Motivating elite football players in decisive matches is not always an easy task. While it could be contended that a big game in and of itself may be stimulating for a player, the psychological effect of the rival’s technical supremacy can produce a feeling of anxiety and apprehension that is counterproductive for performing, even if you have wanted to win the competition and prepared to do so throughout the season.
In 2010 it was Barcelona that produced that feeling for their adversaries. With Puyol at the heart of the defence, Iniesta and Xavi being the best midfielders in the world and upfront, no one being able to stop Messi, the Catalans’ main objective was to crown themselves as European dominators at the Bernabeu itself, for it was decided that the Champions League Final of 2010 would be played in Real Madrid’s most precious property. Their only real test was taken when they faced Inter Milan in the semi-finals, which was seen by the Catalans as a mere formality since the Italians had an ageing squad, a weak goal record and formed a team with the remains of others (Sneijder and Cambiasso were discarded by Real Madrid, Eto’o and Motta by Barca and Lucio by Bayern Munich).
Inter had already given everything they had to win both their league championship and cup, and a defeat against the almighty Barcelona would not have brought shame to the players or restlessness to the fan base. Certainly, one could make the argument that Barcelona deserved to win that Champions League simply due to their “tiki-taka” style, which emphasised skill over physical prowess and ball possession over tactical deployment, bringing “the basics” into the modern game and marvelling most of the specialised press.
However Barcelona did not take into account three facts. Firstly, club president Moratti had spent millions to try to keep Inter competitive and had little silverware success, so participating in the semi-finals was not enough. Secondly, Zanetti – a living legend – had led many generations of players who had failed constantly to live up to Inter’s legacy. Not even with Ronaldo, Baggio, Vieri or Recoba had Inter been able to challenge Europe’s superpowers on the pitch, albeit being able to do so on the financial level. And thirdly, Mourinho’s ambition and rejection of defeat was the real key to dismantling Barcelona’s defence system on the first game and resisting them on the second. With any other coach, Inter Milan would have let themselves perish comfortably, even if they had had a team with more famous names than the one they actually had in 2010.
Perhaps it was relatively easy for Inter players to be motivated in the first match. After all, with your own supporters chanting for you at San Siro, the chance to qualify for the final and going against the best team in the world, you may play as if you had nothing to lose. A wonderful feeling of security, very similar to the one we had when engaging in a match in our childhood. But for Mourinho, it was a declaration of war, issued by the time he pointed a finger to Guardiola and pointed the same finger towards his own head, signalling that the profound philosophical differences these trainers have were now at stake, conquering the very soul of the game.
So the one and only test came on 28 April of that year, when Inter had to face Barca at the Camp Nou. “Remuntada” – comeback – claimed the Barca fans, having lost 3–1 in the first leg. Eleven against ninety thousand. It is rumoured that Obdulio Varela, Uruguay’s captain in their most memorable achievement in the charruas’ history (2–1 against Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final) said to his fellow players: “We are eleven against a whole country. Let it be said that we will not run away. Let it be said that we faced them. Let it be said that we told them to come one by one”.
The quote may be too rude for today’s game, since it could be argued that Inter Milan players would have been continuously sent off and perhaps lose the game by default. However if Mourinho had said to his players “go play and have fun”, they would have returned to Italy with an embarrassing quantity of conceded goals.
How would you like to be remembered? As the team that lost a semi-final or as the team that defeated what is perhaps the best Barcelona in history?
Motivation, persistence or modesty were not the right tools to face Barca. What Mourinho asked his players to do was to step up and claim a place in history. It was the same for him and he wanted to let them know that it was a career-defining match and he took it very seriously. He did not ask to destroy the rival by injuring them or to engage in an eye-for-an-eye strategic exchange. He asked them to play the only way they could and see if it was worthy of remembrance.
They were not magic words, but were words that summed up all their preparation in two seasons. Perhaps the players finally understood Mourinho’s methods and ways. Playing with 10 men for over 65 minutes, Eto’o was chasing Pedro down the left wing, Diego Milito was helping in any way he could, Zanetti was fighting for every ball and Samuel was giving no quarter. Even when Pique scored the only goal of the match, Mourinho jumped from his seat, demanding to keep on fighting instead of asking for tranquillity. Undeniably, that is the question most of the youngsters at football academies should need to ask themselves, as well as entrepreneurs, professionals and students. Among other things Mourinho brought to football, the feeling that it is actually possible to beat the impossible is a genuine contribution towards what is left of the purity of the game.