Two evil geniuses face each other tonight. Only one can emerge intact. But enough about my illegal cockfighting ring and onto the football, where Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson are also facing off in Manchester. Manchester United verses Real Madrid: fans, tactics, pundits, missing the first half because you forgot it was on Tuesday instead of Wednesday; none of these things matter, only the managers do. This game comes down to a battle between two men (I have checked and they are both male). The question is: who is the superior manager? The answer is: Mourinho.
That assertion is going to be controversial, obviously, but even a quick skim over the (carefully moderated, entirely subjective, largely spurious) facts gives The Special One a clear edge. Against Ferguson’s greater trophy haul, Mourinho’s CV includes better hair, a more refined sense of drama and performance, beating Barcelona whilst sending Pep Guardiola into a breakdown which resulted in him leaving the continent, and being despised by far more people, despite being actively despicable for far less time. No doubt Ferguson is one of the greatest managers the world has ever seen, he just happens to lack one essential characteristic: he isn’t Jose Mourinho.
Ferguson is a brilliant manager. Mourinho is a spectacular one. In 2004, on the night when he announced his arrival into the public consciousness, Mourinho ran down the Old Trafford touchline to celebrate the goal which meant FC Porto knocking Manchester United out of the Champions League. Two things stole the world’s attention that night. One: a shock result, and therefore the talent of Mourinho. Two: the arsehole in the coat with the nerve to rub that talent in all the way down the side of the pitch. It was the same arsehole in the same coat who shushed Liverpool fans in the League Cup final a year later. Outside of football, this would be a dis-likeable trait—no doubt about it, full stop—but in an arena which is built on getting one over on everyone else, being the most outrageous arsehole is (an extremely large) part of the entertainment. And, let us not forget— never, ever forget—that the people being wound up are almost always people who deserve to be wound up.
Ferguson can’t compete with moments like those. As I hinted at in the opening by explicitly saying it, he is most certainly an evil genius, plotting out how he can win the league with the FA at the beginning of every season, as all Liverpool fans know for certain. But he’s not a showman in the most ostentatious sense. His mind games, for instance, are far less enjoyable. Ferguson’s idea of psychological warfare is lying—admittedly in a manner which has become so blatant that he is obviously playing around with ideas of absurdity—about players being injured. Whereas the man he’s being compared to here actually looks to drive opponents insane: Mourinho poked Guardiola’s assistant in the eye, said that Guardiola’s team were at the heart of a conspiracy supported by Uefa, whispered things in Guardiola’s ear, and slapped Guardiola’s captain just a little bit too hard. That last one before he even was Guardiola’s captain! Add supreme preparation to the list of talents. If Ferguson’s falling out with Beckham is now discounted because they made up with each other, he’s a step up from Ferguson in almost every aspect.
Mourinho delights in big occasions and seizes moments in a way that Ferguson has never tried to. In his press conference ahead of tonight’s game he downplayed everything, handing out some of the least quotable lines anyone, including Michael Owen has ever handed out anywhere. “We want to play the match,” he said at one point. Quite brilliant, you’ll agree. If you ignore the truth a little bit, you can see that press conference as a continuation of what Mourinho has been doing all season: lulling everyone into a false sense of security, before the inevitable—and I use that word entirely seriously—treble win to finish off his time in Madrid. So far this season he’s drifted off the pace in La Liga, got fat, stopped bothering to dress himself and stopped bothering to watch games all the way through. All of it is the setup to a glorious ambush against United.
Ferguson doesn’t have the guts to risk an entire season on one game—remember, he plays 4-5-I-have-sold-out-to-defensive-football-1 these days. Okay, Mourinho probably doesn’t either, but no-one can deny that I had fun thinking up that narrative.
Onto more serious football matters. Ferguson’s trophy haul outweighs Mourinho’s, and even if Mourinho has accumulated his jugs (trophies, not man boobs) at a higher rate, that depth of success on Ferguson’s part still impresses a lot of people, so it’s an issue which needs to be addressed. Here is me addressing it: who cares? Being the best manager isn’t about quantitative success—that can only take you so far: it’s about glory. It’s about seeming like the best; about collecting great moments—yes, including winning things, but not exclusively winning things—which people remember. Ferguson is about way more than the numbers too, but nobody beats Mourinho on glory. Remember when he knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League with Inter at a time when people were saying he was down and out? Remember when he threw his League Winners’ medal into the crowd at Chelsea? Compare and contrast that man with the Alex Ferguson who wore a woolly hat to watch his team play Tottenham earlier this year. Not as cool and not as glorious.
Mouronho will, undoubtedly, triumph tonight, because he happens to be the better manager at winning games of football, but despite United-Real being the springboard for this piece, it will hardly matter in terms of who is the superior manager on show. Mou has won already.
Prediction for tonight: Unsure.