Iker Casillas’ decline is about the central conflict in modern soccer: winning at all costs versus standing for something

I’m going to call José Mourinho the Rush Limbaugh of soccer, but to get there, and we have to start with that young upstart Gawker Media.

Deadspin’s Billy Haisley is currently the best English-speaking writer on Spanish soccer. He has a nuanced understanding of La Liga and, crucially, the Spanish press that is unheard of for an “outsider.”

Yesterday, he dropped a gargantuan 78,000 word saga on The Curious Case of Iker Casillas that is well worth your time. It is meticulously well researched and thought-out — the most comprehensive thing I’ve read on the Casillas situation in either English or Spanish. Seriously, you should just stop what you’re doing and read the whole thing. You will come out of it a much more sophisticated observer of Real Madrid.

I have some small quibbles here and there about some of the details (normal in a piece of this breadth), but the central thesis is that Casillas and Mourinho represent the two conflicting tensions in modern soccer – namely, the struggle between having a club that is a composite of traditions, values, ideals, and legends, that represent something more, versus simply a collection of players that is out to win as much as possible.

“That Mourinho has been at the fore of this culture clash—and not only at Madrid—is not a coincidence. Mourinho was the anti-Madridista. His style is confrontational, braggadocios, entitled. By hiring him, the club was on some level admitting that results were more important than their values. By firing him and siding with Casillas, they at least partially sought to rectify this. It’s not yet clear whether the fans, who were originally uncomfortable with the Mourinho way and later switched sides in significant numbers, want them to. This is what the whistling of their keeper reflects.”

This is a sharp and very intelligent reading of the situation, one that you don’t often see laid out so clearly. That said, I have a quibble with the part in bold. I think that the vast majority of Madridistas are incredibly relieved to be living in this new era of Pax Romana under Carlo Ancelotti. Yes, there are still the Ultras Sur, who will be Mourinhistas ‘til the bitter end, especially now that Florentino Pérez has reversed his previous course and banned them from the stadium, but Madridistas are overwhelmingly delighted with the club’s return to a more quiet, humbler existence.

One thing that Haisley doesn’t explicitly outline is what exactly that something more is at Madrid. Outlining a club’s values is inevitably an inexact science. It’s not like they’re written in the club’s statutes, and fans will always have disagreements about what the club “should” be. Contrary to popular belief, the ethos of Real Madrid has roughly been “speak softly and carry a big stick,” even if Pérez’s presidencies have totally abandoned the “speak softly” part in favor of glamorous stunts, headline-grabbing splashes, and generally being obnoxious dicks.

Real Madrid has also never been a club where the manager received all the plaudits. It’s always been a players’ club, so to speak. Unlike Liverpool, for example, where men like Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly live on in the club’s lore, few can name the most successful managers from Madrid’s days of yore.

So the signing of Mourinho was a very radical move by Florentino. He found himself constantly having to justify his decision by saying things like “Mourinho represents all of the values that a Madridista would want” and “Mourinho defends the club and that’s what Madridismo means”. Everyone is still waiting to hear a single utterance of public support for Ancelotti from Florentino. I doubt it will ever come.

There is still a sector of Madridismo that yearns for Mourinho and will probably never forgive Casillas. The Ultras, for one. But it’s not just them. To get into the group psychology of that sector is a tricky exercise, but it’s a manifestation of something that runs deep within a certain part of Spain’s id. The nation’s economy has been very bad for a very long time. Regional tensions, especially between Madrid and Catalunya, are at an absolute fever pitch. In many ways, Mourinho tapped into the frustration and anger that many Real Madrid fans had at the time and played out a sort of Blowhard fantasy that they couldn’t do in polite society. Mourinho pissed off Catalans all the time, and that made many Madrid fans feel good about themselves. He wasn’t simply a head coach, he was a full-blown culture warrior.

It’s the way Rush Limbaugh makes conservatives who are frustrated their America is being taken over by the browns feel good about themselves. That’s what Mourinho did for many people.

So you should read Haisley’s piece. It’s amazing. But one final nit-pick before I go. He closes his magnum opus with the following line, seemingly vindicating Mourinho’s ethos:

“Mourinho might not be the right man for every club, but he is the right man for this time. It’s easier to win when winning is the only thing you care about.”

Is this true? I don’t think the results suggest that at all. Haisley uses Man City and Chelsea (and you can lump PSG and Monaco in there) as clubs that are “soulless” and just a collection of players. They’ve really struggled to break into Europe’s elite, especially in continental competitions. On the flip side, clubs like Bayern and Barcelona (who despite their recent slip ups, can’t be accused of only caring about results) have been incredibly successful in the modern era. I can make an argument as to why, but that’s for a different post.

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