"Have you considered resigning?"
"I have considered staying."
Jose Mourinho said little but said it all. Perhaps the most eloquent comment on his time at Real Madrid in general, and on the way it is drawing to a close in particular, was made during a press conference this week when he said he might stay ... and said it as a threat.
That it has come to this. Mourinho saying he might stay should have been good news: when Madrid signed him, he was explicitly presented as the world's best coach; for the first time, the galáctico was on the bench. With Mourinho, success was guaranteed; with anyone else, it wouldn't be. This time the manager would be the man. It cost almost ?100 million to bring in the coach and his staff, but it was necessary. Now, his departure is. Now, the sudden, unexpected prospect of him staying sent shivers down their spine.
Make no mistake: there are Madrid fans who want Mourinho to continue. In fact, there are those who are terrified of the life after him, of a power and personality vacuum, a return to old vices where authority is absent. Some feel that Madrid will collapse in his wake; they also think that his departure represents a defeat, the failure to implement a new model that the club desperately needed. Other fans, for all the confrontation right now, would soon fall back into line if he did continue and particularly if he wins.
But Madrid wants him out. And as painlessly as possible. Results are not everything, but they do condition everything. Mourinho's position at Madrid had long become difficult to sustain, and now it is virtually impossible. Madrid is unraveling. A Champions League victory would have provided the perfect exit strategy, a way of leaving out the front door with everyone a winner; Champions League elimination has made that far harder to achieve. Mourinho has somewhere to go -- Chelsea; Manchester United was never a possibility -- but the exit is not ideal. Now he has to find another way.
The Dortmund defeat un-papered the cracks, bringing the fault lines back to the surface. The gloves were off, and the mask slipped, the pretense gone. Chelsea is counting on Mourinho being its manager next year, and he has already started sounding out players from other clubs to join him at Stamford Bridge. Madrid has moved to persuade Carlo Ancelotti to take over from him.
Mourinho has given two press conferences in the last week. The first justified his record, arguing that three Champions League semifinals in a row for Real Madrid represents a significant improvement, and pointed the finger of blame at two main culprits: the media and Iker Casillas. Mourinho had complained that, according to the press, victories were always the team's, but defeats were always his alone; not for the first time he offered the alternative view. Anybody's fault but mine.
A few days later, Pepe, always assumed to be amongst those players closest to Mourinho, but now knowing that his coach would be leaving and his captain would not, insisted that Mourinho's words were "inappropriate" and that Casillas deserved more respect. The division was public.
In the meantime, president Florentino Pérez appealed for unity to see out the season, insisting that the players would come together. He made no mention of the coach, but the message got through that he preferred Mourinho not to speak. Which pretty much guaranteed that Mourinho did speak. He dismissed Pepe as a "frustrated" man who had lost his place to Raphael Varane. In a comment that appeared directed at Pérez, he noted how football was like society: "hypocritical."
There was also an apparent dig at Cristiano Ronaldo when he said that Madrid had not lost the league having started off "sad" -- a reference to Ronaldo's famous complaint in the autumn. And he said something bound to irritate Madrid fans: he called Barcelona the best team in the world over the last 20 or 30 years. Then he mentioned the prospect of staying.
Mourinho has not spoken to his players for the last four days. The relationship with many of them has broken down entirely. Before the Málaga game on Wednesday some fans whistled him. There is a tense calm, but the feeling that an explosion is imminent does not go away. Mourinho seems ready to explode. His players are deserting him. Those that are not jumping ship are being pushed overboard. The media are laying into him, although much of the media already did, sometimes viciously so.
On one level at least, that appears to suit Mourinho: why should he protect people he considered responsible for his problems over the last three years? It does him no harm to leave behind a mess for another manager to clean up. The worse his successor, the better he looks. Blaming others reduces his own culpability. And then there's the other question: the exit strategy.
When Mourinho said that he might stay, it underlined an inescapable truth: Mourinho's tenure has reached a point where he has to go. But someone needs to make that happen and carry the can -- emotionally and economically. Put in blunt terms, Madrid wants Mourinho to resign, Mourinho wants Madrid to sack him. A compensation clause means that the party that unilaterally breaks the contract has to pay a figure which, midseason, was understood to be around ?20 million but in the close season may be closer to ?10 million.
Neither side wants to pay that, and the most logical solution is an agreement where the contract is rescinded by "mutual consent" and any fees are waived. But neither side entirely trusts the other, hence the threat. What Mourinho is essentially saying to Madrid is: handle this the right way or I'll announce that I'm staying, sticking a massive spanner in the works.