How Marcelo Bielsa is re-imagining Jose Mourinho’s media mastery

Words by Jon Mackenzie Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 17, 2019

First published in September 2018.

The audience in the press conference were visibly shifting uncomfortably. This wasn’t meant to happen. José Mourinho, the high priest of pragmatism, was not supposed to degrade himself by thumbing through the history books to defend his record. And yet that was precisely what was occurring in the Old Trafford press room.

The Manchester United manager was understandably rankled. His team had just lost at home to Tottenham Hotspur in a game in which, according to him, his “team played so well and strategically. We were so, so, so, so, so, so good.” So when he came into the press conference and found the media trying to “transform this press conference into let’s blame the guy,” Mourinho let the floodgates open.

“I need to know from you what is the most important thing. If it is to play well or to win matches? To play offensively or for a certain result?”

It was a fair point. But, it transpires, hell hath no fury like a Mourinho scorned. He went on undiminished: “Do you know what was the result? 3-0. What this means?” He held up three fingers. “3-0 – but also means three Premier Leagues… I won more Premierships alone than the other 19 managers together. Three for me and two for them.”

It was the reaction of a man who had balefully been scrolling through his Wikipedia page’s Honours section into the early hours. But, with this, he was done. He rose from the table and, with a parting “Respect, man, respect, respect,” he was gone.

Now the natural response to this sort of leave-taking would be to point out how Mourinho, a man who has gouged the eyes of another manager on the touchline, was hardly one to talk. But that would be to fall into the trap.

In many respects, the Portuguese manager sees himself as something of a doyen when it comes media manipulation. “Sometimes I can have something of Machiavelli in some of my comments,” he has admitted. What he means by this, inevitably, is that his engagement with the media is conducted with a mind to controlling them rather than communicating with them. After all, as the Italian humanist himself put it, “He who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”

In order to understand how Mourinho came to be considered football’s Svengali, it is helpful to delve deeper into the ebb and flow of the media cycle. This is nowhere better expressed than in Jonathan Liew’s account of the hours before kick-off in the Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex, as Liverpool prepared to do battle with Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final:

“There’s a strange, elusive magic to football stadiums in the hours before a big game. You can’t touch or taste or smell or hear the eruption, but somehow you can sense it. You couldn’t yet picture Mo Salah crying with anguish on the turf, Gareth Bale flying through the night sky like a comet, Loris Karius grasping at the ball like a man trying to catch snow. But you could feel its heft in the void that preceded it. There’s a potential there, an implication, a tautness and an emptiness. The bigger the game, the bigger the emptiness.”

In many respects, the Portuguese manager sees himself as something of a doyen when it comes media manipulation. “Sometimes I can have something of Machiavelli in some of my comments,” he has admitted.

What is this void? Well, it is the swirling miasma of stories waiting to be written, the spinning loom waiting to be fed some raw material in order to spit out its narrative thread. “Here a disembodied head suddenly shoots up and there another white shape, only to disappear as suddenly,” as Mourinho’s own muse Hegel put it. In the event of the Champions League final, the disembodied head would remain disembodied: Loris Karius being summarily hung out to dry for his infelicities. But until the ball had flown through the fingertips of the German goalkeeper and into the net, the narrative remained merely potential, floating in the void.

Despite its emptiness, the void is supremely productive: a hideous Medusa-on-steroids, the media monster waits primed to belch out two new takes for every one that is destroyed. From void, then, to glut.

José Mourinho appreciates this, though, and his response is to feed the void, satiating it with so much grist that it dies the death of a thousand qualifications. It turns out, the more you feed the void, the less the stories it excretes matter. The problem is that, after a point, this approach fails. It succeeded when he was a handsome mid-forty-year-old counter-insurgent in a world of porridgy ex-pros and PFMs. But when the world moved on and he didn’t, the whole schtick became jaded or perhaps it simply lost its ironic edge. Either way, it failed to fly anymore. And once this happened, no matter how much shit he shovelled, there was nothing he could do. He had lost the media.

Does this mean, then, that we are moving beyond the era of media manipulation in football? After all, we are constantly being told that we are moving into a new marketing epoch. Last year, for example, Fuse Media ran a study into the effects of advertising within the millennial generation (roughly anyone born after 1980). This study found that the majority of millennials (77 percent, in fact) are likely to be turned off by advertising that portrays their generation using stereotypes, whilst 78 percent don’t like it when marketers try too hard to speak to people their age. Instead, millennials value authenticity: 89 percent prefer adverts that are unpretentious and straightforward, whilst 90 percent want a brand’s message to match its actions.

Of course, while it is tempting at this point to herald in a new age of bona fide engagement within football, it will only be a matter of time before the market shifts to reflect these preferences. Within the media world, we are already seeing it in the emergence of outlets such as Copa90 which emphasise authentic fan experience, or The Players’ Tribune which has started to capitalise on the concrete actuality of the players’ own lives. It will only be a matter of time, therefore, before we start seeing new approaches to media engagement within press conferences around the country.

In some pockets of the industry, it is already happening. Take Marcelo Bielsa, for example. The bespectacled Argentine, a poster boy for the tactically savvy, is famously non-committal: refusing to do interviews and giving very little away in press conferences for the most part. This silence proves equally as generative as the media void. Since his move to England, there are few individuals within the world of football who are quite so talked about as Bielsa.

But there is a catch: although there is much to talk about, there is very little to say. The aggressive privacy of the Leeds United manager, though it does pique interest, does not provide enough in the way of content to satisfy that interest. This does not stop the void from generating its narrative, however. A vicious cyclicality emerges at this point. Read almost any piece in the British press and you will find yourself reading the same old anecdotes repackaged: something about being nicknamed ‘El Loco’; something about a grenade shaken in the face of the media; something about end of season fatigue. Lacking a steady stream of supplementary content, the void has to begin recycling its own narratives. The ensuing stories quickly pass into the realm of hagiography and even, at times, fiction. As the legend is created, so is it embellished.

In many respects, this mythologising has benefited Bielsa. At the risk of adopting too cynical an interpretation, the legend has served him well across a career that has only produced a smattering of league titles in Argentina and an Olympic gold medal. One wonders how many of his appointments – and let’s not forget he was approached by (and refused) Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Inter at points – came off the back of the enigmatic fables that have accreted to him.

At this point, it would be tempting to suggest that the generative capacity of Marcelo Bielsa’s silence is merely a product of serendipity: an entirely fortuitous circumstance that was wholly unintended. There is one argument against this idea, though, and it comes in the form of a person: Salim Lamrani.

Lamrani is an educated man. He holds a doctoral degree in Iberian and Latin American Studies from the University of Sorbonne and a lectureship at the University of Reunion. He is also Marcelo Bielsa’s translator. Why is this interesting? Not because of his education per se: he is not a specialist translator, as anyone with even the most rudimentary Spanish will realise. Rather, it is the specific subject matter of his education that is of interest here.

Lamrani’s particular specialism is the relationship between the US and Cuba. In the course of his academic work, he has written a book entitled Cuba, the Media, and the Challenge of Impartiality in which he traces the gradual shift in the coverage of Cuba by Spanish newspaper El Pais from being generally positive to generally negative. Page by page, he slowly eviscerates the publication, claiming that their coverage of Cuba is “singularly lacking in diversity, balance, and nuance.” He concludes the book by making reference to remarks made in 1880 by John Swinton, then editor of the New York Times, who, when asked to toast the ‘independent press’ launched into a tirade which concluded:

“The function of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie radically, to pervert, to vilify, to grovel at the feet of the elite and sell himself, sell his country and his race for his daily bread, or what amounts to the same, his salary. You know it and I know it. How stupid it is to raise a toast to the independent press. We are the tools and vassals of rich men who control from behind the scenes. We are their puppets, they pull the strings and we dance to their tune. Our talents, our potential, and our lives are the property of these men. We are prostitutes of the intellect.”

Employing a man as his translator who would cite these words approvingly would seem indicative of the fact that Marcelo Bielsa thinks, if not carefully about his engagement with the media, then at least in some sense about it. However, there is more to this partnership than mere intellectual dependence. The way that Bielsa uses his translator is symptomatic of a broader approach to the media – an approach that allows him to manipulate them without falling into the same pitfalls of his counterpart across the Pennines, Jose Mourinho.

Anyone who has watched the two in tandem in a press conference will have seen it. There is no sense, as there usually is, that the translator is simply an empty vessel through whom the manager’s message passes: Bielsa and Lamrani converse and clarify, giving the Argentine the chance to choose his words carefully but also to remain in control of the situation. On occasion, Bielsa will correct his translator. At times, Lamrani will even become passionate in defence of his employer. Famously, when Bielsa was at Lille, Lamrani bridled at the accusations being thrown at the man sat next to him, responding vehemently to the questioner and causing Bielsa to put his hand on his arm. A written apology followed but a defence had been made.

Using Lamrani as a buffer between himself and the media, then, Bielsa has managed to carefully curate his engagement with the press. On the one hand, his refusal to say anything means that Bielsa’s generative silence is protected: he remains mysterious, hidden behind the veil of his translator and able to lay claim to an authenticity which is respected in the present day. On the other hand, by using Lamrani as a mouthpiece, Bielsa is able to influence the media actively without his mystique being punctured in so doing.

We are now in a new era of media engagement. Having set himself up as an innovator on the field, Marcelo Bielsa is as much an innovator off the field. By saying nothing, Bielsa offers himself as the natural successor to José Mourinho, whose saying everything has resulted in him becoming pariah in the press box. In this sense, at least as far as the press conference is concerned, you say it best when you say nothing at all.

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