Dropping a cult figure - the 'Mata problem'

Posted by Miguel Delaney

It was the kind of form, quite simply, that Internazionale looked set to build their entire future on.

Upon arriving at the San Siro in 1957, Argentine Antonio Valentin Angelillo immediately captured the imagination with the impudence of his touch and impressiveness of his scoring. Operating as a playmaker, he hit 16 goals in 34 games of the 1957-58 campaign. It was his second season, however, that still stands out. Angelillo struck 33 goals in 33 matches, which is a return that was not surpassed in the 54 years since.

• Mourinho issues Juan Mata warning

Unsurprisingly, the forward enjoyed the adulation to go with that ability -- from all at Inter, except from the one man who mattered most.

Helenio Herrera laid the foundations for a fine team at Barcelona
GettyImagesHelenio Herrera (L) made a number of big decisions when it came to star players.

Helenio Herrera decided to drop the playmaker just weeks after being appointed manager in 1960. It caused all manner of controversy, with newspaper headlines describing it as "The Angelillo Problem." Herrera quickly responded, stating that "he will play again when he is back on form." A number of opposition clubs made public their interest. It was said in private, however, that the Inter manager just couldn't stand Angelillo.

Many of those details sound familiar to the events of the past few weeks at Stamford Bridge. Even more pointedly, this is not the first time that parallels have been drawn between Herrera and Jose Mourinho. Outgoing Internazionale president Massimo Moratti is one of many to describe the Portuguese as the true successor to Herrera, in terms of everything from their type of career to the style of management. Just as Angelillo was not the first star player that Herrera decided to take on after taking over a new club, a host of other names have endured the same treatment from Mourinho as Juan Mata.

Herrera, in fact, set the tone and the standard for this type of confrontation two years before Inter. When the Argentine arrived as coach of Barcelona in 1958, Ladislao Kubala was not just the greatest player in the team, but at that stage, seen as arguably the most important figure in the club's entire history. His brilliance was the most responsible factor for the two domestic doubles of 1952 and 1953, to the point that the cult of "Kubalismo" was said to swirl around Camp Nou.

Herrera was not a follower. Not for the last time, he took a drastic decision, dropping Kubala to the utter shock of the Catalan crowd. A section of Barca fans never forgave him, which was something the manager acknowledged on leaving the club.

"Kubala is the greatest player I have ever known. When I trained other teams I always admired and feared him. … Unfortunately, I found myself unable to convince myself that his technique could offset his lack of speed and the loss of continuity in his efforts. The crowd who mill around football stadiums are conservative and above all sentimental. I realised that excluding Kubala from the first team was going against the current."

Herrera could reasonably point to the increasing effect that alcohol was having on the Hungarian's career, even if Kubala would go on to put in a fine performance in the 1961 European Cup final a year after the manager left.

Mario Balotelli and Jose Mourinho
GettyImagesMario Balotelli and Jose Mourinho's relationship was a stormy one.

The sport has obviously moved on since then, but Mourinho has frequently repeated the same type of decision. Every new job has seen him challenge an existing squad member, with the names appearing to increase in status as his career has gone on: Adrian Mutu at Chelsea, Mario Balotelli at Inter, Pedro Leon and then Iker Casillas at Real Madrid … and, most recently, Mata on his return to Stamford Bridge.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Spanish attacker’s situation, beyond such an exceptional player getting dropped at all, is that this level of rancour seems so unnecessary so early. There had been such a good vibe around Stamford Bridge as a consequence of Mourinho's return. Even if the Portuguese genuinely believes that Mata's exact abilities do not suit his tactics, there is surely a less brutal way to exclude such a popular player. Instead, we see this current situation. It is almost as if Herrera and Mourinho have required a certain amount of tense energy in order to ignite their teams.

For their part, a number of other managers perceived as much calmer than that duo have taken decisions just as stark on arriving at a new club.

Pep Guardiola immediately discarded Ronaldinho and Deco at Barcelona in 2008, and wanted to do the same to Samuel Eto'o. He kept that line of thought even after the Cameroonian had been crucial to the most successful season in the club's history, proving as irrelevant to Guardiola in the long term as the centrality of the previous two seasons in what was just Barca's second Champions League in 2006. Herrera's own nemesis, Nereo Rocco, used to rage in public about the "laziness" of legendary scorers Jimmy Greaves and Jose Altafini -- until the sale of the English forward allowed him to at least accommodate the Brazilian in an approach he preferred.

At Manchester United, Dave Sexton hit the wrong note by selling the hugely popular Gordon Hill to Derby County in 1978, before Alex Ferguson decided to rid the club of both Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath about a decade later. Roberto Baggio's unique style has surprisingly caused an issue for a few managers, not least Marcello Lippi, while Graeme Souness arguably created the first of many issues at Liverpool by deciding to sell Peter Beardsley to Everton in 1991.

Ronaldinho's star faded quickly after his Ballon d'Or win with Barcelona in 2005.
GettyImagesPep Guardiola was quick to move on Barcelona star Ronaldinho.

At the time, the Anfield boss felt the forward was past his best, and it is one of a number of different arguments put forward in such situations. The most common is tactica; which was cited in the cases of Greaves, Altafini, Hill, Baggio and, of course, Mata. The second is a potentially damaging influence, with Ferguson seeking to eliminate a drinking culture at Old Trafford enjoyed by Whiteside and McGrath, and Guardiola attempting to make Barcelona more focused after the lethargy of Ronaldinho had spread.

The most distinctive of all was "the Angelillo problem," as Herrera and many journalists put it down to a loss of form after striking up a relationship with singer Ilya Lopez. Their social life was such that the Argentine coach stated the player "had no energy left."

Many close to Herrera felt he was never willing to commit to Angelillo at all, selling him to Roma after just a year. When discussing the Kubala situation, the Hungarian's biographer Juan Jose Castillo offered a telling opinion of the manager.

"It was not that he didn't appreciate Kubala or that he didn't recognise his qualities, but that he saw him as a rival and Herrera always wanted to be boss."

For all the differences surrounding the individual decisions, and all the various genuine reasons offered, this is the theme commonly running more deeply through each of them. Ultimately, they are displays of power.

A new managerial appointment is always surrounded by a certain amount of uncertainty, but these are attempts to illustrate an utter singularity of authority. Some pick and choose which players to do this with, as Ferguson clearly saw with Whiteside and McGrath rather than Bryan Robson, while others go to the top. It is difficult not to think Mourinho has done the latter.

As for whether they are the right decisions, that is not dependent on the player.

The key is not who the new managers take on, but rather where they take the club next.


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