It's 31 May 2010 and Real Madrid have just announced the arrival of Jose Mourinho as their new manager. Replacing Chilean Manuel Pellegrini to become Madrid’s eleventh coach in the previous seven years, the 47-year-old was then the hottest property in world football, having recently guided his Inter Milan side to a historic treble of League, Cup and Champions League - the latter won thanks to a victory over Bayern Munich in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium that Real Madrid calls home.
The lure of coaching in the Spanish capital was one Mourinho himself felt he could not resist, stating during his first press conference that to not coach the club would have left a void in his career, as it would any manager. He also spoke of the attraction of Los Blancos’ history, expectations to win and frustrations in recent years, having found themselves playing second fiddle to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
No doubt Barcelona’s - and Mourinho’s own - recent successes had made the move seem a perfect fit, even if Pellegrini’s sacking seemed a tad harsh. The Chilean, with the £80 million Ronaldo in his ranks, conjured up a free-scoring side that had the Bernabeu faithful reaching for the pipas with joy, the team scoring an incredible 102 goals in 38 games, 60 of them at home. But an agonizing last 16 exit at the hands of Lyon (after a 1-1 draw at home in the return leg), a humiliating (4-0) cup exit to lowly Alcorcon and a second placed league finish (only 3 points behind Barca) meant zero trophies and, with that, Pellegrini’s marching orders.
The Alcorcon game was such a horror show for the team that the defeat - the Alcorconazo - would enter footballling parlance, synonymous with a ‘debacle’ and even generated superstition among the Spanish public, who flocked in their droves to place lottery tickets using the 27109 date of the game, with perhaps those of a Madrid persuasion looking for some sort of divine recompense for the pain felt in defeat, in the form of wads of cash.
Like Pellegrini, Mourinho, described by the Spanish press as a Galactico on arrival, would also fail to leave, at the end of his term, through the puerta grande (to borrow a Spanish bullfighting expression). A Copa Del Rey trophy win - their first in 18 years - over Barcelona in his first season did get the ball rolling, while a La Liga title the following season (and a record 109 goal haul to boot), no doubt had those who sanctioned his arrival rubbing their hands.
However, following a semi-final loss to Barcelona the previous season, defeat in a penalty shoot-out to Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu saw Mourinho’s side miss out on the most coveted of trophies for the Madrid faithful - the Champions League - defeats that would ultimately render his spell in charge a failure. A 4-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final the following year was too big a deficit to plug at home, another final yet again just out of reach for the nine-time winners.
The post-semi-final press conference was one which more than summed up Mourinho’s tenure in Spain, reflecting as it did the often fraught relationship that he had with the Spanish footballing press, whom he felt were as much to blame for his exit as his side’s results. “I know England loves me, and that the press treat me fairly,” he told the congregated media. “In Spain there’s a lot of people that hate me, many of whom are in this very room,” he concluded.
But, bizarrely, maybe Mourinho has had the last laugh. For references to his tenure at the helm of Madrid are still ever-present, not in the style of play of the team, nor the methodology used by his successors, but rather in the words and lines spoken by those who hated him most: the Spanish sporting press.
And not just the sporting press; the entire Spanish media.
And not just the entire Spanish media.
The entire Spanish public.
The reason? A linguistic one, a word that Mourinho ‘introduced’ to the Spanish linguistic landscape during his time there, and one, slowly but surely, moved from that of a little-used noun in sports like basketball and tennis to an adjective that slips off the tongue of every Spanish person worth their salt: top.
Its genesis can be traced back to a press conference that Mourinho gave on 9 August 2010, when his Real Madrid side were in Los Angeles on a pre-season tour. Speaking about his sharpshooting Argentinian forward Gonzalo Higuaín, Mou referred to him simply as, ‘un jugador top’ (a top player). Perhaps an adjective he had learned while serving as manager at Chelsea, who knows.
And although it seemed a simple enough phrase, the reaction wasn’t. The football media went ‘top’ mad, with news reports taking the mick out of Mourinho’s use of the adjective - one used until then in reference to Top 10 NBA or tennis lists - to describe a player. Top top top, cried the newsreels, repeating the Mou soundbite as much as possible.
‘Cuatro’ channel summed the whole linguistic circus up with their video, post-press conference. “In the 80s we had the TOP models, while Tom Cruise had everyone loved up thanks to his portrayal as Maverick in TOP Gun. We can find the ‘TOP ten’ in tennis, but now, what we can add to that is the TOP Pipita (Higuain’s nickname)”...followed by ten more TOPs before the video finishes.
One of many sly digs at Mourinho from all corners of the footballing press as TV reports, newspaper headlines and discussion pieces all tore into the Portuguese for his (new) addition to the world of footballing phraseology, one that not only made fun of his use of the three-letter word, but also his (heavily accented) way of saying it. Indeed, everyone seemed to be impersonating Mourinho, be it child on the street, old man in the bar or presenter on the television.
Nevertheless, it was a word that worked perfectly for the Spanish sports journalist, a simple word that spoke of many more. A good, hard working, motivated, well-liked, fast, deadly, aggressive, adaptable, calm, experienced player can be bottled up as a ‘top’ player and you get the gist. And soon what was a form of ridicule for Mou would translate into the first word off a journalist's pen.
What started with Mourinho would trickle down to other players, those in a Madrid jersey or not. Barca’s Eric Abidal and Madrid’s Ozil (albeit a translated interview) were among those who would throw the word into recorded conversations. Followed by Ronaldo himself, once his Spanish was up to speed.
And then it wasn’t just football. Soon the mimicking accent would be lost and everything would be ‘muy top’, especially among the younger generations. Whether it was the ice cream they’d eaten, the film they’d just seen, the jacket their friend was wearing or even their best pal. It was everywhere.
The new cool adjective was now the norm, so ingrained had it become in the fabric of Spanish phraseology, as if it had been there all along. Open any magazine, listen to any radio programme, overhear any table conversation and the bets are that TOP will make an appearance.
And it’s all thanks to the much-maligned Mourinho.
As the cool cats would say, 'muy top'.
By Craig Williams, IBWM Feature Writer. Header image credit goes fully to In Mou We Trust.