Jose Mourinho left Chelsea this week, and sports lost (briefly) one of its most hilarious and utterly essential villains. It won't be the same without him.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate
Slowly, in the same way you can feel a cold coming on in the back of your throat or a gathering heaviness behind your eyes, you just start wanting it less. And so, reasonably and maybe after a brief period of forcing and faking it, you just do less of it. "It" in this case being "everything." It is exhausting to maintain a large and outward-facing life, and as life fills up with the sort of interests and obligations that tend to accumulate with time, at some point you just stop wanting the sort of large and overstated life we default to in our twenties.
To a certain extent, this is a decision our bodies make for us—it could be that we tend to cool down and grow up as we get older because we've learned some things, or it could just be that the Hangover Intensity dial gets spun hard to the right sometime around the age of 30, and sticks there. Let's give ourselves some credit, though. Live long enough, win some and lose some, and figure out something about getting in where you fit in, and life just sort of changes shape. You don't even need to be old to feel this way, really. You just need to relax a little bit. Anyway, because this moment comes for us all—a reckoning after which we will live the rest of our lives, slightly more comfortably and less ostentatiously and more or less as ourselves—we need mutants like Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho, who left Chelsea this week shortly before the end of a pyrotechnically disastrous season, is someone who has resisted and eluded this reckoning. That, as much as his managerial genius, is the thing that makes him appealing. Teams hire Mourinho because of what is either a real or perceived genius for soccer, or both; this is a slippery thing, and while he has had a great deal of success, he's ultimately as much of a con man as any coach. A team buys—well, rents—access to the volatile glowing core of thermonuclear confidence that rests in Mourinho's chest, and then trusts this weaponized self-belief to do what it's supposed to do. It usually does, at least until it doesn't. It's not that it ever stops working for Mourinho, it's just that at some point everyone in range gets a little sick from the radiation.
Mourinho's imperviousness is what makes him so fascinating, even to someone like me, who barely follows soccer. At any rate, I don't follow the sport closely enough to detect whether there's anything to Mourinho's sincere and absolutely unqualified belief in his own genius. It doesn't matter much to me either way. I am in the market for Jose Mourinho for the same reason that I treasure Alex Rodriguez's Olympian performance-art weirdness, or Rex Ryan's blustering Kool-Aid Man approach to human engagement, or Mike Francesa's gleeful, sneering, utterly unfounded self-regard. It is why I am there for Kobe Bryant's last seething wander across the uncanny valley.
The fundamental appeal of sports, for me, is a broad struggling-against—an attempt to make something beautiful or expressive or just defiant, despite the conspiring of gravity and cynicism to keep everything pinned more or less where it is. That is a different entertainment than what Mourinho gives, although the two are related. If the first is fundamentally tragic—think of LeBron James trying to win a NBA Finals by himself, because there was no other option—the latter is frankly and hilariously comic. In denying the very possibility of doubt, in constantly finding a reason for failure beyond and outside yourself, in regarding the rest of humanity with bottomless pissy pique and soul-deep disdain, people like Mourinho transcend their humanity to become something both smaller and greater. This is a famous video that you have probably seen already, but please: look at this shit.
There is a person in there, probably, but what is mostly on display in that video is a cocksure villainy—not evil, but goofy mustache-twirling silent movie heeldom—that has fascinatingly little to do with humanity. Mourinho is poreless and suave and so self-confident that he appears oddly drowsy; his accent is unplaceable, and seems borrowed from a half-dozen cat-stroking Bond villains. There is no such thing as understated grandiosity, but this right here is some frankly magisterial cockiness.
There is invariably something startling when we see this sort of thing in broad daylight, whether it manifests as the proud cluelessness of Curt Schilling on social media or in the thousand-yard-stare of a reality television maniac testifying to-camera about her hatred for "fake people." These are not people you would want to work with, or be around, or be. But they are good theater precisely for that reason. If their self-regard was less operatic in scope, they'd just be jerks.
This sort of narcissism is such a thrill to behold precisely because of its volatility. A person that holds himself so above the rest of humanity is living next door to sociopathy, and the distance between Mourinho shoving a teen trying to steal a selfie with him (hissssss!) or snubbing Arsene Wenger (boo!) and real-life fuckery like being a discriminatory jerk towards team doctor Eva Carneiro (ugh) is not really all that great. If you believe you're entitled to something, you have already entered negotiations re: being entitled to anything, or everything.
Great talent, great success, and great wealth are things that tend to make people strange, and nudge them further and further from the rest of humanity. It takes a certain amount of self-belief to look the everyday impossibilities of sports in the face and see them as anything but what they are, and that self-belief is an absolute requirement for these jobs. This does not mean that everyone at this level needs a Mourinho-grade lack of perspective, let alone his ability to reorder the universe such that it orbits gratefully around him. They just need the ability to entertain that possibility, in their heart, at moments that would otherwise be crushing.
Our mundane and petty world, heavy and human-afflicted as it is, casts some long shadows on sports; it can get cold in that shadow, at times. At its best, sports swings a bright light onto some of the finer things about people—courage and joy, teamwork and virtuosity, intellect and strength. When it works, sports are a run to daylight, but even when it works slightly less well, it makes for a pretty good television show. The intrusion of real-world villainy into this programming—dipshit boardroom cynics like Roger Goodell or witless plug-ugly bullies like Greg Hardy—is a drag, and a jeopardy to the suspension of disbelief; they are ambassadors of the small and ugly world that sports bust us out of. No, a show this great doesn't just deserve a villain as great—as funny and as brilliant and as deliriously hissable—as Jose Mourinho. It demands it.