Jose’s puzzling motivation an all-consuming personal passion play

Curious spat with rival Villas-Boas generates more heat than light

Tottenham Hotspur’s manager Andre Villas-Boas (right) and Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho walk the line during the weekend’s fractious drawn game between the rival London clubs. Photograph: Reuters

Tottenham Hotspur’s manager Andre Villas-Boas (right) and Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho walk the line during the weekend’s fractious drawn game between the rival London clubs. Photograph: Reuters


Around 1:30pm on Saturday afternoon, it looked awkward for Jose Mourinho. Chelsea were 1-0 down at Tottenham. The opposing manager was his estranged protege Andre Villas-Boas, who had been talking about their broken relationship. If Chelsea lost, the “apprentice schools master” stories would run for weeks. Already the home fans were singing “You’re not special any more”.

In the circumstances, turning to Juan Mata was not the hardest decision he’s had to make. Worst-case outcome: Mata does nothing and Chelsea lose. If so, then at least Mourinho’s decision to leave him on the bench has been vindicated. And best-case: Mata helps Chelsea to win the game. Not only has Mourinho put Villas-Boas back in his place, he can even argue that by rattling Mata’s cage, he has provoked the player to produce his best.

The final outcome was in between. Mata set up the equaliser. As Chelsea pressed for a winner, Fernando Torres got a red card which made the draw look better and allowed Mourinho to lecture Tottenham on the importance of manly English virtues.

Before the match he had lectured Villas-Boas about how grown men ought to behave.

“I am not a kid to discuss relationships in the media,” he had said.

Mourinho’s achievements tower over those of Villas-Boas, so why does it seem so important to him that he is seen as the man and Villas-Boas still just the kid? Football is big enough for both of them, so why does Mourinho act as though Villas-Boas is his rival in a zero-sum game?

Contrast with Bergkamp

Perhaps it has to do with the reason why he got involved in football in the first place.

Most top players and managers have an unusual degree of drive, but the source of their motivation varies. In his new book, Stillness and Speed, Dennis Bergkamp notes that some players are motivated by memories of an impoverished childhood or a difficult family background, while others harbour an ambition to be rich and famous. For Bergkamp, his passion sprung from an early fascination with the ball and its flight.

He describes the solitary circumstance in which he spent much of his childhood: “It’s not thinking. It’s doing. And in doing, I find my way . . . Most of the time I was by myself, just kicking the ball against the wall, seeing how it bounces, how it comes back, just controlling it. I found that so interesting! Trying it different ways: first one foot, then the other foot, looking for new things – inside of the foot, outside of the foot, laces . . . Maybe other people wouldn’t bother. Maybe they wouldn’t find it interesting. But I was fascinated. I was just very intrigued by how the ball moves, how the spin worked, what you could do with spin.”

Bergkamp would go on to become one of the game’s biggest stars, but his personality never really changed: always the calm introvert who speaks only when there’s something to say. But he can fret, which the world discovered when he decided he was never going to board another aircraft.

In Italy, Bergkamp’s team-mates were suspicious because he didn’t socialise. He didn’t sing songs or take them out to dinner. The Dutch maestro was bewildered by the idea that dinners should be part of his job. The important communication with team-mates happened on the pitch: “A little nod or a little smile is enough to realise what you think of each other,” he says. “If I gave a great pass from midfield to Freddie [Ljungberg] or whoever, Thierry [Henry] would look at me in a split second and I would know that he acknowledged how good the pass was. You don’t need words: maybe just a nod, or a little smile or just eye contact.”

Slick passing interchange

The thing that made Bergkamp happiest on the field was when he and his team-mates combined to do something brilliant. Combination play gave him more of a thrill than scoring a solo goal. Maybe it’s because the telepathy of a great team move is a true form of communication, deeper than words. Everyone must understand each other or the move fails.

The quiet kid who spent so many hours in contemplation came to prize the sense of connection with the others above all else. Football gave Bergkamp titles, money and fame but if the game had not offered him any of that, he still would have played for that feeling of understanding and being understood.

Mata, like Bergkamp, is a player who likes to combine with others – he had 28 assists last season, a phenomenal tally.

As for Mourinho, the longer we know him, the more often we watch him hop from club to club, accumulating wealth and enemies. He appears to be in football for the status it brings him rather than for anything to do with the game. If football could not give him that, he would have looked for it in some other sphere: politics perhaps, or media.

Villas-Boas, by contrast, seems consumed with interest in the game for its own sake. On some level, maybe Mourinho envies that. Indeed the powerful start Spurs have made to the campaign suggests Mourinho might soon have other reasons to be envious.