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Ken Early: Like Napoleon, Mourinho is the outsider always trying to prove himself

Special One has never recovered from losing faith in his own myth at Real Madrid

From his early days at Chelsea to his final days at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho's press conferences in England were rarely dull. Video: David Dunne

Jose Mourinho is driven away from his hotel after being sacked by Manchester United . Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

One of the more curious moments in José Mourinho’s time in charge of Manchester United occurred at the end of August, in his press conference to preview the league match against Burnley.

United had lost their last two matches to Brighton (3-2) and Tottenham (0-3) and Mourinho was feeling embattled. He reminded Tottenham that he had recently beaten them in the FA Cup semi-final and their fans hadn’t been singing insulting songs about him then.

At some point a reporter asked: “In your own words, can you describe the love you have for Manchester United football club and what it means for you to be their manager?”

Mourinho: “I am the manager of one of the greatest clubs in the world, but I am also one of the greatest managers in the world.”

The silence lasted a beat longer than usual before somebody asked a question about the fitness of Luke Shaw. But a few minutes later another reporter returned to the “greatest manager” theme with a vaguely philosophical query.

“José, if you were not to win a Premier League title at Manchester United, would you still be one of the greatest managers in the world?”

“Of course. Did you read any philosopher? Or in your formation you never spent time reading, for example, Hegel?”

“I haven’t read any philosophy, no,” the reporter said.

“Okay. Just as an example, Hegel says: ‘the truth is in the whole’. It’s always in the whole that you find the truth.”

A few Google searches later (showing results for “truth is in the hole”. Did you mean: “truth is in the whole”?) the press corps had established that the quote came from GWF Hegel’s notoriously impenetrable 1807 opus The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Hegel was too obscure and unreadable a reference to riff on in the usual manner of sports headlines and intros, so most outlets settled for describing Mourinho’s “outburst” with words like “bizarre” and “erratic” and moved on.

The Times of London went the extra mile, consulting professor Stephen Houlgate of Warwick University, who explained: “The gist of the idea is that you don’t see the truth at the beginning. Think of an acorn and an oak tree. You need to wait for the acorn to become an oak tree before you can see the whole. . . I’m interested in how he knows the quotation. A generally well-educated person might well know some Nietzsche, but not heavy-duty philosophers like Kant and Hegel.”

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho as Paul Pogba is substituted during the Premier League game against WEst Brim in April 2018. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

To venture a speculative answer to professor Houlgate’s question: maybe Mourinho arrived at Hegel through an interest in Napoleon Bonaparte.

Hegel was a Napoleon superfan. In 1806 he was living at the University of Jena in Germany, putting the finishing touches to The Phenomenology of Spirit when Napoleon won a major victory over the Prussian army just outside the town. In a letter to a friend, an awestruck Hegel described the experience of physically seeing Napoleon ride out from Jena the day before the battle. “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire . . . ”

A lot of football men, likewise, find it impossible not to admire Napoleon, not just because of the quote about lucky generals. Football managers devour biographies of great leaders . . .  game recognise game. Alex Ferguson used to quote the Emperor: “a leader is a dealer in hope.” Tony Pulis is a genuine Napoleon nut who has visited some of the battlefields and told journalists that he wanted one day to walk the route the imperial army took over the Alps.

The thing Pulis admires most about Napoleon is that he was an outsider. “Churchill was a great leader, but he was part of the establishment,” he said at his unveiling as manager of Crystal Palace. “I like to read about people who weren’t, like Napoleon, who was born on a small island and became one of the great conquerors of Europe.”

Napoleon’s peers at the time thought differently. In Waterloo, Sergey Bondarchuk’s beautiful, boring film about the battle that sealed the Emperor’s fate, there is a scene in which the Duke of Wellington strolls around at a ball with the Duchess of Richmond.

The Duchess praises Wellington’s troops, but the Duke is scathing.

“Scum. Nothing but beggars and scoundrels, all of them. Gin is the spirit of their patriotism.”

“And yet you expect them to die for you?” says the Duchess.

“Mm-hmm.”

“Out of duty?”

“Mm-hmm.”

The Duchess is sceptical.

“I doubt if even Bonaparte could draw men to him by duty.”

“Oh, Boney’s not a gentleman,” says the Duke, checking his watch.

“Arthur! What an Englishman you are!”

“On the field of battle his hat is worth fifty thousand men. But he is not a gentleman.”

The fictionalised exchange gets at something true about Napoleon. He was the most powerful man in Europe, celebrated by the likes of Goethe, Beethoven, Shelley and Byron as the pre-eminent genius of the age. And yet no matter his power, fame and success, he could never escape the suspicion that the people who really counted – the aristocrats of the ancien regime – didn’t take him seriously.

Real Madrid defender Sergio Ramos with his manager Jose Mourinho a league match against Rayo Vallecano in 2012. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images

Football is also an aristocracy. The aristocrats are the ones who have played the game professionally, and the commoners are everyone else. The hierarchy is traditionally as hard for an outsider to penetrate as any hereditary nobility.

It must have occurred to José Mourinho that he has had the most Napoleonic career in football. A PE teacher with a flair for languages, who never played professionally, who nevertheless reaches the top of the game thanks to a series of astonishing victories and opportunistic strokes; a master propagandist who built a myth of genius around himself. Mourinho shared the key Napoleonic insight that many people desperately want to believe in the existence of genius – that there are some among us touched with the divine spark, that there’s more to all this than just the blind leading the blind – and he enthusiastically sold them the myth.

When the first act of a career is so brilliant, it can be hard to follow. Once you’ve reached the top, where can you go from there? Bill Shankly said: “My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Had Napoleon had that idea he would have conquered the bloody world.” Shankly seemed to be wondering why Napoleon had not consolidated and become a more normal sort of ruler, why he had instead kept launching war after senseless war until he destroyed himself. (It seems unlikely that Shankly would have approved of many of Mourinho’s recent power plays either).

Adam Zamoyski’s new biography of Napoleon argues that status insecurity drove the Emperor’s restlessness: “Don’t you see that I was not born on the throne,” Napoleon says, “that I have to maintain myself on it in the same way I ascended to it, with glory, that it has to keep growing, that an individual who becomes a sovereign, like me, cannot stop, that he has to keep climbing, and that he is lost if he remains still.”

As outsiders, whose status does not rest on the solid foundation of aristocratic origin but is contingent on continuing success, Napoleon and Mourinho share a horror of defeat, and of the appearance of weakness. They resent those who have the luxury of seeming above such concerns. Napoleon told Metternich: “Your sovereigns, born on the throne, can afford to let themselves be beaten 20 times and still return to their capitals; I cannot, because I am a parvenu soldier. My authority will not survive the day when I will have ceased to be strong, and therefore, to be feared . . . ”

For Mourinho, Arsène Wenger represented the undeserving aristocracy: he, Mourinho, had to win titles every year, but Wenger “can cry in the morning, cry in the afternoon, nothing happens. He cannot achieve, keep the job, still be king. It’s privilege.”

For both Napoleon and Mourinho, myth making is a full-time job. Both find to their annoyance that eaten bread is soon forgotten. “Military glory, which lives so long in history, is that which is most quickly forgotten among contemporaries,” Napoleon complains, and Mourinho feels the same, judging by how often this season he has reminded people of the trophies he won and the great teams he managed in days gone by.

The more Mourinho demanded “respect! respect!”, the more plainly you could see his struggle with that same fear: that no matter what he achieves, it will never be enough.

It looks as though the realisation hit Mourinho when he went to Real Madrid, a club synonymous with the idea of aristocracy. At his previous clubs, players who had won little looked up to him as a miracle worker. At Madrid, the kings of the game looked down on him as a parvenu. What could somebody like him possibly teach Sergio Ramos about football? His titles made no difference. He would always be a PE teacher in their eyes.

Madrid broke something in Mourinho, as though since then, he has not been able to believe in his own myth. He no longer seems to regard football players – this exalted species who would never truly accept him as one of their own – with affection or respect. He has clearly lost the ability to inspire those feelings in them. By the end, at United, he seemed to be taking pleasure in persecuting them.

The sacking is best for everybody, including Mourinho. Seldom has a man seemed so desperately in need of a few months of quiet exile on Elba. Who knows? Maybe his real Waterloo is still to come.