In the main square of Setúbal stands a statue of Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage, an 18th century Portuguese poet. Bocage is described as being a prodigiously talented but occasionally unstable individual who lived a turbulent life in which he gathered numerous enemies and regularly upset those in authority.
The pugnacious poet is the town’s second most famous son after Jose Mourinho. Are their arguably shared characteristics attributable to the waters of the river Sado, or a secret tryst between the Special One’s great, great grandmother and Bocage? Matters for the anthropologists to discuss whilst Mourinho prepares himself for another nine months under the microscope.
Having admitted that the pressures of life at Chelsea made him consider quitting last season, the forthcoming campaign promises to test his mettle to the limit.
The targets set by the media in Mourinho’s pre-season review are probably not dissimilar to Roman Abramovich’s wishes for next May: another Premiership would be good, but the Champions League is the main objective.
A third consecutive title is still a “pinch me” scenario for most Chelsea regulars, but UEFA’s cash cow is the overriding concern amongst the bean counters at the Bridge. Mourinho will be acutely aware of this and history indicates that Russians with ambitious five-year plans are not to be ignored.
The reinforcements from Eastern Europe (by way of Munich and Milan) to assist in the quest for club football’s Holy Grail have led to questions as to whether Roman is blurring the line between boardroom and bootroom. A character like Mourinho is unlikely to take kindly to outside influences on team selection and while Abramovich is no Vladimir Romanov, the three-year pursuit and eventual capture of his Ukrainian friend will naturally lead to eyebrows being raised.
Ballack and Shevchenko seem to fit the now unfashionable ‘Galactico’ profile and initially looked unusual choices for a manager that believes in a strong team ethic without the distraction of egos potentially larger than his own. But reputations aside, both are exceptional individuals. Shevchenko’s impeccable record and early contributions indicate that his commitment will be as valuable as the goals he will hopefully score and while Ballack has had less chance to impress, his performances for Germany this summer hint that the old clichés about absence when the going gets tough should be dismissed with consummate ease.
One of Mourinho’s strengths has been the ability to deflect attention away from his team in times of trouble. The methods may be unpalatable at times, but with the pressure to deliver results greater than at any other football club it is hardly surprising that a few feathers have been ruffled.
This season his powers of protection could be further tested. Key figures within the team will be subject to greater scrutiny: as England captain, any slip by John Terry on or off pitch will now be viewed in a different light. Frank Lampard has little to prove at Chelsea but will be under pressure with the arrival of the German captain and will also have to illustrate his worth to the national side after a poor summer. With both approaching thirty years of age, Shevchenko and Ballack have price tags and salaries at which cynical observers have already screamed “pension!”; conclusive proof to the contrary is needed to silence them.
Add to this the likelihood of a sterner title challenge from the chasing pack and Mourinho’s ‘haircut for war’ looks entirely appropriate. A suit of armour and an air-raid shelter may be on his Christmas list if the early exchanges don’t go his way.
The club itself is already under the same microscope. It amuses most Chelsea fans that the establishment has been upset, but amassing enemies in the corridors of power quicker than you collect trophies is a potentially hazardous pastime in the long term. ‘Colegate’, Mikel and the current bout of handbags with the ever-lovable Ken Bates; mud sticks and we would do well to avoid such situations in the future, irrespective of how enjoyable it is to watch the old guard curse our very existence.
A third title would be ‘spectacularly unpopular’ according to one newspaper which will undoubtedly find the Blues as newsworthy as ever, despite their take on the club’s reputation. Premier League chief Richard Scudamore recently commented that a decade of Chelsea dominance would not be ‘healthy’ – an ambiguous statement, but the fact it was made at all was unusual. UEFA and FIFA have made similar noises and giving them further opportunity to interfere would be unwise: working smarter off the pitch as well as on it should be another goal for the coming season.
Mourinho said upon his arrival at Chelsea that “If I wanted an easy job… I would have stayed at Porto – beautiful blue chair, the Champions League trophy, God, and after God, me.” Jose’s faith is his own business. The only piece of furniture that concerns Abramovich now is the trophy cabinet and its contents come May 2007. The Olympic Stadium in Athens awaits.