Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte and the slow decline of football’s star managers

Jose Mourinho received a warm welcome at Fenerbahce (AP)

A nickname is twenty years old. The man who coined the phrase often used to describe him is more than three times his age. Jose Mourinho was unveiled at Fenerbahce on the twentieth anniversary of his arrival at Chelsea; the day he called himself special. The euphoric reception in Istanbul was a reminder of his enduring star quality; the indication rather than how far the mighty has fallen lies simply in the fact that Mourinho now works in the Turkish league.

The Special One is often greeted with taunts that he is no longer special. In a summer when two of the most important managerial jobs have gone to Enzo Maresca and Vincent Kompany, when clubs from AC Milan to Barcelona, ​​Bayern Munich to Chelsea, Juventus to Liverpool have started looking for managers without a hint of interest in Mourinho, the more telling The judgment may come from the kind of people who lined up to hire him.

When Mourinho demonstrated again on TNT Sports on Saturday that he could live an afterlife as a great expert, they uselessly reminded him that Edin Terzic is 41, the age he was when he reached a Champions League final for the first time. You were once the future, Jose. Now the age-old test – put your medals on the table – has become redundant as clubs look for managers who can capture the spirit of the times or who have links to Pep Guardiola (although, in fairness to Mourinho, Thiago Motta and played).

If anything, Mourinho is proof of the addictive qualities of football. He won’t leave the game at his peak. However, the competitive juices are still flowing: Jose Mourinho has brought him offers from Saudi Arabia, he said, which are almost certainly more lucrative than his Fenerbahce contract. So the quest for meaningful success remains more tempting, even if the trophies are less glamorous. A double Champions League winner became the first Conference League winner; Mourinho continues to trumpet this achievement. He continues to lead.

Mourinho signed his Fenerbache contract at Wembley and during the Champions League final (Getty Images)Mourinho signed his Fenerbache contract at Wembley and during the Champions League final (Getty Images)

Mourinho signed his Fenerbache contract at Wembley and during the Champions League final (Getty Images)

A few months ago, Jurgen Klopp reflected: “The dinosaurs, if you like, [Carlo] Ancelotti, Mourinho, Guardiola, maybe me, we won’t do it [manage] for the next 20 years; Okay, maybe Mourinho.” Which, if insightful, was both devastating and deceptive. Klopp and Guardiola remain in fashion, their ideas are very current. Ancelotti seems ageless; he won the Champions League before Mourinho and long after his victories in 2004 and 2010. Then there is Mourinho, the tactical dinosaur.

Klopp did not mention a younger dinosaur. Mourinho and Antonio Conte both return to management this week, the latter at Napoli, after being overlooked elsewhere by clubs looking for less decorated managers. Their CVs have commonalities – Inter, Tottenham, Chelsea – and commonalities. Until Simone Inzaghi this year, they were Inter’s last two Serie A-winning managers; together with Ancelotti they form two of the trio that makes Chelsea Premier League champions. They all started well at Tottenham; Predictably, neither turned out to be a good match.

Not that Conte and Mourinho are exactly soulmates. In 2018, the Italian called the Portuguese ‘a small man’. Clubs of the size of Fenerbahce and Napoli would, with the fanaticism of their supporters, deny that their courts have become smaller; but perhaps the horizons have. Fenerbahce enters the Champions League, but in the second qualifying phase; Mourinho, who has yet to win a knockout match since 2014, is unlikely to get another one. Napoli aren’t even in Europe after finishing tenth in Serie A.

That could be a platform for success. Chelsea finished 10th in 2016 before appointing Conte and becoming champions a year later. Yet that was perhaps his last exceptional performance, just as Mourinho’s perhaps deposed Guardiola’s Barcelona to win La Liga in 2012, completing a personal golden decade. Mourinho won a weakened Premier League in 2015, the Conte Serie A in 2021 in what was a prohibitively expensive Scudetto funded by overspending. Inzaghi’s rather cheaper triumph was an indictment of his predecessor.

Conte returns to Serie A after a difficult end to his time at Tottenham (Getty Images)Conte returns to Serie A after a difficult end to his time at Tottenham (Getty Images)

Conte returns to Serie A after a difficult end to his time at Tottenham (Getty Images)

But Conte seems to think that giving unlimited resources is a prerequisite. His new employer finds that an abomination. Conte and Aurelio de Laurentiis seem like a match made in hell. There are clubs who refuse to do business with the president of Napoli because he is too clumsy. There are clubs that do not consider appointing Conte because he is too clumsy. De Laurentiis managed to alienate his Serie A-winning coach, Luciano Spalletti. Conte has built a persona as the most unreasonable man in management. He seems to think this is essential to being a winner.

And if Napoli succeeds, it will mean Conte – as he has done before – will have to prove his tactical expertise. The winning team from Serie A is split. Kim Min-jae left last summer, Piotr Zielinski will now leave – post-Conte Inter had to become adept at free transfers – and Victor Osimhen is likely to follow. Some others performed too well under Spalletti.

There is at least room to improve for Napoli after the underperformance in the bottom half, following the mistakes in appointing Rudi Garcia and Walter Mazzarri. Mourinho takes over a Fenerbahce team that scored 99 points under the dismissed Ismail Kartal. Logically the only way is down. Logically, Kartal should not have been thrown overboard either.

Mourinho was unveiled in front of a packed Fenerbache stadium (REUTERS)Mourinho was unveiled in front of a packed Fenerbache stadium (REUTERS)

Mourinho was unveiled in front of a packed Fenerbache stadium (REUTERS)

But Turkish clubs are notoriously willing to sign anyone who has played for the Premier League’s big six; Mourinho has had three under his wing. If this is the first time he has been found outside the four major European leagues since leaving Porto 20 years ago, he could be presented as Turkey’s biggest ever signing.

He made a typically impressive start. “I belong to your family,” he said at his unveiling. “This shirt is my skin. Your dreams are now my dreams.” Thus begins the cycle of crowd-pleasing sound bites, early optimism, declining results, negative rhetoric and likely dismissal. It may be cynical to suggest that Mourinho needs to find a receptive audience for his inevitable complaints about referees in Turkey; inferences from conspiracies tend to go over well there. Conte shares his tendency to blame someone else when a certain sourness appears.

Which in turn is a reason why neither stays anywhere very long, a factor when the more prestigious posts go to men they presumably think are less qualified. And if they both take a job he wouldn’t have considered in his prime, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte could face an unpleasant truth. Everyone may disagree, but the rest of the world thinks they are in decline.

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