Ken Early: Ancelotti's lack of hubris shows up Mourinho's vanity
Real Madrid boss might sometimes be lost for answers, but he never loses his deep respect for the talent of exceptional footballers
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti with striker Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He put so much emphasis on how well he had done everything that Fernando Palomo, the interviewer, asked why someone of his importance felt such a need to highlight each achievement. ‘Because people forget’, said Mourinho.”
Last week, Mourinho was praising himself again in response to the awkward suggestion that he is currently enduring the most unsuccessful spell of his career. In what sounded like the practised phrases of a stump speech, he listed the glories of the last four seasons: the Spanish Cup in 2010-11, “the League of all the records” in 2011-12, the Spanish Super Cup in 2012-13, and 2014’s near-misses in league and Champions League.
It seems that if Mourinho cannot be football’s most insatiable winner, he will be its most boastful loser. Win or lose, the soundtrack of a special coach’s career should be played at the same insistent volume, by the coach himself, upon his own trumpet.
Maybe there’s another way. Real Madrid’s victory over Bayern meant that Carlo Ancelotti has reached his fourth Champions League final as a coach, a record only Alex Ferguson, Marcello Lippi and Miguel Muñoz can match. If Madrid win the Cup, Ancelotti will become just the second manager after Bob Paisley to have won it three times.
Add that superb European record to league titles in three countries and Ancelotti has a claim to be regarded as the outstanding coach of his generation. Yet he has never enjoyed the global acclaim accorded Mourinho.
Maybe it has something to do with self-presentation. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine Mourinho writing a book in which he describes standing naked with his back to a mirror and craning around to observe that “my fat butt cheeks aren’t a particularly edifying spectacle”.
When Ancelotti tells that story in his own autobiography, he’s illustrating his relaxed attitude towards the uncertainties of his profession. Having sat on so many “benches that have never stopped swaying and shaking, that ass has had to withstand every level of the Richter scale . . . my ass is earthquake-proof.”
He’s cheerfully open about various failures and shortcomings. He describes the experience of being jeered by his own townsfolk – “more or less like being repudiated by your own family” – after his Reggiana conceded a late equaliser to a Cosenza side that was down to nine men. “We were a ship of fools,” he reflects, “and the captain was me.”
In 2005, he stood on the sideline in Istanbul and watched Milan lose a 3-0 lead to Liverpool in six minutes. What went through his mind? “The answer is simple: nothing. Zero. My brain was a perfect vacuum, the vacuum of deep space.”
It was only during extra-time that “my brain began functioning again, and I managed to put together a complete and coherent thought: ‘This is starting to look bad’.” If Mourinho has ever felt such a sense of helplessness, he has yet to admit it.
Ancelotti might sometimes be lost for answers, but he never loses his deep respect for the talent of exceptional footballers. The first time he saw the then-unknown Kaka in training: “I heard a heavenly choir and the sound of trumpets. He was a heaven-sent genius, truly sent by heaven. So, if I may: thank you, Lord. Thank you.” When Milan won that year’s Serie A, he says: “We were champions of Italy, thanks to a player I’d never heard of.”
Not every superstar coach would be willing to give a player so much credit. Men like Mourinho, Rafael Benitez or Louis van Gaal have a tendency to regard football as a game of chess in which they are the players and the actual footballers merely pieces.
It could be argued that Ancelotti accepts the primacy of the players because, unlike Mourinho, Benitez or van Gaal, he was himself a celebrated footballer, who won three scudettos and two European Cups.
But as a coach, Ancelotti too was once an authoritarian and a dogmatist. As manager of Parma in 1997, he had the opportunity to sign Roberto Baggio, but decided against it because he felt Baggio would not fit into his preferred system.
“He wanted to play behind the strikers, in a role that didn’t exist in a 4-4-2. I wasn’t willing to change my formation, and I told him so . . . Years later, I regret how it went. I was wrong to be intransigent. Over time, I learned that there is always a way of allowing a lot of great and talented players to work together and get along . . .”
Now, Ancelotti tailors the system to the players, rather than the other way around. Compare his attitude with that of Mourinho, who decided that a player as talented as Juan Mata had nothing to offer Chelsea.
Last week, the aftermath of Chelsea’s elimination threatened to turn toxic when Eden Hazard told a reporter that Chelsea were not built to play football, but to counter-attack. Mourinho reminded everyone that if Chelsea were out, it was mostly because Hazard had been too selfish to help his left-back. Maybe Hazard, too, will ultimately prove incompatible with Mourinho’s vision.
Meanwhile, Ancelotti looks forward to another European Cup final. He may not win in Lisbon, but if he loses, he won’t mistake the defeat for the end of the world.