By Inaki Angulo and Sam Lee
Jose Mourinho took on his enemies in the Real Madrid dressing room head on on Saturday night by dropping Iker Casillas, the iconic captain of his club and country.
Months of internal war and cloak and dagger skirmishes have finally spilled over into the public eye, with the Portuguese making an example of a man who could genuinely be considered Mr Real Madrid.
Dropping Casillas is the latest and starkest measure taken by Mourinho in a fully planned-out strategy to secure his exit from the club.
Since the start of the season, he has been paving a way to freedom in case things turned sour. And turned sour they have. The fans quickly turned on the coach following a series of poor results that left los Blancos trailing Barcelona by 13 points as of Saturday morning. When faced by a hostile reception from the crowd ahead of the crucial derby against Atletico, Mourinho realised that there was no turning back on his plan.
Since declaring that he “has no team” following defeat against Sevilla back in September, he has increasingly risked his own reputation by making a number of controversial statements in the media – even by his standards. From continually criticising his players, the cantera, and even the club itself, he has served only to turn almost everybody at the Santiago Bernabeu against him.
For some time now, those at boardroom level have suspected that Mourinho is trying to make himself out as the victim in order to seal a dignified exit. Mourinho is held in high regard by every fan at his former clubs, and would like the same treatment in the Spanish capital. Whispers spread among the Madrid hierarchy that he will do whatever he can to leave the club and cite a lack of support from those above him as the chief reason. Having already seen off the dissenting voice of club legend Jorge Valdano, however, he will be hard-pushed to get away with such a claim.
Marca, the Madrid-based newspaper, have gone for his throat. They have never been shy in hounding an unpopular coach.
Mourinho, unwanted by the club’s fans in January 2010, suddenly shot to the top of the ‘paper’s opinion polls after he masterminded Barcelona’s Champions League exit while in charge of Inter. Manuel Pellegrini was the unlucky incumbent who was on the end of that disrespectful press campaign to oust him.
But now it is Mourinho in the firing line. The Portuguese has been bothered by the players he sees as disloyal for almost his entire reign. He has become obsessed with finding out who has been leaking stories to the press, something he has not had to deal with at any of his previous clubs with any of their obedient dressing rooms.
There are many rumoured sources.
Marca has started to publish polls asking its readers which coach they would like to see replace Mourinho, exactly the same as what they had done to Pellegrini two years ago.
Last week, just as he has done again this Saturday, he took on his adversaries head on. Following a pre-match press conference, he called Marca journalist Anton Meana into a backroom, gave him a dressing down – “In football, we are at the top, in journalism, you are a s*** – and demanded that he reveal his sources. The next day, Meana’s employers published the story and all its details.
It prompted many to question Mourinho’s judgement – surely he knew the exchange would come out? Did he want people to know he believed he had “three bad apples” in his dressing room?
But now he has well and truly waged war. Now he has sent a message to everybody. Mourinho has long considered Casillas disloyal. He considers the Spaniard the press’ favourite. He does not approve of the way that the Roja No.1 refuses to criticise referees after matches, one of Mourinho’s key diversion tactics. He does not approve of Casillas’ continued friendship with Barcelona players. Until now, Mourinho has put up with all that. But no longer.
There cannot be any doubt; the dressing room is split, and the situation is retrievable only because the coach can still be removed from the equation. Mourinho wants something to point to when he leaves Real Madrid, and this is what he will use. But there will not be many who buy it.