Mourinho v Conte: unseemly feud reflects badly on both combatants
Mourinho struck the rawest of nerves when he brought up the match-fixing case
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has become embroiled in a feud with his Manchester United counterpart. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
Antonio Conte had spent his afternoon supervising an unsatisfactory goalless draw with Norwich City, but the frustration of watching Chelsea’s squad players labour bore little comparison to the other feelings dammed up inside.
An hour after the final whistle he let it all out in the Carrow Road press room and, by the time he had finished, nobody among the cluster of agog onlookers could doubt the force of his animosity towards José Mourinho. When he finally took his leave after labelling Mourinho a “little man” and a “fake” the question hanging in the air was how much further such an extraordinary set-to can possibly run from here, a long-simmering feud having exploded with barely precedented venom from relatively innocuous beginnings.
Few would have expected Conte to ignore Mourinho’s barb, not directed by name but clearly aimed at his counterpart, at the ban he received for allegedly failing to report match fixing while working in Italy. A gust of discontent seemed more likely, though, than the storm he eventually unleashed. Post-match press conferences are rarely the best arena for squabbles to play out into something more: if things get too animated there is usually a team bus to board, a waiting plane to catch, a press officer at hand to cut awkward follow-up questions short.
This time Conte whetted the appetite with his comments to broadcast media and then, with the Chelsea director of communications Steve Atkins standing to his right throughout, aired his grievances in full, uninterrupted flow to those seated opposite.
The affair reflects woefully on both managers but Conte’s unwillingness to let the latest jibe go can be explained. In bringing up the match fixing case, which eventually saw Conte exonerated after a long-running investigation, Mourinho had aimed low and it would take a generous soul to suggest he did not know exactly what he was doing. After being cleared in 2016 Conte said: “I have difficulty saying it is a happy ending. It never will be. An acquittal does not make you forget four years under investigation, a search of my house at five o’clock in the morning, television under your windows at six o’clock, front page headlines, the judgments, a lot of situations which have done harm to me and my family. I cannot forget it. These things have left a mark, they will remain forever.”
Mourinho had struck the rawest of nerves and it is worth noting that, before the more headline-grabbing aspects of his outburst on Saturday, Conte took the time to outline in simple terms the chronology of his ban and his acquittal. It was a matter of correcting innuendo with fact and that is why the discussion was allowed to take the turn it did. If all Mourinho had wanted to achieve was the distraction of a direct rival, he had alighted upon the one topic guaranteed to pay dividends.
In truth it is a squalid state of events and there is no halo above Conte either. He arrived in England with a reputation for abrasiveness but in his first 18 months rarely diverged from courtesy and good humour. His interactions with media have been gracious: direct eye contact, handshakes and respectful nods. But his recent responses to Mourinho have, as one colleague put it, been more akin to the “Italian Conte” and it was impossible not to detect a mask slipping when he offered that crass diagnosis of “demenza senile”. It was hastily corrected to “amnesia” but the horse had bolted by then; Conte’s meaning was unmistakable and one wonders what further depths an exchange that has, up to now, invoked life-ravaging medical conditions and long-disproved allegations must plumb before the Football Association show an interest in punitive measures for disrepute.
Escalation in hostilities
It is just not good enough from such high-profile ambassadors for their clubs and league, but the escalation in hostilities is itself no particular shock. If it was essentially a misunderstanding that flared things up – there is no particular evidence that Mourinho was referring to Conte when he said he “did not have to behave as a clown on the touchline” – the readiness with which both have lined up their broadsides speaks volumes. Last season Mourinho accused Conte of trying to humiliate him towards the end of a chastening return to Stamford Bridge, which his Manchester United side lost 4-0, in an animated conversation at full-time. Various affronts exchanged since then include a pledge from Conte in July that he wanted to avoid “the Mourinho season with Chelsea”, a reference to the disastrous title defence of 2015-16, while in October he advised the United manager to “start looking at himself, not others” after Mourinho had indirectly accused him of a tendency to “cry” about injuries.
Anything left unsaid in the meantime is coming out in the open now. Conte has never appreciated what he sees as an unnecessary interest in events at Chelsea from Mourinho, who was undoubtedly bruised by the tainting of his legacy in west London. In Mourinho’s case, Stamford Bridge forms a more direct reference point for oneupmanship than the Etihad Stadium, where Pep Guardiola’s supremacy is barely worth contesting for the next five months. Their current teams’ league positions, United just a point ahead of Chelsea in second, serve Moutinho’s appetite for confrontation well but there is a sense that – perhaps for the first time in England – he has met his match.
Those who like their football in soap opera instalments may be rapt but it would be more appropriate to see them go “face to face” – in Conte’s words – next month with a modicum of dignity and fair humour. Being a “little man” is one thing; such an unseemly race to the bottom will only conclude when both men make an effort to be the bigger one.