Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez walked into the room at 1:01 p.m., looked up at the hundred-strong pack of journalists, the TV cameras pointing his way, and positioned himself behind the microphone. Then he made an announcement: "I am," he said, "going to break my own rule."
The story was about to become the story. And as it unraveled, there was a brief glimpse of power and politics; the entente cordial was broken, and a battle began.
Thursday morning started with the front cover of Spain's best-selling newspaper, Marca, declaring: "In June: Presi[dent], Mourinho or us." Inside, the paper told what happened during a meal attended by between Pérez, Madrid's director general José Ángel Sánchez and the club's captains, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. The meal is normal -- every year the captains meet the president to agree on bonuses -- but what emerged from it was not. At least not the way it was presented.
According to Marca, Casillas and Ramos told Pérez that if Jose Mourinho did not leave at the end of the season, some players would. Us or him.
Madrid reacted quickly. Media were called: the Santiago Bernabéu, 1 p.m. And there was Pérez, a man who has largely avoided the media since he returned as president. In public, anyway.
"I am breaking my rule [of not commenting on stories] in order to say that it is absolutely false," he said. "There was no ultimatum, nor anything or the sort. What has been said is not true.
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"There were four of us [at the meal]. Myself and the director general, who is here. The other two [Ramos and Casillas] have names and faces. Why has no one called us to verify the story? If they had, we would have said it was false. It seems that publishing the story was more important than it being true. I know what I am saying is hard, but an ethical line has been crossed."
Hard? Pérez had turned tough. Essentially, he called out his perceived "enemies."
"I think this is very serious and because of that seriousness I have decided to defend the club," he said. "Things [like this] have happened numerous times: this is the last time. We reached the semifinal of the [Copa del Rey], and it seems that some don't like that. It is the unity of all the members and supporters of this club that has made it the best club in the world, and it will be us who decides the future of our club.
"This story has been published with an objective: to destabilize the club. If they want to destabilize the club, they will find me standing before them."
It was not the first time Pérez had done something similar. In his previous spell as president he gave a speech in which he insisted that he would not allow Madrid to be the "pim-pam-pum" of the media -- effectively, a punching bag. But this was still striking. It remained an unusual step. And, beyond the reasons given by the president himself -- that a line had been crossed and this was a serious enough case to make him break his silence, that his patience had reached a limit -- it was not clear why he chose to speak out.
The context is interesting. There are presidential elections in the summer, and some Madrid fans have demanded an "energetic" defense of the club from the president for some time. They have long complained that (parts of) the media is conducting a vendetta against coach Jose Mourinho -- and some of the attacks have been startlingly aggressive and often downright absurd; they're desire to see Mourinho leave is now clear. They complained that the club looked weak in not standing up to it, in not challenging its accusers.
There was certainly an element of posturing about Pérez's appearance as Defender of the Realm. A kind of: you'll have to fight me, first.
By speaking out, Perez satisfied those demands. Some suggested that in speaking out he risked giving oxygen to a newspaper that was best ignored, but he also made a public show of strength and reestablished himself as the voice of the club (ahead of Mourinho, too). There was a need to respond and perhaps an opportunity in responding. That afternoon Ramos and Casillas released a joint statement insisting that there had been no ultimatum. Unity had been achieved, however superficially. The idea of an external enemy is a powerful and often useful one.
Pérez's remark, "we, the members and fans, will decide the future of the club," responded to a conviction from some quarters that some of the media seeks not just to report on Real Madrid but to run it. The media had become powerful, and Madrid had been weak. Yet that equation may at times be upside down: Madrid is powerful and the media weak. The media stands accused of wanting to control Real Madrid, but that equation can be flipped over, too. The choice of targets is not always coincidental; emboldened stances are not always taken in isolation.
Madrid is powerful, important. So, too, is its president. The relationship is symbiotic and fluctuating; at times they have gone hand in hand; at others, less so. It is not always direct or systematic, in fact it rarely is. Instead it is informal and that relationship -- from uneasy coexistence to partnership -- can be broken and challenged. There is pressure, exercised privately; some objectives are shared. Like any relationship, it has its moments. Different presidents, different editors influence that. They need each other, and they use each other, sometimes cynically so. It is not just in politics where there are spin doctors. Bias is often in the eye of the beholder.
To suggest that there is actually an objective to destabilize Madrid on Marca's part is wide of the mark. Some of the media treat Madrid extremely well, and that has often included Marca. Not Mourinho, perhaps, but Madrid. (There is an intangible question there: What is Madrid? Who is Madrid?)
Perhaps the most striking remark made by the editor of Marca was this: "We are not trying to destabilize Madrid, quite the opposite. During 75 years of history, it has been shown that Marca is close to Real Madrid."
Not any more. Not for now, anyway. The following day, Marca's front cover declared: "Marca does not lie." It printed a photograph of a telephone screen, showing an exchange of messages purporting to be with one of their (unnamed) sources, confirming the story.
Marca went through Perez's speech -- during which, incidentally, he did not mention the paper's name once, he did not claim that he was not told about problems in the dressing room, and he did not ratify Mourinho's position -- and responded to each of his accusations, one by one. They also did something that media rarely do: they insisted that, rather than their exclusive, this was a story that many other papers and radios had been talking about for some time. It was, in short, an open secret. Not a big deal. Despite that big front-page headline and the spread on pages two and three.
Marca's editor had already sought to soften the message a little soon after Pérez's appearance, stepping back a little from the original cover if not the content of the story itself, claiming that there was no "ultimatum" and the paper had never said so. This was repeated the next day, along with the insistence that the meal had been carried out in cordial terms. Meanwhile, the speech marks around the headline Mourinho or us were removed from the online version (they were never on the paper version). And the editor admitted that Marca had taken a bit of "license" with the headline.
Ah. Now, it appeared to make a bit more sense. It is easy to imagine a conversation in which the issue was raised. In fact, during a two (three? four?) hour meal, it is hard to believe that the question of Mourinho's relationship with some of his players was not addressed at some stage. It is easy to imagine a point at which one of the two players said something like: if he continues I can see some players wanting to leave. Marca's phone screen the next day had a source replying to a message saying, "they even say that [name obscured] will leave if he [Mourinho] stays." The replied stated: "It's not just [name obscured], there are lots more."
The basics are there, then? But not exactly an ultimatum. At least not in tone. Was this was the old classic: a headline bigger than the story it accompanies? But if it was, it is more than that now. Much more.
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