André Villas-Boas, Jose Mourinho And False Familiarity

(FILE PHOTO) Sources in Portugal have reported on June 20, 2011 that Chelsea FC have agreed a deal with Porto manager Andre Villas-Boas...DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 18: FC Porto Head Coach, Andre Villas Boas gives instructions from the touchline during the UEFA Europa League Final between FC Porto and SC Braga at Dublin Arena on May 18, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

He may not be the new Mourinho -- in fact, he definitely isn't -- but the resemblance is making life a little easier for André Villas-Boas and Chelsea.

Young, gifted, and Portuguese. It is no wonder that the entire world (by which I mean, the tiny part of the world I flitter about in) was quickly peeved, if not actually vexed, by the persistent comparisons between Chelsea's newest manager, André Villas-Boas, and Chelsea's finest manager of the Abramovich years, José Mourinho.

Of course, it's lazy, but you have to have some sympathy: it's a comparison simply begging to be made. Youthful, handsome, title-winning, Europe-conquering; both raised at the knee of Bobby Robson, one worked for the other. There is even the suggestion that Villas-Boas shares Mourinho's pitchside bolshiness - which would be excellent news - though throwing chewing gum at Henk Ten Cate pales alongside Mourinho's catalogue of flaps, scraps, whines, whinges, gesticulations, mimes, and all-round talent for look-at-me buffoonery.

Sadly for anybody looking for an easy caricature, the comparison breaks down when it comes to the football itself. Mourinho's (largely-deserved) reputation is as the high priest of anti-football: a man who finds his way to victory through the creative application of footballing destruction, whose teams kick and dive and snark their way to glory. You're going to score one less than us. This contrasts resoundingly with Villas-Boas who, like a hard-of-hearing Motley Crüe fan, craves goals, goals, goals. His Porto team bothered the net 73 times in the league this season, which is more than both Mourinho's title-wining Chelsea sides (72 apiece) and his last Porto team (63), despite Villas-Boas' sides playing eight games and four games fewer across the respective seasons.

But if the lunge for the easy comparison is due in part to its sheer straightforward juiciness, the other reason is down to Villas-Boas' relative unfamiliarity, particularly within England. I don't necessarily mean in an insular way - this is, I hope, no longer the country that gave us the headlines ‘Arséne Who?' and the sadly-but-probably-apocryphal ‘Fog In Channel, Continent Cut Off' - but in a simple and obvious way: Villas-Boas hasn't actually done all that much.

A corollary of youth is inexperience, naturally, and also a lack of known detail. Because so much of the actual work of football management takes place out of the public eye, in training sessions and tactical briefings, screaming fits in dank dressing rooms and chitter-chat over post-game bottles of excellent red, it's the public character of managers that goes a long way to defining them. And with only two years of frontline management, at least half of which was well out of the public eye, Villas-Boas is as close to a mystery appointment as we're likely to get. The question is "who are you going be?", and the hoped for answer, from the media at least, is "please be a bit like José. He was cracking copy".

But, if the parallel is frustrating more informed commentators, it is also having another, more subtle effect. Football feeds on stereotypes; all perceptions begin from pre-formed ideas. We do not come to our footballers, and managers, behind a veil of ignorance. Consider the power of simply being Brazilian. As Alex Bellos, author of Futebol, writes "The phrase ‘Brazilian footballer' is like the phrases ‘French chef' or ‘Tibetan monk'. The nationality expresses an innate authority - whatever the natural ability." It is the idea of a Brazilian footballer that pleases; it satisfies a simple, circular part of the soul that knows Brazilians are footballers because Brazilians are footballers.

This has a number of consequences. Simon Kuper and Stefan Sysmanski note in Why England Lose that the premium paid on Brazilians skews the market, and quote an agent: "Irrespective of talent, it is very seductive to have a Brazilian in your team". And this seductive quality is also apparent in the incessant fawning that permeates coverage of the Brazilian national team - who haven't played samba football for years - and the giddiness that greets the arrival of a Brazilian player, unless it's a goalkeeper, in which case apprehension reigns. In short, the prejudged understanding of what a player should be shapes the initial responses of the football world. Imagine two playmakers of equal skill being sold by a club; the Brazilian will always fetch more than the Bolivian.

Something similar, if more local, is happening at Chelsea: the inherent appeal of the idea of the appointment is smoothing the path for Villas-Boas, both with the fans and with the media, because it chimes with the folk-knowledge that this is what good Abramovich managerial appointments look like. Add to that his past at Chelsea - which arouses memories of the succession of men that emerged from the Anfield boot-room, long admired as the gold standard for coherent managerial appointments - and it is easy to see why there has been so little of the scepticism that the bald facts of the appointment might be expected to provoke.

Because familiarity quells dissent. What Villas-Boas is in general - a young, dynamic, handsome, modern Portuguese coach - means that attention is deflected from what he is in the specific: a colossal gamble. This - even more so than Mourinho - is an appointment made on the basis of perceived potential rather than known ability. I don't think it's too mischievous to suggest that were Chelsea's new manager, say, a Frenchman with a comparable record in Ligue Un, the appointment might have looked a whole lot stranger, and (in a tribute to Carlo Ancelotti) been greeted with many more raised eyebrows.

This is not to suggest that Villas-Boas will fail; indeed, his lack of experience makes predictions about how he will fare even more futile than usual. Nor is it to suggest that he would not have got the job had he not been a convenient vessel for the memory of Mourinho. (Guus Hiddink aside, the field was remarkably thin.) But Villas-Boas' job will be to restock an ageing squad while remaining competitive in the Premier League, before ultimately producing a team capable of sustained domestic dominance and a serious tilt at the European Cup, a series of tasks the likes of which he has practically no experience. Behind the twinkly eyes and the comforting parallels - beneath the unthinking drumbeats that herald the return of the king, or at least something a bit like the king - lies a fascinating and considerable risk.

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