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No more Mr. Nice Conte: The gloves come off as Mourinho brings out Conte’s inner-Mourinho

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On clowns and little men

Chelsea v Manchester United - The Emirates FA Cup Quarter-Final Photo by John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

The bigger man walks away, laughing.

I’ve been actively trying to ignore this nonsense between Chelsea’s last two non-interim head coaches — who’s the bigger doodyhead, come find out! — but that’s proven a fairly impossible job. Fortunately, after an extended weekend of brewing conflict and plenty of coverage (and far too much Twitter cheering for either corner), I doubt I have anything new to add, so you can safely ignore and skip this.

In case you’re a glutton for punishment and mind-meltingly third grade-level drama, continue on. I admit, it’s amusing in certain aspects, but it’s gotten very personal very quickly and that’s not a good look for anybody involved. Conte has a press conference coming up in a few hours. Stay tuned, I suppose.

The Cliff’s Notes version of the slap-fight — which in a way is a natural end result for the narrative of all these superstar managers/egos coming to England — goes something like this:

  1. Mourinho has his passion questioned, (pointedly?) talks about not needing to be a “clown” on the touchline
  2. Conte says Mourinho may be losing his mind (“senile dementia”, later PR’d to “amnesia”) and misremembering his own past
  3. Mourinho blames media for causing misunderstanding, insults Conte with match fixing jibe
  4. Conte calls Mourinho a “little man” repeatedly; says that Mourinho’s been found out as a fake and a fraud now that no one’s falling for his “cinema”

Clearly, there is no love lost between the two of them, though it’s unclear exactly why or since when. Did it start with Mourinho’s touchline admonishing of Conte in the 4-0 last season? Did it start before? They had never really crossed paths directly (Conte was in Serie B when Mourinho managed in Italy), though Conte did famously have a little tiff with future Mourinho zealot Marco Materazzi — “I’d like to remind Mr Materazzi that nobody uses wigs anymore. You can have a hair transplant now, but, unfortunately for him, brain transplants still don’t exist” — so you never know.

Which does bring up the point that this version of Conte is the one we haven’t really seen before. We’ve heard about it, the temper, the conflicts, the silliness — people talked about a big rivalry with then Watford manager Walter Mazzarri last season for example, but we all just shook our heads. Surely not our nice, polite, respectful Antonio!

But we’ve seen indications since the summer that as he’s gotten more comfortable with his English, and as the press have grown bored of giving him a bit of leeway, a different side of Conte started to emerge as well, giving us a far more complete picture of the man. Conte was billed as the evolved version of Mourinho — all the positive traits, none of the negative traits, but that clear was an oversimplification.

Calling it the “Mourinho-season” (as in the thing to avoid this year) is perhaps as good a sign as any that whatever conflict is emerging now has been simmering underneath the surface for some time.

Conte had the fuel, Mourinho brought the starter, and the press lit the fuse.

It started with Mourinho on Thursday, because of course it did. Up to his usual trollish, jibe-ish, attention-deflecting tricks as his squad fail to live up to expectations set by his bitter rival Pep Guardiola just a few miles down the road in Manchester, Mourinho went on a one his classic rants as journalists speculated about his future and whether he had the same passion for the job at United as before (PSG rumors swirling, just as over Conte). Yes, journalists, as always, are playing very much a central role as well in guiding, shaping, massaging the narrative.

“Speaking about my work and connecting my work to the garbage news is to say the worst thing that anyone can do to myself. It’s not to say that I am a bad manager, it’s not so say that I’m under-performing, it’s not to say that I made a mistake in this game or that game. I think the worst thing somebody can do to me is to put one inch of doubt in my professionalism, in my dedication to my club, to my job, to my players, to every detail related to my job.

“So, yes, the garbage news affected me just on this aspect but again I repeat, I am in the middle of my contract. If I am going to sign a new one or not, of course depends on the club. But my commitment with the club is total.”

“Because I don’t behave as a clown on the touchline it means that I lost my passion? I prefer to behave the way I am doing it, much more mature, better for my team and myself, I don’t think you have to behave like a crazy guy on the touchline to have that passion. That passion, you see it every day. The way a person is dedicated to his work, not what you do in front of the cameras.”

-Jose Mourinho; source: F365

It’s the “clown” line that was picked up like a late Christmas gift and unwrapped with unrestrained glee and anticipation — you can hear the line just before the 4-minute mark of this video, though it’s perhaps instructive to watch the whole thing.

Was Mourinho only talking about himself, comparing his current mannerisms to his previous one? Was he only making fun of Conte and Klopp and the rest? It would be classic Mourinho to do both, and the latter is sure to generate better stories.

And so, when it came time for Conte’s pre-match press conference on Friday midday, the trap was set and the Chelsea boss stepped into it with full force and constantly improving English. Presented with Mourinho’s quotes without much nuance and certainly without any context, Conte rightly pointed out that Mourinho has been chief clown many times in his career — which of course José already acknowledged in saying it’s not something he does anymore, but that was not used in presenting the question.

“Maybe sometimes I think that someone forget what they said in the past or which is his behaviours and sometimes I think there is, I don’t know the name, demenza senile, when you are a bit, when you forget what you do in the past. It is like amnesia when you can’t remember things. When you forgot what you say in the past, your behaviours and when you totally forgot, you must be worried when this happens because it means you are becoming old and you need a check.”

Conte still had a wry smile at this point. Here it is in video form. My favorite bit is Chelsea press officer Steve Atkins nervously clearing his throat just before Conte starts answering.

Conte did add later (in the non-broadcast portion of the press conference) that he was getting quite “annoyed” by all these other coaches having a go at him (he was quizzed about Wenger’s latest nonsense comments, too), and that despite taking up a bit of yoga to maintain a sense of inner peace and calm, he’s literally ready to fight any of these jokers.

“I must be honest, I don’t read (what other managers say). The only opportunity to know about these situations is during the press conference. I am not prepared like other persons to make a cinema because there are other persons who prepare to have a cinema in the press conference, before the game and during the game. I am not this type of person.

“In my one-year-and-a-half (at Chelsea) I never talk about other coaches or if I spoke about other coaches, it was only to make compliments. Otherwise, I stay silent, but I repeat in this situation you must have respect and I think that I do this but I am starting to be a bit annoyed because once, twice...

“For this reason you must pay great attention when you speak because if you want to go to fight with me I am ready. I have zero problems. I am improving a bit my English because this is the real problem for me otherwise we can go to fight. I’m ready to fight for me, my players, the club, with everyone, I have no problem.”

-Antonio Conte; source: Mail

Cue the memes and the jokes, but for Conte, who says he values respect above most things, this was clearly very serious. He had taken this personally, whether Mourinho intended that way or not — especially coming from Mourinho! — and he was quite ready to take it outside and settle it once and for all.

Thanks to the scheduling gods, Mourinho was up next at a podium, talking after his FA Cup win over Derby on Friday night. Now this, this was a masterpiece of trolling from the former beloved Chelsea boss. He didn’t even bother to be subtle. First, he admonished the press for “creating” this drama, and then he insulted Conte anyway.

“I don’t blame him. Honestly. I don’t blame him. I think the press should apologise to me and him. Because the question that comes to him is completely wrong and because of that he had that out-of-control reaction.

“I was asked about my passion and you know I was speaking about myself and then the question to the Chelsea manager was that I said he behaved like a clown. Probably the journalist wanted to say that but didn’t have the courage so he said Mourinho said you behaved like a clown.

“I understand his reaction. I was speaking about myself saying I don’t need to behave like a clown to show passion. I control my emotions in a better way. Everybody knows, I don’t need the Chelsea manager to say I made mistakes in the past. And I will make in the future hopefully. I celebrated goals running 50 metres, I celebrated goals sliding on my knees, celebrations jumping in the crowd. I’m not free of that, especially if we score a winning goal in a specific moment I am not free to have an out of control reaction.

“What I was trying to say is that I behave bad a few times and this moment I control myself better. It doesn’t mean my passion is not the same. So wrong question and obviously a strong answer and I don’t blame. The only way I want to end the story is: yes, I made mistakes in the past on the touchline and yes, I will make less but I’ll still make a few. What has never happened to me and will never happen is to be suspended for match-fixing. That never happened to me and it will never happen.”

-José Mourinho; source: Guardian

I mean that last line, that’s us straight back to third grade. It’s a masterful performance piece, this answer, a modern classic in the pantheon of great Mourinho press performances. Love him or hate him, this is what he does (usually with a bit more subtlety, but this is no time for caution).

Yeah, you have to watch this one, too.

Chelsea played the next day, so of course Conte was asked to respond, and so respond he did. If he was ready for a fight on Friday, he was ready to fight on Saturday. Or February 25th, at Old Trafford. Him and Mourinho. No game, just the tickling.

“I think before you make this type of comment, before to hurt another person, you must pay great attention. [Otherwise] you show you are a little man. A little man. You don’t know very well [what] is the situation. But I know him very well in the past. In the past he was a little man in many circumstances, is a little man in the present and for sure he will be a little man in the future.

“Also if he wants to try to change his behaviours ... but the person’s this, Mourinho’s this. You know him very well. The level is very low. I repeat: I think before to speak you have to know very well what happened.

“This is not my problem, I consider him a little man. I consider him a man with a very low profile. There is a story to speak for him and for me. You can change the story, but you have to know the story very well before hurting another person. In the last period he’s suffering a bit of amnesia. We are there, amnesia. When you become to be older, there is this type of risk. Also for me, and for you – for all. The problem is if you show this. He must pay great attention. He’s doing this with regularity.”

Conte was asked why he kept constantly referring to Mourinho as a “little man”, so the current Chelsea coach obliged by bringing up an example involving yet another former Chelsea coach, a certain Claudio Ranieri, who was once the target of Mourinho’s insults before being a target of Mourinho’s fake niceties.

“I remember a stupid example with Ranieri. When he offended Ranieri for his English. Then when Ranieri was sacked he put on a shirt for Ranieri. You are a fake. I think you have good consideration for a person or not. It doesn’t change your opinion to be more sympathetic. If you want to fight a person, you try to kill this person. And then after two years you try to help this person, because maybe it’s good for you, for your profile.”

-Antonio Conte; source: Guardian

You can and should watch and listen for yourself as well in the following video, starting around the 4.5-minute mark.

In what could a final word in this weekend wrestlemania — but let’s not kid ourselves, it probably won’t be — Conte reminded that Chelsea will go to play at Old Trafford on February 25, at which point the two coaches can “clarify” the situation face-to-face. Though the smile with which he said “I’m ready. I don’t know if he’s ready” was one of fisticuffs rather than diplomacy.