Even by the standards of José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, last Wednesday’s match at Villarreal was an extraordinary game. The second half was a thriller - Real went ahead with a beautiful goal created by Mesut Özil and scored by Cristiano Ronaldo but were pegged back by a Marcos Senna free-kick with just eight minutes remaining. The real drama, though, surrounded the five red cards shown to Madrid by referee Paradas Romero, and the way in which the squad and its coach reacted to dropping two more points in their La Liga title tilt.
Although Marcelo did a pitchside interview with Spanish TV on the final whistle, a ‘law of silence’ was quickly imposed. Neither Mourinho nor assistant Aitor Karanka attended the post-game press conference. As they passed through the ‘mixed zone’ the players said nothing while Mou did not stop but replied ‘did you not see it?’ when asked why nobody was speaking. The only comment from the Madrid camp came from the boss’s sometime spokesperson Eladio Parames, who took again to Twitter to make a pun on the referee’s surname, by claiming that ‘football has died of heart attacks (paradas cardiacas)’.
The following lunchtime saw the launch at the Bernabéu of the $1 billion Real Madrid Resort Island development in the United Arab Emirate of Ras al Kahaimah. Mourinho - along with Zidane, Benzema, Ramos and Casillas – sat quietly while Emilio Butragueño, Madrid’s director of institutional relations, and club president Florentino Pérez talked of eternal and universal values, different people and cultures coming together and Asian TV markets. The coach and players posed for photos afterwards with the assembled dignitaries and businessmen, but there was no mention at all of the Villarreal game.
On Friday Madrid’s director of football Miguel Pardeza became the first club official to talk. He said the Bernabéu hierarchy was firmly behind Mourinho and the squad, and followed a lead dug up by AS and Marca by claiming similar behaviour by Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola had gone unpunished by the same referee when the Catalans lost at Osasuna last month.
“We share the indignation and disbelief of the team and its fans,” said Pardeza. “We do not talk of the result but the refereeing. The sending off of Rui Faria for applauding Cristiano Ronaldo was over the top. The same with Özil, who is a fair and upstanding kid. The situation was much worse at the Reyno de Navarro, when Guardiola grabbed the linesman’s arm and various players were protesting. This worries us.”
The suggestion that Madrid had been hard done-by at El Madrigal made little sense – Faria is a serial official abuser, Ramos’ chest high challenge on Nilmar clearly deserved a second yellow at least, Mourinho allegedly insulted the referee’s mother, TV cameras showed Özil’s sarcastic gesture and Pepe called the ref a ‘hijo de puta’.
It could and should have been worse. The referee apparently missed Cristiano Ronaldo saying ‘what a robbery’ into TV cameras as he walked from the pitch, and he and some team-mates reportedly wanted to continue the argument with Villarreal’s players in the tunnel and dressing-rooms afterwards. If anything, the night’s decisions had gone against Villarreal, who were denied two clear penalties in the first half.
Madrid’s refereeing/legal team (there is one, lead by former referee Carlos Megía Dávila) got to work though, and they persuaded the Spanish authorities to go surprisingly (or disgracefully) easy when doling out punishments. Their argument that Ramos’s first yellow card should be rescinded was accepted. It was also decided that Pepe’s ‘hijo de puta’ jibe was not an ‘insulto’ (insult - four games) but a ‘menosprecio’ (disparagement - two games). As Mourinho was banned from the touchline for just one match, and Rui Faria for two, their previous behaviour must have been overlooked.
You might have thought after this folding by the authorities, Mourinho and co would open up, but no. The only club representative who spoke after Saturday’s comfortable 5-1 win over Real Sociedad in La Liga was Butragueño, who chose his words very carefully.
“The club thinks it is more advisable not to say anything at this time,” he claimed on Spanish TV. “I have been in football for 25 years and Wednesday’s game was very strange. The decision (not to speak) was taken by the technical staff and the dressing room and the club respects that. The game was surrounded by some very strange circumstances and it was probably a good decision to keep away from that. We did not want to do anything that would damage the club.”
Given the power Mourinho has at the Bernabéu (and Valdebebas training facility), especially since former general director Jorge Valdano was forced out last summer, when Butragueño said “technical staff” everyone assumed he meant Mourinho. The former Spanish striker refused to confirm that, but said he expected the silence to end “soon”.
Training on Sunday was behind closed doors and the squad flew to Cyprus for Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final clash with APOEL with the shutters still up. Mourinho pulled out of the usual interview with the Spanish TV station showing the game, and only spoke at Monday’s pre-match press conference to comply with UEFA rules. There he seemed to directly contradict Butragueño’s statement by saying he was not “responsible” for anything.
“It is not true that I have imposed a “law of silence”,” said Mourinho. “I do not have to justify anything, I have ordered absolutely nothing, and I am not the one responsible.”
Sami Khedira also spoke at the briefing. When asked about the media ban by a Radio Marca reporter, the German midfielder looked nervously at Mourinho, who thought a moment then stood up and walked out. Khedira hesitated another few seconds and then awkwardly mumbled “I am just a player” as he followed his coach from the stage.
Mourinho of course has plenty of history in deflecting attention from something by loudly criticising referees, but the timing of this one seems odd. All seemed to have been going so well - before the 1-1 draw at home to Málaga on March 18th, Madrid had won eleven consecutive La Liga games and were ten points ahead of Barcelona. Even after the draw at Villarreal four days later they remained six points clear. The reaction to a few dropped points seemed pretty over the top, even with a difficult April fixture list including a trip to the Camp Nou on the horizon. The usual excuse for this behaviour is that focusing attention on the coach keeps the pressure off the players, but looking at Khedira on Tuesday that did not seem to be working too well.
The silence was eventually broken after the comfortable 3-0 win in Nicosia. Madrid’s vice-captain Sergio Ramos, the always articulate Álvaro Arbeloa and Pepe - directly involved at Villarreal - all sang from the same songsheet:
“After the Villarreal game a decision was taken by the technical team and the players which was expedient,” said Ramos. “It was a heated game, and some things could damage the team so between us all we took the decision for the good of the group. We do not want to go back and discuss it now - not Villarreal or the referee. The quicker we return to normal now the better for everyone.”
At this point it is difficult to know what the ‘normal’ situation is at Mourinho’s Madrid. Back in August the Ramble told of fissures in the relationship between the coach and club captain Iker Casillas. In January there was the brouhaha as the Portuguese rowed with Ramos on the training ground after the embarrassing Copa Clásico loss at the Bernabéu. Apparently unhappy with a ‘mole’ in the camp, Mourinho then leaked his intention to leave at the end of the season. In March he flew to London in what seemed another tactical move in the club’s internal manouverings.
It seems now the four points dropped in four days have deepened these problems behind the scenes. Usually when there’s a Madrid mystery, the best place to look is Diego Torres’ pieces in El País. Torres reckons Mourinho was behind the ‘law of silence’ and the senior (i.e. Spanish) players were not impressed and held their own meeting last Thursday to which none of the ‘technical staff’ were invited. After the APOEL game Spain’s must-listen El Larguero radio show was seriously discussing the idea that Mourinho had blamed Casillas for conceding the two free-kick goals against Málaga and Villarreal and even the possibility that the keeper could leave the club he has been at since 1991.
The idea of Casillas playing for anyone else seems mad, but these are strange times in Madrid. A few weeks ago the debate in the city was limited to wondering whether winning La Liga but losing to Barcelona in Europe would be a successful season for Mourinho and Peréz. Now people have started to wonder what happens if you blow a ten point lead and your closest rivals do the double. Nobody would want to get the blame for that…
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.