At 9.30pm on 20 April 2011 The Navarrese referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco, considered to be Spain’s best, blew his whistle to get the Copa del Rey final underway. The Mestalla is a stadium that is always noisy, its steep stands full of supporters who are more than capable of making themselves heard. That evening the people of Valencia stayed at home, leaving their theatre to be invaded by Blancos and Blaugrana, and so, in the narrow square off the main stand, thousands and thousands of Real and Barça fans mingled as they waited for the team coaches to arrive. On the fringes of the square, there were a dozen excellent bars serving tapas; the two sets of fans mixed in an essentially convivial atmosphere, but it also has to be said that there is nowhere nicer to be before a Liga game than the Mestalla. None of this would ever happen at the Bernabéu or the Camp Nou, because the amount of tickets sold to away fans is so low that they are confined to spending the build-up to the game far from the ground. While there was still a chance of incidents occurring here, the Valencia climate is charming, and not just because it’s always sunny.

Half an hour before the start, King Juan Carlos arrived with Queen Sofía. All the directors were lined up waiting for his entrance and he greeted the heads of the ceremony, shaking hands with a stiff Florentino Pérez and surprisingly giving Sandro Rosell a little royal slap. There is always a lot of talk about geopolitical issues before these games; we know that many Catalans want independence and the meaning they assign to Barça’s successes is clear. Just think about Piqué’s quip a few days previously: “Little Spaniards, on Wednesday we’re coming to Valencia to win your King’s Cup.” Or as the great Manuel Vázquez Montalbán described his beloved side: “The unarmed army of Catalonia.” Juan Carlos played it down, but even so he wasn’t spared a barrage of whistles when he took his seat in the stadium and even afterwards, during the national anthem.

Real Madrid were overwhelming at the start. They pressed very high when Barcelona had the ball in their defensive third in order to win it back in a dangerous area and try to strike quickly. After having used him four days before at the Bernabéu for just under an hour, Guardiola had dropped Carles Puyol, who was sitting on the bench with an ice pack on his knee. The captain’s final years of his career – he would retire in 2014 – were marked by a number of injuries that forced him to manage carefully the number of minutes he played. But with Javier Mascherano filling in for him, there was a marked drop in their ability to move the ball around in defence quickly and efficiently. This didn’t go unnoticed by Mourinho, who had named Pepe in midfield but instructed him not to advance beyond the opposition defence. “You have to play much higher up than you did on Saturday, you have to press Mascherano and Piqué when they’re trying to come forward, and when the ball goes out wide you have to support Özil on the right and Di María on the left. I’m asking you to do a lot of running, but if you succeed then this time we’ll win.”

Mourinho’s setup was a more courageous 4-3-3 than usual, as he inverted the midfield trio from the first game by putting Pepe at the tip of the triangle (rather than the deep-lying midfielder he was before) and instructing the other central midfielders Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso to play slightly deeper. It was an aggressive move that sought to take the initiative away from Barcelona, to undermine their calmness and to force them to work out how to counter it while the game was still going on, which they had almost never needed to do before, and so Mourinho was betting on the fact that the Catalans hadn’t been preparing for the unexpected in training. The idea worked for the entire first half, because after the first few scares Guardiola ordered Busquets to stick tight to Pepe in order to reduce the impact he was having when pressing. By doing this, however, he sacrificed the Catalan midfield triangle’s usual equilibrium: Xavi and Iniesta were forced to reconsider their positional play, and disorder – Barça’s nemesis – reigned within the Blaugrana ranks.

Watching a contest between a confused team unsuccessfully trying to play their usual possession game and a team playing with the frenzy of a mastiff barely restrained by its chain was spectacular in terms of excitement, but the quality was poor, partly because there was a dramatic rise in the number of fouls as a result. What marked out the Copa del Rey meeting within this cycle of Clásicos was that it was the first one in which even international team-mates put all friendships aside: A number of these players had won both the European Championships (2008) and the World Cup (2010) together with Spain. Players like Casillas, Ramos and Xabi Alonso had shared this experience with Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta, but right from the off the duel between Álvaro Arbeloa and David Villa on the right-hand side of the Madrid defence was incredibly punishing, while the Catalan midfielders would complain for a long time – albeit privately – of the abrasive and at times provocative attitude of Xabi Alonso. He clearly must have had a long talk with Mourinho, given that up until the previous game he was the main suspect for passing team news to the newspapers (which made the coach explode with anger in the dressing room) while from Valencia onwards his previously indifferent attitude towards José transformed itself into an almost military obedience. In reality the Portuguese, a master of psychological warfare, had been pushing the ideas of competition and false friendship for days. Marked by his previous, and certainly not short, experience in Catalonia, Mourinho had tried to convince his Spaniards to break off their friendships with their international team-mates at Barça, who were accused of claiming all the glory for La Roja’s victories and of only feigning a great brotherhood with their Madrid compatriots. “I know this atmosphere well, they’re doing it for political reasons: they pretend that they’re friends so that they can stab you in the back, don’t be fooled by it.”

It would be a vulgar argument if it wasn’t being put forward by a charismatic man like José; but the words that he used clearly made an impression, given that the viciousness of the tackles – quickly reciprocated by the opposition – soon reached dangerous levels.

Other than changing Pepe’s position, Mourinho made some other important adjustments. Sergio Ramos was restored to central defence, in order to provide the power and ability to come forward with the ball that Albiol lacked. Arbeloa had come in at right-back, while up front he dropped Karim Benzema – who didn’t impress him – and gave the role of centre-forward to Cristiano Ronaldo, which was primarily to allow him to put Mesut Özil back into the side after a short spell on the sidelines. José’s relationship with the German playmaker was somewhat complicated. He was certainly one of his men, he had wanted to sign him at any cost after being won over by his performances at the World Cup in South Africa, but he had been excluded from his inner circle because, his detractors say – probably correctly – he wasn’t part of the group of players managed by Jorge Mendes, Mourinho’s own agent. Real was full of them, from Ronaldo to Carvalho, from Pepe to Di María. It has always been that way with the Setúbal-born coach, from the Portuguese players he signed from Chelsea to when he forced Ricardo Quaresma on Inter.

Unlike some of his teammates, however, Özil didn’t change his agent. And every time Mourinho kept him out of the starting line-up – even though he was very highly regarded by the rest of the squad – players would exchange long looks with each other across the dressing room, as if they thought that being picked for the team was about more than just technical ability. In any case, Özil had initially been sacrificed on the Saturday to add another defender to the midfield, but his introduction for Benzema after an hour significantly helped Real to equalise despite the fact they were down to 10 men. As a result, Mourinho, who had most likely given up on La Liga seeing as he retained most of his strength for the cup final, immediately selected him for the starting line-up in Valencia, again in place of the French centre-forward. Cristiano Ronaldo was more than capable of playing as a number 9.

It was an excellent choice, because Özil, who was itching to play, crafted two perfect balls for the Portuguese superstar within the first half hour. The first was an expertly clipped pass at the end of a rapid counter-attack led by Di María, but Cristiano’s touch was slightly too loose and he was forced away from his central position, and his subsequent cut back from a wider position was intercepted by Mascherano; the second was a high ball played by the German with perfect timing to find Ronaldo in an onside position. As the Madrid fans seemed bewildered at seeing him miss the ball – a rarity, considering who made the mistake – the Catalan supporters looked visibly relieved; throughout the first half, they believed it was inevitable that they would concede. Real’s best chance came in the 44th minute and it was a result of a magnificent right-footed cross from Özil, as usual, which found an unexpected centre-forward: Pepe himself, who rose above Dani Alves to meet it with a header, no more than eight metres from goal. His header came back off the post and, as they went back into the dressing room, Real’s players had the concerned expressions of players who are too experienced not to know that in football, when you are the better team, you have to take your chances, because games can change and you never know if and when you will regret your missed opportunities.

Both coaches talked a lot during the half-time interval. Guardiola needed to correct his team’s unusual attitude, which was almost submissive in the face of their opponents’ tactical and physical aggression. Since he had taken charge, Barça had beaten Real five times before the draw on Saturday. Among those five wins was the incredible 6-2 at the Bernabéu in his first year and the extraordinary humiliation of the previous December, the 5-0 that will always haunt Madridistas. If they let this cup slip away by allowing Real to do what they wanted as they had in the first half, the psychological advantage that he had established would disappear, as their eternal rivals would realise that not even a team who had beaten them that easily was itself ultimately unbeatable. There’s a cliché about love, but it can be applied, more or less, to football as well. It’s a wonderful phrase in Damage, the masterful book by Josephine Hart (you may perhaps have seen the film, with Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons). It goes, “damaged people are dangerous, because they know they can survive”, and that is exactly how Real Madrid felt after the draw – playing with 10 against 11 – that Saturday. They had been seemingly irreparably damaged by the three years of Guardiola’s Barça, yet they had still survived and maybe found the key to installing their own virus in the perfectly built software of the Catalans’ game.

During the 15 minutes at half-time Pep didn’t shout – he almost never does – but he indicated the tactical and psychological adjustments required to rid the team of its inertia in an extremely decisive tone. The team listened intently.

In the other dressing room, José Mourinho was walking a tightrope. On the one hand he wanted to tell his players how much he approved of the way in which they had stifled Barcelona for 45 minutes – though while he approved, he was not satisfied, because they were still looking for the goal that should have affirmed their dominance. On the other hand, he needed to tell his men that Barça would recover, probably at the very start of the second half. ‘It’s unthinkable that a team like them won’t react, so I’m telling you to be prepared to struggle, it will be a long and difficult second half. Right now Guardiola, in the dressing room next door, is telling his players how to turn the tables on us: be ready to help each other, be tight and compact, there are areas where you will be targeted and if they take you on one-on-one you’ll be in trouble.’ Al Pacino couldn’t have said it better.

And the game did change. That was immediately obvious. Barcelona’s midfield rediscovered its balance, Pepe’s frantic pressing slowed because his team-mates were no longer able to keep pace with him and Xavi and the others began playing their possession game again, the closest thing to hypnosis ever seen on a football pitch. The Catalan fans’ demeanour noticeably changed as well: while they had suffered in the first half, fearing a goal was coming, now they were holding their breath as they waited for their side to take the lead and seemed even more worried, because the fear of not taking your own chances always exceeds that of giving chances to your opponent. The source of this worry is the fear of mockery, because conceding while the other team is on top is only natural, but conceding when you’re in full control of the game is a sign of impotence. And in football, image is crucial. Fabio Capello, another top-quality coach, abhorred the very idea of conceding a goal on the counter-attack, which is widely considered to be the intelligent answer to those unwary coaches who spend their lives excessively teaching attacking football.

Barcelona decisively attacked down the left-hand side, where penetrating runs were made alternately by Pedro and Villa. In reality it was always Messi, who moved freely across the entire forward line, who directed the play, but the idea of attacking Marcelo, who operated down the right-hand side (looking at the pitch from the Catalans’ perspective), was less appealing to him than attacking the space behind Arbeloa, who was seen as the weak point of Mourinho’s team. After a few attempts, with shots from Pedro and Villa failing to hit the target, in the 68th minute the moment seemed to have arrived. Messi picked up the ball just inside the Real Madrid half and set off, leaving Marcelo, Xabi Alonso and Khedira in his wake. Sergio Ramos closed him down to try to stop him before he could go any further, while Ricardo Carvalho stretched the defensive line by moving closer towards Arbeloa, who at right back was the last man. These were perfect movements, straight from a defensive coaching manual, but they didn’t take the Argentinian’s almost supernatural speed into account. He slipped past Ramos’s tackle, passing the ball into the smallest of gaps between Arbeloa and Carvalho. It was a fantastic ball to find Pedro in a goalscoring position after he had raced past Arbeloa on his blind side, and his low shot beat Casillas to send the Barça fans into raptures. As they celebrated, though, they saw that Undiano Mallenco had already raised his hand to indicate a free-kick to Real Madrid. The linesman still had his flag up, signifying that Pedro was offside. The furious Barcelona bench nearly spilled out onto the pitch and Guardiola physically held back the most agitated – in the replays you can see Thiago Alcántara determined to exact justice – and in the press box the feeling was that a perfectly good goal had been ruled out.

We were wrong.

A few seconds later, the replay showed that the linesman, Fermin Martínez Ibáñez, had made the call of his life: when Messi played his pass, Pedro’s feet were in line with Arbeloa’s, but, by leaning forwards, his chest and his head were offside. And so the offside decision, even if it was only just offside, was the correct decision. It’s important to underline how close the call was and how fine the margins were, because during these 18 days Pedro’s disallowed goal would take on the utmost importance. In fact, it was the spark that led to all-out war. In that sense, it was a bit like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that led to World War I.

But let us return to the Mestalla.

Barça’s anger at the disallowed goal spurred them on and in the final 15 minutes they bombarded Real Madrid, forcing Casillas to make two stunning saves from Pedro, again, and from a goal-bound shot from Iniesta. In his polite, understated way, Iker was the leader of the section of the dressing room that resisted Mourinho’s crusade for provocation, the man who, backed by his beliefs, admitted that he was tired of the politics the Portuguese had brought to the rivalry. This was a stance that he would pay for by being dropped from the team before he had begun to decline as a player, which wasn’t long in arriving, but had not yet arrived. After the game, Mourinho himself admitted that “Casillas made two fantastic saves”, but that would be the last compliment he would make publicly before freezing him out.

The save from Iniesta in the 80th minute, in particular, was made at full stretch, the tip of his finger brushing against the ball with just enough strength to turn it away from goal, and watching the replay from the camera positioned behind the goal you can see it was the difference between the ball finishing one side of the post or the other. Sergio Ramos, who had tried to stop the shot right up until the last moment, went up to his friend with an expression that was both grateful and incredulous at the miracle he had just witnessed. But at the Mestalla that night there was no time even to enjoy miracles as the game continued to ebb and flow. After the first half dominated by Real and the majority of the second half by Barça, the Madridistas came back again just before the full-time whistle, the most deceptive of all periods of the game because every team tries to show they are willing to call a truce and settle for extra-time, but beneath this cloak they are hiding a dagger with which they can strike the decisive blow when there’s no time left to recover from conceding a goal. In the exciting final few minutes of the game, Real tried to strike that blow twice but missed both times: in the 87th minute Adebayor, who had replaced an exhausted Özil, led a break forward and found Ronaldo in an excellent position, but for once the Portuguese’s control wasn’t as fluid as it usually is.

It was too intricate and it allowed Dani Alves the time to get back and close him down with a sliding tackle. Then, in the 89th minute, a wonderful piece of skill gave Di María space on the edge of the box: quick to step inside Alves, the Argentinian struck a precise but soft right-footed shot towards goal and although his dive certainly gave the final minutes a photogenic moment, given that it wasn’t a particularly difficult save, Pinto showed that he wasn’t just a cult hero: he turned the ball safely over the bar and so ensured that extra time would be necessary.

In the most finely balanced of contests, Guardiola and Mourinho were so busy implementing their moves and counter-moves that they had practically forgotten that they had substitutes: of the six possible changes, only Emmanuel Adebayor had come on for Özil when the Madrid playmaker had begun to feel the pace. One substitution for Mourinho, then, and none for Guardiola, who scrutinised the pitch as though the answer to the puzzle was hidden out there somewhere. Standing still, lost in his thoughts, for a long time Pep seemed to be in a catatonic state. Then he broke into action, approaching the crowd of players lying on the ground in need of a massage. On the other side of the halfway line, José had called together everyone who worked for Real, from the physios to the kit men. It might appear to be a way to deal with the atmosphere, but actually it was a strategy to prevent anyone from reading his lips to find out his instructions in advance: Barcelona may not appear to use a great deal of secret intelligence, but they do. A wall of people protected the conversation between Mourinho and his players and with the benefit of surprise Real started the quicker out of the blocks.

There were still no substitutions, but Pepe began pressing high up again while Adebayor, even though he wasn’t the fine centre-forward he used to be, gave his team more options as the depth he offered disturbed the fine balance that Barcelona thought they had only just restored. In an increasingly stretched midfield, the accuracy of Xabi Alonso’s long balls once more began to have an effect and, halfway through the first half of extra time, he picked out Ronaldo with a magnificent pass. The ball rolled past Piqué, but he could only watch it go by as Cristiano raced onto it: of the various individual duels theirs was the most exciting, because speed and power combined in equal measure and they are two such imposing, giant figures that they could easily do an advert for Clash of the Titans. Moreover, the two knew each other well from their time playing together at Manchester United: it would perhaps be stretching things to call them friends, but there was always a visible mutual respect between them even during the most intensely competitive moments. So Ronaldo was rushing after Xabi’s pass, with Piqué hopelessly far behind him. The Portuguese’s right foot shot was struck with the force of a train cutting through the night, but once it passed Pinto’s right hand, its trajectory imperceptibly changed, who knows how, and it brushed the outside of the post. A wonderful shot, but off target. Ronaldo stood there, disbelieving.

But that was only the warm up; the defining moment was about to arrive. In the 102nd minute, while Barcelona were once more unable to organise themselves in the face of their opponents’ pressing, Pepe recovered the ball in midfield and gave it to Marcelo, who exchanged passes with Di María to set him free down the left-hand side to cross. When the ball came into the Catalan penalty area, Piqué, the only Blaugrana player who was strong in the air, had left Ronaldo to go and mark Adebayor. Adriano, shorter and less agile, was picking up the Portuguese instead and when the cross started to drop just beyond the penalty spot, he realised that Ronaldo was already in the air, ready to meet his destiny. He hung in the air like a basketball player, he met the ball perfectly, heading it back across goal and taking Pinto by surprise, who desperately threw out a hand but to no avail. A wonderful goal. A goal that shattered the established order of a dominant Barcelona and a quivering Real Madrid. It was only a Copa del Rey final, but the Blancos celebrated with the passion of a team that has just won the World Cup. Pepe, the most malicious member of the team, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a resounding umbrella gesture towards the Catalan fans sat in the stand behind the goal. Half-time quickly arrives. It should be a simple change of halves, but tiredness can kill and a number of Madrid players collapsed to the ground near the bench. Mourinho had a word with each of them, putting an arm around Di María’s shoulder, encouraging Arbeloa by telling him he only had to keep going for 15 more minutes and replacing Khedira, who could no longer stand up, with the loyal Esteban Granero. At this point, Mou seemed like Russell Crowe in the opening scenes in Gladiator, the general moving among his troops in the midst of battle and supporting them with strong words of empathy.

Guardiola tried to change things, immediately putting on the Dutchman Ibrahim Afellay – what a wasted opportunity, incidentally – for the exhausted Villa, then Keita to give Busquets a rest, and finally Maxwell for Adriano. But none of his replacements led to anything, and ultimately from the moment that Ronaldo scored there was the feeling that his would be the only goal of the evening. The match was too tense, there were too many nerves on edge, too much agonised concentration. Barça still had eighteen minutes to turn the tide after going 0-1 down, but Madrid’s defensive organisation didn’t give them a chance. If anyone was still going to score it should have been Ronaldo in the 118th minute, but his shot was blocked by Dani Alves when the goal was gaping. A camera caught the annoyed reaction of Mourinho, who was already on his feet ready to celebrate the goal that would have made the game safe, but instead he was forced to endure two more minutes of passion (of sorts). But isn’t that the sort of passion we all live for?

Final whistle.

Looking at each of the jubilant Madridista faces in turn, it’s clear that Ronaldo was the most fired up, an unrestrained, total joy, free of any sort of constraint. It’s immediately apparent why this is: Ronaldo has just beaten Messi. It isn’t the first time ever: Manchester United knocked Barcelona out in the Champions League semi-final in 2008, but that time Cristiano, by missing a penalty in the third minute of the first leg, was the man who put United’s qualification at risk, which was instead secured with a goal from the veteran Paul Scholes in the second leg. This time, however, he scored the only goal in a final – it would have been impossible to be any more decisive.

Ronaldo is a person who has a literary quality to his soul and a highly theatrical quality to his body. He completely rejects his status as the second-best player in the world, as though it were a status of mediocrity, and accentuates his body language – the aforementioned theatricality – whenever he has the opportunity to do so, because it’s there, in his athletic and elegant physique, that he finally feels superior to his rival, the proof of which is in the obvious preference of sponsors who are looking for a seductive face for their brand. As much as he has grown following his childhood hormone disorder, Messi has remained rather small and there’s little that’s charming and nothing that’s sexy about his appearance.

He is, however, a football prodigy while Cristiano is ‘just’ a great player, and his dominance in that area – the area that is of most importance to both of them – has made the Portuguese Adonis into a beast. If Messi is Mozart, Ronaldo is no Salieri, he is much more than that. Not enough, however, to convince people that there is a competition for the world’s best player: if you ask 100 supporters (neutral fans, not of one or the other) which of the two is better, it would be surprising if the ratio was less than 80:20 in Messi’s favour. The real greatness of Ronaldo is in never having given up when faced with such an immovable obstacle (he has only won one La Liga title in seven seasons at Real, compared with his rival’s five).

There is something elusive in the Portuguese’s determination to improve day after day, but that is exactly what makes him a great champion. Walter Di Salvio, his fitness coach at Manchester United (for years he secretly flew him and his treatment table out to Madrid, because the player thought what the Real staff were prescribing him was insufficient) once told me about the extra exercises – not his intense workout routines – Cristiano did after training at Carrington, United’s training ground. While his teammates went in for their showers, he went out to the back of the complex, where it borders on a patch of woodland, so that he could practice his ball control in difficult conditions. In the woodland undergrowth the terrain was very uneven, full of exposed tree roots, and Ronaldo would kick the ball hard into that area and chase after it, trying to bring the unpredictable bounces under control. When Walter told me about this, I immediately thought about the Brazilians and their technical ability, refined through hours of playing on the beach, and of the below average players in any league who can’t wait for the end of every training session and who don’t do a minute more training than they are obliged to do. Everyone wants to become like Cristiano Ronaldo, but few know how hard he works to maintain his status. No one has described this contradiction to me as well as Gianluca Vialli once did: “Every player will tell you that he has a great will to win, and that’s true. But the ones who have the will to prepare themselves to win are those who make a difference.”


From the stands in the Mestalla it was clear to see what the final meant. After the final whistle sounded, the majority of the players – Real’s embracing each other, Barça’s in silence – collapsed to the ground and struggled to get back up, visibly exhausted. After using up so much physical energy, combined with the frightening mental pressure, the game demanded more than they had to give and extra time had drained even their reserves. It was the scene of a pitched battle and only two people from the Blaugrana ranks had the mental strength to cross the battle lines and congratulate the victors. The first was Madrid’s enemy number one, the Catalan separatist par excellence, the most explicit secessionist: Gerard Piqué. Everyone in the city thinks that he will be Barcelona president one day because of his intelligence, preparedness, and his uniqueness among everything that surrounds him. His maternal grandfather Amador, whose surname somewhat ironically is Bernabéu, was director at the club for many years; his mother Montserrat is the director of the prestigious Institut Guttmann, a specialist centre for spinal injuries. Being this sort of person, it’s no surprise that, after taking a few moments to get his breath back and process the defeat, he walked purposefully towards the enemy camp to shake the hand of each member of the opposition. The same person who at the end of the first Clásico in the series, who was among the protagonists of the brawl in the tunnel; the same person who for political reasons even now struggles to speak to Sergio Ramos, his international teammate. Piqué’s gesture, greeted with surprise by some of the Madrid players, was the essence of sportsmanship. Or, as the cynics might say, simply empty rhetoric: Real were the better team, I gave my best but it wasn’t enough, now I can only congratulate them.

Piqué aside, there was a lot of iciness on the pitch even between international teammates: Arbeloa and Villa had fought throughout the match and now looked at each other menacingly from a distance. Barcelona players – as mentioned earlier – would complain about Xabi Alonso’s attitude for months afterwards. Including both those on the pitch and on the bench, there were in fact 12 World Cup-winning players, but there was no sign of the great Furia Roja squad.

After Piqué came Guardiola. The previous March, after miraculously surviving a Champions League tie against Juventus, Pep criticised the complaints made about the referee by Bianconeri director Beppe Marotta: “When a great club loses they mustn’t look for excuses, but compliment those who beat them.” A noble idea, even if good grace suggests using it as little as possible; it is something, however, that Guardiola routinely does on nights when it is he who is beaten. Like this one. Or most recently, when Atlético Madrid knocked out his Bayern side, despite a stunning performance, to deny him his last chance at winning a Champions League in Bavaria: “We should begin by congratulating Atlético,” Guardiola had said.

Real Madrid’s players went up into the stand where the King of Spain was waiting for them with the trophy after the president of Catalonia had congratulated them with a handshake. There is a clear superiority in Pep in every aspect of his behaviour, including when he has been beaten; a moral superiority and a sense of feeling better-educated which fascinates friends and admirers, but must be unbearable for those who are different or, in some senses, ‘normal’. In this sense, and only in this sense, Mourinho is a normal person, because there’s nothing zen-like in the anger he feels when he is beaten, it’s a fury that would take the roof off the dressing room and he doesn’t give a fuck about shaking hands with opponents – sickening frippery for spineless losers.

The two pass each other only fleetingly, the handshake is brief, Guardiola is fairly calm in defeat while the victorious Mourinho’s mind is still in turmoil.

A few players said privately that it was only at the airport, a couple of hours later, that the Portuguese coach seemed to be a bit more relaxed. He certainly wasn’t when he arrived in the press room. Hunched over, almost hidden behind the small screen that was showing the game’s highlights, Mourinho seemed exhausted.

In his interview, during which he skipped round questions like poles in a ski slalom to continue to talk about whatever he wanted to, the victory became almost incidental. “This season we’ve played them three times: once we conceded five goals, we drew another and tonight we won. That means that anything can happen at any time between us. Naturally I’m happy to have won another domestic cup, which is my fourth: in addition to the cup in Portugal, my home country, I’ve won them in the three most important countries in European football: England, Italy and now Spain. But if we’d lost I would say the same things, because what mattered was the attitude of my players.” Don’t be deceived by this slightly more modest attitude, coming from someone who had just exerted a huge amount of nervous energy. Mourinho had still mentally identified a few targets: one, incidentally, was Diego Torres of El País, whom he had taunted from day one – “I already know that some geniuses, for instance the gentleman sat in front of the computer in the third row there, will write pages and pages to explain this match” - but the primary target was Johan Cruyff, who had recently written in his column for El Periódico that the Portuguese was a “titles coach” and not a “football coach”. Mourinho had never explicitly talked about Barcelona (whom he always referred to as ellos, “them”), as if he were trying to take away their dignity, let alone called Cruyff by name. But there was no question about whom he was referring to. “There is someone who recently said that I’m an entrenador de titulos and not an entrenador de futbol. Thank you. I like that. All of us here work hard so we can win titles, so I’ll take that as a compliment.”

If the Madrid media had been almost unanimously ranged against him up until the day before, something noticeably began to change after the victory. Since Guardiola had taken charge, Barcelona had never lost against Real: five wins and a draw, the one that came four days before. The cup victory was confirmation that the tide was turning, and as much as Mou’s methods clashed with the journalists following the team, beating this apparently unbeatable Barça team was the main priority, asking his people to do whatever it took to combat an unprecedented level of Catalan superiority. The man who had achieved that deserved unquestionable support, not to mention the fact that the fans, quicker than journalists, had already moved lock, stock and barrel to his side.

José can feel the wind changing like few others and if he allowed himself a quip against Torres it was because he knew that no one would come to his defence. He also made a very sarcastic comment on the Spanish media’s obsession with ultra-attacking football: “If I’d gone along with the newspapers I would have chosen a formation with six forwards, but I didn’t change my mind and I think it went just fine.” The time had come to fan the flames a bit with a question about the monolithic, and very Catalan, way that football is viewed in Spain. He expected nothing less. He responded in Italian, but everyone understood him. “Here people think that good football is just about having possession. They’re limited thinkers. I believe there are many other ways of playing well, like defensive organisation, solidarity, the ability to withstand pressure and to close down spaces while preparing a counter-attack at the same time. In my opinion tonight Real played a great match because they demonstrated all these qualities.” Aside from a small group of diehards, my Spanish colleagues were looking down at their shoes.

It was time for him to leave, but before he did José reminded Florentino Pérez about the most important promise that was now due to him. “I’ll go home happy with this win, but I would have been calm even if we had lost, because my job is going well regardless. I was promised that a few changes could be made to the club’s structure to modernise it, and it seems to me that, little by little, I’m succeeding.” This final eviction notice to Jorge Valdano thus delivered, the president let it be known in the following days that he had received it. During the dinners that followed the victory – the celebrations went on in Madrid for days – he made no secret of his desire to keep Mourinho and possibly offer him a contract extension, but he was also distancing himself from Valdano, the man who for so many years had been his most loyal supporter and whose relationship with the new coach now seemed irreparable.


The two coaches missed each other in the press room by a matter of seconds, which suggested that a delay had been deliberately arranged so that they would avoid seeing each other. Guardiola and his confidante Manel Estiarte came in together; the former sat at the table, the latter took up a sentry position in the opposite corner of the room. Elegant in his grey suit, which even after 120 minutes of tension looked as though it had only just been pressed, Pep initially looked vacant, with a bottle of water, his fourth or fifth of the evening, in his hand as always, and before every answer he took a sip. “First of all I want to congratulate Real Madrid.” The pre-programmed sportsmanlike statement. The diehards nodded their heads, the others puffed out their cheeks at what appeared to them to be a sudden display of ostentatious and slightly naive sportsmanship, or, as the Italians call it, buonismo.

With this formality concluded, Pep gradually regained his colour as he nimbly and quickly extricated himself from unusual and unfamiliar questions about defeat. “There isn’t long left until the end of the season, it’s time to reap what we’ve sown, so now we need to pick ourselves up quickly and start again. It would have been better to win, of course, and the result was in the balance for a long time: it could have gone either way, but it went their way, congratulations again to them. But my team didn’t start out with me, they have experienced defeats before and they’ve come back from them in the past. That’s life, you get knocked down and you have to be capable of getting back up again.”

It’s possible that Guardiola was being coquettish when he said that this group of players hadn’t started out under him and therefore they know the taste of defeat to Real Madrid, a situation which – as a coach – he had never been in until half an hour before. Perhaps he was being coy, perhaps it was a way of encouraging his players, or it was maybe a combination of both: “courage, it’s already happened now and you know how to carry on”. The most natural moment to bounce back would be that Saturday’s La Liga game at home to Osasuna and Pep even mentioned José Luis Mendilibar, the Pamplona side’s coach who was held in high regard by the national media for his determination to play attacking football even when his team was vastly inferior to the opposition.

Real Madrid aren’t the only club that are followed by a group of contrarian journalists. Some of those who follow Barça suggested that Guardiola was being a cry-baby by accusing Real of playing unfairly and, after half-time, very defensively. He looked at them like a weary professor: he had been teaching them a certain ethical style for three years and he was now being asked completely the opposite sort of question. “I don’t intend to use any arguments that could sound like I’m looking for an excuse. Every team decides how they want to play football, there’s a referee to ensure the rules are respected and that’s all I intend to say on that. I’ll finish this press conference as I started, by congratulating our opponents on their victory.”

 


This is an edited extract from Paolo Conde’s book The Duellists, published by DeCoubertin.