This past Sunday, May 4th at 15:00, at Stadio San Bartolomeo, Castel Rigone played their last match as a team in the professional division of Lega Pro (soon to become ‘Serie C’ again). They lost 2-0, their seventh setback in a row. They had already been relegated the previous week. I wasn’t there to watch. The eyes and ears of everyone in Perugia were at Stadio Renato Curi, where Perugia played Frosinone in the last game of the season for one of those two teams (the team that prevailed won the league, and was promoted to Serie B). For the other side, it was the start of a tortuous 8-team playoff to determine what other squad will be promoted. Heading into the match, Perugia led Frosinone by one point, and needed only a draw to return to Serie B, where they’ve not been since 2004-05, the (first) year they went bankrupt. The previous Sunday, when Perugia earned a draw in the mud of Salerno (winners of the League Cup), the commune set up a giant screen in Piazza IV Novembre, and the songs and shouts of the fans gathered in the pouring rain could be heard throughout the city as Perugia buried a late penalty to tie the match. The outcome of the Perugia’s season appears in another post. The philosopher-chairman of Castel Rigone, Brunello Cucinelli, is not finished, however, he has a “progetto speciale” in mind (Giornale dell’Umbria, 29 Apr. 2014, p. 36) which he will reveal in 2-3 weeks. I would not be surprised if he doesn’t invest even more deeply in his vision of a new calcio, one in which ideas, form, and comportment are still important than wins or losses. A more striking contrast could not be found than with Jose Mourinho, the incredibly successful yet hard-to-like manager of Chelsea. Cucinelli’s press statement after the end of Castel Rigone’s season included the following (Giornale dell’Umbria, 5 Mag. 2014, p. 33):
“Ad inizio stagione avevamo progettato una squadra di media classifica e sapevamo che c’erano dei rischi. Ma la passione, che viene dall’anima della domenica, va miscelata con la matematicità della settimana. Il calcio è un gioco, serio, ma sempre un gioco. Quello che conta è il comportamento. Qualcuno ci dice che il troppo rispetto e la troppa educazione non portano alla vittoria. Non è assolutamente vero. Abbiamo vinto 6 campionati comportandoci alla stessa maniera e alla stessa maniera siamo retrocessi. Ho sempre pensato che all’essere umano, in questo caso al giocatore, se viene data stima, lui dà responsabilità e creatività.”
“At the start of the season we had aimed for a team that would finish in the middle of the table and we knew that there were risks. But the passion, which comes from Sunday’s heart, comes mixed with the mathematical realities of the week [since they had already been relegated]. Soccer is a game — a serious one –, but ever just a game. That which counts is behavior. Someone tells us that too much respect and too much politeness does not lead to victory. That is absolutely not true. We have won six championships behaving the same way and in that same way we have been relegated. I have always thought that a human being — in this case a player – when he comes offering respect, is granted responsibility and creativity.”
This is a version of the ‘what matters is how you play the game’ belief, a Victorian-era sensibility that Deadspin has traced back to a 1915 poem, “Alumnus Football,” of Grantland Rice. Mourinho seems to draw his philosophy from quite a different stream of the same period. Responding to critics of his ‘destructively defensive’ tactics against Liverpool and Atletico Madrid (The Guardian, 29 April 2014), he said:
“At this moment, football is full of philosophers. People who understand much more than me. People with fantastic theories and philosophies. It’s amazing. But the reality is always the reality. A team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win. A team that doesn’t score lots of goals, if they concede lots of goals, is in trouble. A team without balance is not a team. “I remember in my first period here, if you have a goalkeeper like Petr Cech who puts the ball in the opponents’ box, and a striker like Didier Drogba who wins everything in the air, why play short? Because you are stupid? “If your opponents are very fast on the counter and want space behind your defensive line, if you give them that space you are stupid. So when a team plays strategically and [a manager] thinks about his team and the qualities of the opponent … 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, ‘good teams, intelligent teams’. In this moment – depending on the coach and the club obviously – the critics speak.”
For Mourinho, being true to a positive, open philosophy of soccer is stupid if you don’t win. And to win, you need to understand your strengths and your opponents’ weaknesses. Then you exploit their weaknesses with your strengths, and limit their strengths (and your weaknesses) as much as possible. Waste time, slow your opponent’s momentum, and frustrate them. However you do that is fine. The goal of a match is always to win. Mourinho is particularly good at winning. In this way, Chelsea under Mourinho is a morbidly fascinating team to watch, in the sense that they carry out their mission with such discipline and exactitude. One almost admires how they execute the means to their end, with a Nietzschean will to power. So Mourinho is a philosopher, but one who believes his approach to be ‘beyond morality’, outside simple-minded characterizations of ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ or ugly’. As Nietzsche wrote in Daybreak:
“…morality is a hindrance to the development of new and better customs: it makes stupid.”
Mourinho, having shrugged off the shackles of ‘stupidity’, proceeds as though he has achieved a higher level of football consciousness. Not the rainbow nirvana of Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka, whose Barcelona was magnificently dull in its own way, and whose German project at Bayern was so comprehensively demolished by Real Madrid. But a cold understanding of ‘what works’. This does not preclude emotion (Mourinho has plenty of that), but it is emotion in the sole service of supremacy, not aesthetics or etiquette. Perhaps it is a good thing he is just a football manager, and not the leader of a country. Admittedly, there was a bit of schadenfreude, then, when Chelsea lost both of its chances at trophies this year with two reverses at home (at Stamford Bridge, where they’ve been practically invincible): trampled in the Champions League semifinal by Atletico Madrid in a staggering display of physicality and velocity, and held 0-0 to Norwich City, barely hanging on at the bottom of the Premier League. In that match, the visitors out-Chelsea-d Chelsea, which surprised even the master tactician who said (apparently without irony): “football is about goals”.
But I couldn’t revel too much in Chelsea’s plight. Our youngest son, Micah, has decided that he likes Chelsea. This apparently happened when we took him to his first professional match on the day we left our home for Italy. A preseason match was held in Indianapolis between Chelsea and Inter Milan, and we went to watch. Chelsea deservedly won, and Micah was hooked, even getting us to buy him a giant Chelsea-blue foam hand with the index finger raised. The entire subsequent year, Jakob has tried to convert him to Liverpool, and it nearly worked. Until Micah watched the Liverpool-Chelsea match with us. The moment Steven Gerrard slipped and surrendered the ball to Demba Ba of Chelsea, Jakob and I groaned with dismay. So did Micah. But then Ba roared towards goal and put the ball past the Liverpool keeper, Simon Mignolet. Micah, following our emotional lead, at first shared the grief. But then the wheels stirred, his logic clicked, and he realized: ‘Hang on — they are supporting a team that is getting beat by a team that I’ve liked. My team is winning. My team is a … winner.’ At that moment, he raised hands and screamed, “Yes! Chelsea!” The young mind skipped past all the aesthetic arguments and went beyond morality. Later that day, Micah composed a Chelsea song in Italian, which he sang as he rolled around our apartment in the scooter he got for his birthday from one of his classmates. But the harsh lesson of being a fan came a few days later, as we gathered in Elfo’s to watch the second leg of Chelsea-Atletico Madrid (it was night before the May Day holiday; the kids had no school).
An early Chelsea goal put a grin on his face, and he slid onto the floor of the pub, clenched fists raised as if he were Jose himself. He joined the celebrations of a British couple who were in Perugia for a few days on holiday, owners of the Duke of Cumberland Arms in West Sussex, a pub named Britain’s Best in a 2012 review. Joy soon veered away, however, as Atletico stormed back and took the match. Micah began to cry. Real tears. More raw than the seasoned reactions of the Chelsea ticket holders perched behind us. Tears of disbelief and betrayal. Tears of a dawning consciousness that sometimes, your side gets left behind, and the only morality you sense lies in the imminence of your own pain. Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 34 1-3 loss v. Sorrento: Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 33 2-1 loss v. Vigor Lamezia: Castel Rigone’s 2013-14 season is complete.