Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mind Games or Power Play - Cause I'm Mr. Alex the King

Sir Alex Ferguson has started the manager’s pre-season by reminding all who care of his position as the patriarch of English Premier League Managers. After Manchester United started their pre-season with a disappointing draw against Kaiser Chiefs in South Africa, he cleverly diverted the media hysteria away from the performance and the persistent questions on Ronaldo’s transfer by discussing his team’s primary rivals for the coming season and letting in a controversial comment or two slip by.

While identifying Arsenal and Liverpool as challengers he let it be known that he wasn’t worried about Chelsea and that he believed that the Blues were on the wrong side of youth to pose a serious threat. Now I am never sure with media reports and am fully aware that words and phrases are twisted around to give a different meaning to what was intended, the general message from various reports seem to be consistent enough to have pushed me to get into the ‘quote analysis’ mode (which is 90% of what the English writing football media seem to do).

Whether I agree with Sir or not is a matter for another post but for now I will focus on the wily old man and his wise ways with the media and the ‘football eco-system’. As expected the 30 seconds he must have spent saying those words have led to hours and hours of news print, analysis and comments by the world at large.

I have read comments all over the World Wide Web and the references are too scattered to provide links here so I will try and summarize some of the major reactions I have seen:

  • He’s right and Chelsea are a team that are past it
  • He’s so wrong and Ronaldo will not be the player he was last year and Chelsea under Scolari will walk away with the title
  • Old-Red-Nose is at it again and playing mind-games and trying to wrest the so called ‘mental initiative’
  • He is just diverting attention from more pressing issues
  • Dirty, filthy, b******
  • Etc.

Well I tend to agree and disagree with all of them which is not surprising since every opinion can be debated upon. However, there is one aspect which I have not seen anyone else talk about which I would like to highlight.

While the league consists of twenty teams and hence twenty managers, for the last fifteen years (if not more), Sir Alex has more or less been the king of the pack. True Arsene Wenger has been a long-term challenger and many would argue a more astute football manager, but Wenger has rarely tried to establish ‘personal power’ over every element of the game in the manner in which Sir Alex has. Its not as if Wenger does not play the media or manipulate the press, but when it comes to trying to dictate everything that goes on, he takes a far more sedate approach than SAF.

Open player courting, influencing choice of referees, influencing disciplinary committees, getting his players in line, teasing and testing the powers that be at UEFA and FIFA, rattling opposing managers, testing club chairmen and everything else under the sun seems to be on Sir Alex’s radar and he makes it a point to make the right noises to get the outcome he wants. The Professor Wenger on the other hand is more about considered opinions and an idealistic approach and about the only time he sounds deliberately ridiculous is after a defeat.

Then there have been other challengers – the veterans like Sir Bobby Robson, the charismatic like Jose Mourinho or the pretenders like Rafa Benitez and many more. But they have either lacked success in equal measure or longevity, both of which are in abundance with our man from Scotland.

Which brings me back again to my specific point. Enter Luis Felipe Scolari and in him a manager who suddenly is equal to if not greater in stature than the great Sir Alex himself. Multiple domestic league titles in Brazil, final, semi-final and quarter-final appearances in major international tournaments with Portugal and the crowning glory –the World Cup. Now that is big! Add to that Big Phil Scolari’s colourful and not always charming (which other manager has punched an opponent player?) personality and you have potentially someone who could steal the thunder from right under the big red nose.

So what does Alex do? He says that Chelsea are too old to compete thereby completely ignoring the fact that they have a new manager who could (and given his track record should) make a difference. In other words belittles the influence that Scolari can have and shows the world that he isn’t thinking that the manager will play a big part.

True, for Phil Scolari it hardly matters what Alex Ferguson says and he is veteran enough to not be affected by it, but for the media which is so important a part of the English premier league circus, it again establishes the fact that Sir feels that he is still the manager numero uno and the only one that matters.

How it spans out is for us to wait and watch. While football results will come and go and there will be a champion by this time next year, I think Alex Ferguson is interested in more than just that. I can’t think of another manager who makes the FA bend backwards to please him. Who makes Sepp Blatter react to his comments, who can influence whether or not the referee pulls out a yellow card in a given situation or not. He also is the only one I know of who survived in spite of publicly opposing the entry of his new bosses (anti-Glazer stand before the club was bought by them).

So there is my case. This comment and many more like these are not really about an opponent or a specific point. They are about a man who knows he has the power and who enjoys it and makes it clear that no one , not even a World Cup winner is going to challenge him in that sphere.

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