Not so special
The soccer world was left spitting out its cornflakes when it switched on its TVs and radios on Thursday morning to hear the news that the Special One, José Mourinho, had left Chelsea. The enormity of the event was such that Mourinho's furrowed brow featured on the front page of most daily newspapers, and even provoked the British Prime Minister to comment.
Gordon Brown hit the nail on the head, saying, "Mourinho has a fantastic record of success. He's made a significant contribution to British football in a short period of time and he's also one of the great characters of the game."
The writing had been on the wall for some time, with relations between Mourinho and billionaire club owner Roman Abramovich clearly becoming increasingly strained over recent months. Although not as theatrical as his big-bang exit from Porto in 2004, when he famously took off his medal and left the team as they lifted the Champions League trophy, it was always expected that the showman's Chelsea exit would be dramatic.
But nobody, even Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, expected the Special One to be the first managerial casualty of the season, or his final game to be an ignominious 1-1 draw against European minnows Rosenborg.
According to Chelsea, Mourinho wasn't sacked and didn't resign, leaving the club by the often rolled-out soccer smoke screen of "mutual consent." The club said in a statement that, "We had all reached a point where the relationship between the club and José had broken down. This was despite genuine attempts over several months by all parties to resolve certain differences."
The first murmurings of discontent were over the Abramovich led signings of Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack in summer of '06. This caused unrest in the squad as they were signed on contracts that eclipsed previously top-earning squad members.
It was evident that Mourinho was as baffled as most observers as to how they were going to fit into the team, and was obviously unhappy that others were tinkering in team affairs. Further meddling arrived in July '07, much to Mourinho's ire, in the shape of Avram Grant, a personal friend of Abramovich, who was appointed to a newly created post of director of football.
No sooner had Mourinho said his (apparently tearful) goodbyes to his players at the Chelsea training ground, Grant was named as his interim successor. The former Israeli national-team coach, now an English Premier League rookie, Grant faces a massive task to fill the void left by Mourinho, and to take charge of a squad most of whom were ardently loyal to the Portuguese native.
Question marks must now hang over the Chelsea futures of the likes of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and even defensive stalwart John Terry. Drogba is reportedly "furious and upset" over Mourinho's departure, and is the favorite to be first out of the Stamford Bridge exit door.
So what next for Mourinho? Having earned more than $10 million a year as the highest-paid manager in world soccer over the last three years, and being in the process of negotiating a $40 million-plus payoff from Chelsea, he doesn't need to hurry back.
However, with Portugal's qualification for Euro 2008 in disarray, and current coach Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari banned for four matches, José is 2-to-1 with bookmakers to become Portugal's next boss. Second on the list is Mourinho's former employer, Barcelona. After finishing last season trophyless and with an indifferent start to the season, Frank Rijkaard's leather jacket could soon be replaced by Mourinho's trench coat in the Camp Nou cloakroom.
Away from Stamford Bridge, it was a mixed week for the other English teams in the Champions League. In Portugal's second city, Liverpool was flattered by a 1-1 score line against FC Porto. Manchester United, with Wayne Rooney and a goal-scoring Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the starting lineup, faired better in the Portuguese capital, winning 1-0 at Sporting Lisbon. Ronaldo's headed goal, and the associated damage to his coiffure, should see Brylcream sales soar this week.
Arsenal, meanwhile, was rampant, taking apart Sevilla, the two-time UEFA Cup holders and second-place team in La Liga, 3-0. Cesc Fàbregas, another smug, young buck rivaling the evil queen in Snow White for mirror-gazing, scored one and set up the others.
Seemingly almost everything is going right at Emirates Stadium this year, as Arsenal is also on top of the EPL with a home match against lowly Derby this weekend. Good results, great soccer, the most spacious comfortable seats in the league -- if only Gunners fans could compose a few chants, the Emirates might become quite a fun place to visit. That's if one ignores the fact that the extortionate $12 pie and pint of beer "deal" that contributes to the club's $7 million match-day revenue.
In fact, the last time Arsenal was this good was when it arrived at Manchester United riding a 49-game unbeaten streak in October '04 before the Gunners went on to lose 2-0 in a game José Antonio Reyes described as "the hardest match I have played." Heated passions reached boiling point in the tunnel after the game, and in a scuffle between players and staff on both sides, a slice of pizza was thrown at United manger Sir Alex Ferguson.
In his autobiography, former Arsenal defender Ashley Cole described the incident: "This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the face ... all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off his famous face and roll down his nice black suit!" But who was the culprit? For nearly three years, no one knew, and the media could only speculate with regard to the secrets of "pizzagate, the battle of the buffet."
In Something about Mary, Cameron Diaz's seemingly sophisticated confidante is revealed as a pizza-delivery man. In a similar vein, in a little-publicized talk given by Ferguson earlier this month at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, so was ... wait for it ... Arsène Wenger!
Wenger, "Le Professeur," the thinking man's manager -- so suave, so sophisticated and yet, on that fateful day, a man with all the sportsmanship of Dick Dastardly. "It was Arsène that flung the pizza, he's a bad loser," said Ferguson succinctly, paraphrasing the above paragraph while showing off his poor grasp of English grammar. Or perhaps fluent Scottish?
Sir Alex then went onto state that "He couldn't believe a boy from Govan [a poor area of Glasgow] never managed to duck a pizza when it was coming at my head." Duck pizza? Sounds good to Team Limey. Perhaps with just a spot of barbecue sauce.
Second-place Manchester City travels to West London this weekend to play Fulham, Liverpool travels to somewhere in the lump of grime that blots central England to play Birmingham, while fourth-place Man United hosts the other West London EPL team, Chelsea, in the most hyped contest since two of the Big Four clubs last met.
With sympathy for Mourinho coupled with a feeling of unease about how Chelsea has "bought" success, there are a lot of English fans -- even many who despise Manchester United -- hoping that an unsettled Chelsea goes down by a big score line at Old Trafford. Team Limey, in the style of Miss South Carolina, just hopes that soccer is the winner.
We had many interesting and incredibly varied responses regarding the club vs. country debate. Sean P. Walsh of Wilmington, Del., notes that this isn't an issue in America (aside from the Olympics), with many top sports, i.e. the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL. Surely baseball's World Series must include international competition, notes a facetious Team Limey.
Matt of Manhattan Beach, Calif., fully supports any player's desire to represent his country, but feels that his club needs to be properly compensated if the player is injured -- either financially or by giving them a replacement player from a pool of recent retirees. Completely unworkable, but a really interesting concept!
Eugene of New York notes that although it is highly disrespectful to the national team, some U.S. players don't always choose to represent their country, and do so without penalty despite being fully fit. Michael Paul of Indialantic, Fla., thinks the clubs should decide on player availability for international friendly matches, but the player must join the squad for competitive international fixtures.
And finally, Andy Bright of Anchorage, Alaska, claims an easy solution: "If the big clubs don't want to have players involved in internationals, they can stop buying international players."
Who would you like to see replace Mourinho at Chelsea? Answers to that and all your usual banter to firstname.lastname@example.org.