Captain Paranoia leapt onto Jose Mourinho's shoulder and began whispering in his ear, filling his mind with all sorts of dark thoughts. Dark thoughts that burrowed into his brain and ate away at him.
That, at least, was the way it appeared. First in the pressroom at Real Madrid's Valdebebas training ground and then at Riazor, Deportivo de La Coruña's ground where his side had just hit the post twice and dropped two vital points in the race for the league title. And just in case anyone hadn't got the message he then repeated it all over again at Valdebebas and the Santiago Bernabéu.
"They are," Mourinho blurted out, "laughing at me behind my back."
Madrid were seven points behind Barcelona but rather than lament his evident bad luck after a game his side had dominated, Mourinho sought someone to blame. Someone else. He'd been through the referees, assassins among the opposition, and even his own general director. This time the problem was the fixture list and those dark mysterious forces that decide when teams play; those dark mysterious forces that seek to sink Real Madrid with the schedule. Or so he said.
"I will keep on talking about this and defending my club," Mourinho said. "I will talk and talk but no one is listening. I have no power. They decide in favor of their friends. There are interests. Some [teams] seem to be able to pick and choose when they play." Some, of course, was shorthand for FC Barcelona.
According to Mourinho, Real Madrid had been done no favors by the Spanish league, which did not contemplate moving its game forward to the Friday ahead of its Champions league clash with Olympique Lyon in the Champions League. The French league, by contrast (and unlike the English Premier League) had done so. More significantly, he complained that Madrid had less rest time than Barcelona. "Ask any biochemist and they will tell you the impact that has on the players," he said.
He complained too that Madrid played in the late slot more often than Barcelona -- 10 p.m. on Saturday night, or 9 p.m. on a Sunday -- and that Madrid invariably had to play after Barcelona. The latter was a problem, he said, because it increased the pressure. His players went onto the pitch knowing that as Barcelona won, they had to win too. Real Madrid's director of football Miguel Pardeza took up the baton. "We hope that they will compensate the number of times we have played after Barcelona," Pardeza said, "because it is a psychological advantage for them."
Whether or not that genuinely makes a difference is impossible to judge with any certainty: surely, given the huge numbers of points both sides are accumulating this season -- Madrid would be top of any other league in Europe with its record and yet trail Barcelona by seven points -- Madrid knows that it has to win every game anyway? Surely, victory is always the aim? And on those rare occasions when Barcelona does drop points, couldn't playing second be an advantage, a morale boost, a golden opportunity dangled before you?
"This is not an opinion, it's a reality. You can look at the stats and you can examine the facts," Mourinho said. The problem for him was that he was quite right: you can look at the facts. You can examine the reasons behind them, you can analyze the stats, and you can contemplate the alternatives. And you might not reach the same conclusions. The "facts" don't always read the way that Mourinho says they do.
The chances are Mourinho knows that; his job is not so much to signal an injustice as to maintain the pressure on others, to be vigilant. But for every argument there is a counter-argument. One that undermines Mourinho's moans -- so much so, in fact, that even the more moderate pro-Madrid press is not having it.
"They're not fooling me," Mourinho said. Mourinho was not fooling anyone else either. A poll at AS showed that over two-thirds of its readers thought Mourinho was wrong, while its editor stated his concern that the manager was becoming a "self-parody." Over in Marca, whose editorial line defended the Portuguese, one of its few independent voices, Roberto Palomar, nailed it. "Why," he asked, "does Mourinho want to play at the same time as Barcelona? He did that once -- and lost 5-0."
Mourinho complained that his side had been forced to play on Saturday against Deportivo de La Coruña having played in France on the Tuesday. That same week, Manchester United had played in France on the Wednesday and also played on the Saturday, seven hours before Real Madrid. United won 4-0 and then played again on Tuesday. Madrid waited until Thursday for its next match. If it had been allowed to leave their game against Depor until the Sunday, it would have had a day less to prepare for the visit of Málaga last Thursday.
That's the thing about time: there's only so much of it. And with so many matches, if you push a game back to have more preparation time before it, by definition you will have less preparation time after it.
For the Málaga game, Madrid had five days' preparation time. Its opponents, forced to play on Monday, had just three. Mourinho had no problem admitting that -- but, he said, it was merely a "chocolate bar, a sweetener" for Real Madrid that did not disguise the true issue. Meanwhile, for its midweek game -- a second away trip -- Barcelona had a day less than Madrid. That was an advantage Mourinho was less keen to talk about.
In total this season, before this week (in which Madrid had a day more), Barcelona have had 77 rest days in total, compared to 76 for Madrid. According to statistics put together by Alexis Martín Tamayo, after Champions League matches Barcelona have had an average of 4.43 days' rest, while Madrid have had an average of 4.29. Logically, if you turn that stat on its head and look at rest time before Champions League games, it is the other way round. After Copa del Rey games Barcelona have had an average of 3.29 days before their next game, Madrid 3.57. In both cases, the difference is so small as to be virtually irrelevant.
Nor do the stats suggest Madrid have had it easier. Over the course of the season, Barcelona have had to play after just two days' rest 18 times. That's twice more than Real Madrid. Barcelona have had to play three games in just seven days six times; Madrid only three.
So far, Real Madrid have played seven times at 7 p.m., while Barcelona have played four times at 7 p.m. and a further three at 6 p.m. Barcelona have played 12 times at 8 or 9 p.m. (eight times at 8, four times at 9), Madrid have played 11 times. Barcelona have played five times at 10 p.m. in the league, Madrid seven times (In the Copa del Rey, meanwhile, Barcelona have played a further six times at 10 p.m., invariably filling the slot immediately after Real Madrid whose Cup games have mostly kicked off at 8 p.m.).
Madrid have indeed played after Barcelona more often than not: 17 times against seven. (That does not necessarily mean playing a day after, just in a later time slot). Again, whether that actually makes a difference is debatable. After all, Madrid have drawn five times this season: twice when they played before Barcelona, three times playing after them. Proportionately, that suggests that they are more likely to drop points playing before than playing after, contrary to what Mourinho claimed. Barcelona's sole defeat this season came when they played before Real Madrid.
There is an inescapable truth: Mourinho talks about interests and he is quite right. It's just that those interests are not the interests that he says they are.
Ultimately the fixture list is dictated by television. There are, however, limitations and those very limitations will ensure that the difference in kick off times will be virtually nullified by the end of the season. Those same decisions have knock-on effects on subsequent decisions which skew the figures making the imbalance -- for the time being -- look bigger than it will end up being. If you play after a team one week you almost have to play after them the following week too, to maintain the rest days.
The rights to the Spanish league are owned by Mediapro but the games are then spread across three (or four) basic platforms and six (or seven) basic time slots. The distribution of those games also has to comply with the law, which protects one free-to-air game per week and demands that a certain number per year involve Madrid and Barcelona, that every side is shown at least once and that there is no repetition of matchups in the two halves of the season (if you have shown Racing-Hércules you can't show Hércules-Racing, for instance.)
The slots (one game per slot) are the following:
*Free to air, which (barring those rare midweek fixtures) is always on Saturday night at 10 p.m. on the autonomous regional channels and La Sexta.
*Canal Plus, via subscription, which is always on Sunday night at 9 p.m.
*Gol T and Canal Plus Liga, thematic subscription channels that show games at 6 and 8 on Saturday, 7 on Sunday and, in Gol's case, 9 on Monday.
*There is then a fourth/fifth slot of games played simultaneously and not given a unique TV slot: the remaining games are shown on a Sunday at 5 or, when European soccer dictates, Saturday at 6 p.m. This is not a slot Madrid or Barcelona normally occupy.
Madrid and Barcelona cannot, for commercial reasons, be on at the same time. Nor, apart from the one-off of the clásico, have they been shown on Monday night. If you have played in the Europea League on Thursday you cannot play the following Saturday. If you are playing in the Champions League on the Tuesday, you cannot play on the previous Sunday. With those restrictions in place, the decisions are taken, week-by-week - and that is the real problem; that every seven days there is a battle for the games coming up in just eight days' time, rather than a prearranged fixture list.
When those decisions are taken there are other restrictions too. Free to air get four Madrid and four Barcelona games in each half of the season. In other words, barring the timetable tweaking of midweek games, both teams will play eight times at 10 p.m. in the league. Canal Plus get the same right: so both teams will eventually get, again barring the timetabling tweaks for midweek fixtures, eight games at 9 p.m. And Gol T/Canal Plus Gol get the rest, split across 6 and 8 on Saturday, 7 on Sunday and 9 on Monday.
Those decisions are made on a rotating priority basis - if not the television channel with first choice would simply choose Madrid or Barcelona every week. That opens it up for tactical choosing and bargaining, of playing off of games and holding off of decisions, all of it constrained by the rules outlined above.
*Free to air get eight first choices per half of the season, 18 second choices and 12 third choices.
*Canal Plus get eight first choices (after free to air has chosen), 20 second choices and 10 third choices
*And Gol T/Canal Plus Liga get 22 first choices (but only after Canal Plus and Free to Air have chosen) and the rest as third choices.
Imagine you're La Sexta or Gol or Canal Plus: do you take Racing Santander now or Racing Santander later? Do you blow your Madrid and Barcelona quota early or hang fire and hope to catch a massive game later? When do you slot in the teams you don't really want to slot in? How do you choose a moment when they might actually attract a decent number of viewers? And do you really care about Mourinho's complaints?
Imagine you're the company that oversees the whole process (and has a stake in La Sexta and Gol), Mediapro: you're Catalan, sure, but let's ask the conspiratorial question: do you care enough about aiding Barcelona as to choose a game that's not much good? Do you care enough to damage your own business to help them? Do you damage your relationship with Madrid - and it is, in fact, closer than with Barcelona, while La Sexta's relationship with Madrid is closer yet - to help Barcelona?
Of course not: you care about audience. And, the attitude is clear: you pay for this sport, why should you care about anything else other than your investment? Decisions long since stopped being about the clubs. And, still less, about the fans. Why do teams not know until eight days before when they're playing? Precisely because of this trading, bargaining battle and the interests and limitations at play during it.
Why do teams play at 10 p.m., a slot that effectively costs you a day's preparation postgame? Because it's good for the players? Because it's good for the coaches? Because it's good for the fans? Because of the heat? No. Because it's prime time.
This weekend, Barcelona play before Madrid. Again. Mourinho may see a conspiracy but the reason is simple: Barcelona play in the Champions League on Tuesday while Madrid played in the league on Thursday. Next week, Barcelona play Sevilla on the Sunday night. It will have been granted the Tuesday-to-Sunday break Mourinho wanted after playing Lyon but didn't get. He pointedly noted that on Thursday night but he didn't ask why. Why? Because Canal Plus got first choice and they wanted to show Sevilla-Barça. Just as La Sexta wanted to show Deportivo-Real Madrid the week before.
Mourinho is right: they do decide in favor of their friends. Their friends at the TV.