just along the row an English and Italian journalist almost come to blows (Italian: “I’m sorry, my friend is sitting there.” Englishman: “I don’t see anyone sitting there. Do you even understand English?”).

It’s occasionally said before an encounter with as much subtext as this that the press conference is more keenly anticipated than the match. But there’s the feeling that this really is the case before Chelsea play Inter – and not just because it’s the prospect of watching two José Mourinho teams. Nobody even vaguely interested in the game really needs reminding that, yes, Chelsea’s most successful manager in their history is returning to play against them for the first time. What this is really about, of course, is the English media. They miss him so much.

Poor old Marco Materazzi is the unfortunate charged with accompanying his coach on this occasion, as is the protocol at these pre-Champions League curtain raisers. Maybe this is some sort of karmic payback for ruining the World Cup final for one of the game’s all-time greats but, having dusted down his best English from his Everton days, Materazzi is left gazing bemused into a catatonic throng after the media officer invites questions.

Just as a few Italian scribes begin to reluctantly pipe up, Mourinho pokes his head out from behind the advertising backdrop for a few seconds and a supernova of camera flashes explode. Materazzi manages a wan smile and utters a polite “thank you” before swiftly taking his leave.

So Mourinho takes his seat and, despite flat-batting a couple of early teasers about the significance of his return, he quickly tells us that he feels “at home”. Though he goes on to say this is due to the presence of “the same people who made me feel incredible every time I was in this stadium” there’s a strong feeling that “home” is in the cradle of a group of followers hanging from his every word.

Despite the overpowering sense of being stuck in a roomful of amateur psychologists (with the emphasis strictly on the “amateur”) exploring the full gamut of different ways to ask what it’s really like to be back, there’s little doubt who’s in control here.

Mourinho masterfully walks the tightrope hovering over the two sides of his character, one of brutal honesty (the terms in which he describes himself) and the other of Machiavellian manipulation. He talks of toning down his usual persona “because it’s Chelsea” but while trotting out the party line that getting Inter past their dry spell in Europe would be the “special” element of the evening, he still throws his slavering disciples a few juicy morsels. He wants to coach in Spain. He wants to continue working until he’s the same age as Giovanni Trapattoni. And blow me down, he wants to return to English football at some point.

The real interest and the biggest indicator to his future – which is, if we’re honest, far more interesting to the English media than what’s going on at Inter – is the stark dichotomy of the room’s atmosphere, created by the contrast in English and Italian perception. The relationship between Mourinho and the journalists of his current working environment is one of unconcealed mutual contempt. He snorts at a question. “It’s probably better for you if we lose, to create better headlines.”

While his soundbites were lapped up in Portugal and England, the Italian media seem to see Mourinho as hot air clouding a lack of a genuine substance. In a country where thorough tactical analysis is par for the course, Inter’s coach is simply a more expensive version of Roberto Mancini and Mourinho feels hurt. “Life is beautiful, football is beautiful. In almost every country.”

Back home, Mourinho is feeling comfortable enough to lance the odd bitchy aside. “I have nothing to prove to Chelsea. They moved on, I moved on. I keep winning important things. They keep winning… something. An FA Cup? No problems, just respect.” Gasps and amused snorts fill the air and he’s happily preaching to the converted.

From WSC 279 May 2010