We’ve seen it all before. The intelligent coach gets bullied by affluent team supporters or owners and if they would just relax and let him do his job effectively the team would win. See Friday Night Lights (film and TV versions), Remember the Titans, Mark Cuban’s relationship with the Mavericks (pre-2011 NBA Championship), George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, Major League, Slap Shot, Glory Road, Mighty Ducks, Coach Carter, and in many other places. Coach/owner friction is a storyline that is permutated in virtually every professional sport. Sometimes, it can hinder the performance of players on the field. Sometimes, it can prevent teams that should be winning major trophies from doing so.
A championship winning team is like a macrocosm of a championship winning athlete. Everything has to be in the Goldilocks zone. The athlete’s diet needs to be just regulated to maximize physical output; his stretching and recovery exercises need to be emphasized to prevent injury; he needs to be mentally sharp, both emotionally and intellectually. Teams, on the other hand, need harmony between the players; a coach who understands the right formula for winning; trainers who minimize injury risks; an owner who, like God, sits back and pares his nails while watching his creation move and run. When any of these or other factors tilts one way or the other, the entire team’s rhythm is disrupted.
The owner’s relationship to the team is crucial. This is the person, after all, who signs paychecks, guarantees benefits, oversees the future of your livelihood. Like any career, when the big boss begins undermining your authority, criticizing your performance, in or out of your presence, it gets in your head and under your skin. It’s annoying and nervewracking. There’s a certain ilk of individual that thrives under this kind of pressure; it’s the majority of us that suffer under the yoke of a meddling or overbearing boss and dream of moving on someday. Before the Mavs won their NBA title last year, Mark Cuban was known for being an uber-involved owner, talking to the media about the team’s performance, by turns praise and by others criticism. There was a sense that the added pressure of having so visible and overly-concerned owner prevented an otherwise very good Mavs team from fulfilling their potential. In fact, when the Mavs won their title, Cuban was made conspicuous by the lack of noise coming from his direction. He literally made every effort to stay quiet during the entire post-season.
When Jose Mourinho signed with Real Madrid, I genuinely thought that was the best move that Florentino Perez could have made. A better signing than Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka combined. In my mind, the one thing that had plagued Madrid since I began following soccer in 2008 was the lack of a competent coach (or so at least I thought). Mourinho was a proven winner. The only guy able to stop the Barcelona juggernaut since they became the Barcelona juggernaut. He had won trophies in three different countries, including two Champions Leagues. I knew it wouldn’t happen his first year, but I was convinced that Mourinho as a long term investment definitively would work out for Madrid. I was wrong. Mourinho said last week that he would be leaving at the end of the season. The key byline in the Guardian piece is how he was “fed up of intrigues” at the club. I’m speculating, but how can Madrid maintain any semblance of success if Perez (or whoever) is too impatient to let Mourinho just get on with doing his job?
These are the facts. Since Perez famously forced (World Cup Winner) Vincente Del Bosque out the door, Madrid have gone through 10 coaches. In that time period, they’ve won the league twice, the La Liga Supercopa twice, and the Copa del Rey once. That’s twice as many coaches as trophies of any kind. Let’s approach this rationally: your team has the best players (only Barcelona can come anywhere close to contesting this); your team has one of, if not the best coach in the world; your team has more money than it knows what to do with (at least in terms of gross dollars coming in); your team is not achieving what you want it to. At some point, you have to consider that it might be you. Right? Perez has stepped down from Madrid before. It didn’t help anything. Should he again? It’s tough to say.
My point is that if Mourinho can’t win a Champions League with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Ozil, Benzema, Kaka, Marcelo, Xabi Alonso, Khedira, Casillas, and Higuain, who can? It’s a serious question. Will Madrid be forced to wait out the Barcelona bubble? Even then, who’s to say another team doesn’t come in to prevent them then? What if in some bizarro world Perez convinced Pep Guardiola or Alex Ferguson to coach Madrid? Would it make a difference? Even worse, what proven coach will want to coach there? Mourinho is a savvy operator, no stranger to manipulations of his own design. If whatever rotten element at Madrid is too much for him to stomach?
Coaching a high profile team in a high profile area of the country comes with both its benefits (salary) and its drawbacks (ramped up pressure). See any New York or LA franchise here in America; see any of the big six teams in the Premier League. Madrid is no different, but I believe Perez and the other owners make life more difficult. That much is obvious to pretty much any keen-eyed observer. I’ll stop short of calling for Perez’s head, but I’d personally be surprised to see any manager see long-term success under his ownership. Obviously, someone will eventually win a Champions League again with them. I just don’t think it will be with Perez as owner.