“Like Jaws if everyone in Jaws worked for Jaws.” Watching José Mourinho circle the touchline at the Puskas Arena on Wednesday night, giving off that horribly persuasive eau de la haine, it was hard not to be reminded of the words of cousin Greg, Succession’s beanpole idiot savant, describing a similar scene of top-down toxicity.
We know that Mourinho energy by now, the toxic theatre, the performative rage, the love of conspiracy and imagined injustice. What does he look like these days, with his perfect shock of white hair, the quicksilver glare? An arms dealer on his way to play golf? A wrongly convicted serial killer who lives in a palazzo and drinks fine wine and turns out at the end of the movie to be a serial killer after all? Some kind of sporting dark lord: wronged football Jesus?
These have always been Mourinho’s modes, his method of intruding into the spectacle. In the past this has often been enacted with a knowing leer, an edge of something that seems close to satire. But Budapest felt like a step into something else.
Mourinho is exceptionally popular at Roma. The club have been flattered and re-energised by his presence. At the Puskas it was clear this includes some startlingly toxic consequences, with coaching staff and club officials not just going along with the show but looking oddly fanaticised, a cult of José.
We know what happened next. The pictures of Anthony Taylor being harassed with his family at Budapest airport are shocking for so many reasons, most obviously because of the fear on the faces of his wife and daughter. Frankly the entire Taylor family deserve a medal for staying calm in the face of such venal, pointless hatred.
But then so many aspects of this are strange. The security was surprisingly loose. The Hungarian police, usually quite handy in a tight spot, seemed happy to stand there looking vaguely concerned as various overheated bald men seemed to be either trying to attack Anthony Taylor or defend Anthony Taylor. At one point the pictures show a chair being causally tossed across the airport concourse drawing no more than a baffled glance from the nearest law enforcement. Come on. Guys. Hey.
Plus, and this is entirely irrelevant, Taylor actually had a pretty good game. Watch it back and there is zero evidence of anti-José bias. Roma lost to a more technically gifted team who, frankly, should have won it in normal time.
Mourinho knows this of course. What happened on the periphery of this was pure performance, from his staged appearance in the bowels of the stadium, there to harangue the officials with prepared lines in two languages, to the quotes from the post-match press conference, the vaguely incel stuff about a “vibrant and masculine match” ruined, presumably, by some kind of over-feminised bureaucracy of cucks.
For Mourinho this is all about blame-shifting, about misdirection by numbers, out there barking like a human squid shooting out stupid juice into the eyes of stupid people to convince them, through sheer weight of stupidity, that this was all someone else’s fault.
Mourinho has always drawn energy from imagined outsiderdom, from portraying himself, incorrectly, as a figure from the margins, the hammer of truth, terror of the elites. It works too. Just ask Anders Frisk, Dr Eva Carneiro or any number of club staff and administrators caught in his toxic vapour trail.
Sadly, though, this process doesn’t end there. There is a kind of paradox here. Mourinho’s tactics on the pitch may have become a kind of retro period piece – and over here we have classic defensive hate-ball – but his energy, his contagious confected rage, feels distinctly state of the art.
It is always Mourinho. But it is by no means only Mourinho. Conspiracy, tribalism, dark static, hate-interference, the toxic rage of an increasingly toxic world: football is particularly vulnerable to this right now, and uniquely effective as a super-conductor. How far is this thing going to go?
Events at Budapest airport will come as no surprise to anyone who travels on the periphery of the professional game. This wasn’t waiting to happen. It’s already here. Referees are routinely abused after games (take a walk in the car park at home time if you dare). Players are bombarded with genuinely heartfelt abuse, often by people who only know them as moving shapes on a screen. Violence among supporters seems to be becoming a more regular thing, often, it seems, stoked by the floating aggressions of the digital hate-sphere.
It is this vulnerability to rage that makes the post-match statement issued by the Roma executive Tiago Pinto so cynical and so dangerous. Pinto claimed on Twitter that “the refereeing of the match was not balanced”, in effect accusing Taylor of genuine bias. Words have consequences. And this kind of viciousness – deliberate, avoidable, targeted – is directly related to the harassment of Anthony Taylor’s family.
And while it feels absurd, naive, gauche, even to point it out, clubs do have a huge responsibility here. Statements by owners, employees and club media, the way managers speak in public, briefings that happen off the record, words and ideas and oppositions dripped into the digital narrative. All of these things have a powerful effect on the shared public mood, a multiplier effect in the digital registers.
It may be comforting to isolate Mourinho as the key figure of blame. But José-ism has always been a style-setting administration; and in many ways Mourinho is just showing us what’s out there: that power to twang the emotional dial, to toy with the uncontrolled tides of social media, tribalism, herd rage. There is dark place football can head into here. Mourinho has been there for so long he seems to be unaware there might even be a world outside; to live instead for the pain, the bile, the poison. The challenge now is not to follow him down.