Why Jose Mourinho joined Fenerbahce – culture, politics and few alternatives

It is not until we are 80 minutes into an entertaining, absorbing but inexorably long press conference that Jose Mourinho’s motivations for joining Fenerbahce start to become clear.

Obviously some of those reasons go unsaid, like money, but you imagine if hard cash was the main factor he would be in Saudi Arabia or MLS.

There is the undeniable fact that the things that made Mourinho a truly great manager 10-15 years ago are less applicable in 2024, i.e. his tactical approach and his way of handling man-management and the media. He is a one-man circus and some clubs will not touch him anymore.

The 61-year-old is still unquestionably a massive draw, though, as the stunning scenes at Fenerbahce’s stadium on Sunday night proved.

So why Fenerbahce in particular? “That culture (of Fenerbahce) makes it fun,” he said. “It’s for the president, the directors, the board to be stable and to be balanced, but not the fans. They have to be crazy.

“They have to be demanding, to put pressure on us. That passion is part of my motivation.”

You do feel that to be true. Mourinho talks of wanting to run to the fans when celebrating last-minute winners, of wearing the Fenerbahce shirt as his skin, of the club already being his family.

Koc and Mourinho speak in front of a Mourinho backdrop (Photo: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)

After living in a hotel for two and a half years at Manchester United, then in London (which he still calls home) in a pandemic, Mourinho has chosen the bright lights and fun times of Rome and now Istanbul as his places of residence.

Istanbul is similar to the Italian capital in that its football fans are, in the nicest possible way, absolutely out of their trees. It is also a beautiful, historic city rich in culture, the weather is beautiful and no one is bald. What a place.

Their volcanic passion, when times are good, will inspire Mourinho and vice versa.

We had a flavour of that on Sunday at his unveiling when he took 30,000 rabid people and nonchalantly placed them in the palms of his hands. He shushed them, he led them in song, he roused them. They gave up their Sunday evenings to watch him wave a bit, sign a piece of paper and speak 134 words.

If that is the level, what else will they do for him? Follow him into battle? Storm the presidential palace?

And what will he do for them? If Graeme Souness planted a Galatasaray flag in Fenerbahce’s centre circle, what is Mourinho capable of? Will he flash his bare backside at Galatasaray’s ultras? The possibilities for carnage feel limitless.

In football terms, for all Mourinho’s talk on Monday of wanting to improve the Turkish league and raise its profile, Fenerbahce are a step down. They have never reached a European final and Turkish football is ninth in the UEFA coefficient list, sandwiched between Belgium and the Czech Republic (can recommend Bruges and Prague, Jose).

Does it even matter? He has got enough money to live in space, so who are we to judge where he spends the next part of his life?

It is thought that, for all the hefty weight Mourinho’s name still carries and his initial success in his last job at Roma, winning the Europa Conference League and reaching the Europa League final, the phone has not been red hot with job offers.

The temptation is to think that, after his dismissal by Roma was announced on Tuesday morning, Jose Mourinho is done as a top-level manager. The third-season syndrome strikes again. His eventual toxicity, where everything gets burned down after a couple of positive years, is so well established now that it’s essentially a guarantee. He has now been sacked by four clubs in a row, all because of bad results, in contrast to the first half of his career when either he decided when he was done somewhere or left due to personality clashes. The league positions of those teams upon his dismissal were 16th (Chelsea), sixth (Manchester United), seventh (Tottenham Hotspur) and ninth (Roma). He won trophies at three of those four (Tottenham being the exception, though that job was a hospital pass from the start), but in the end the shining silverware was left in a smouldering pile of rubble. Mourinho won the Europa League with Manchester United in 2017 (AMA/Corbis via Getty Images) Any club president, owner, chairperson, CEO of a reasonably sized club will, at the very least, pause for thought before picking up the phone. Is it worth the trouble? Is the short-term success he will probably bring be worth the emotional battering you will take? On some level you would question the sense and basic judgement of anyone that does employ him. The scorched earth is less a by-product these days, more of a brand. In the past, when he would soil himself for attention in public, it was perceived as a method of protecting his players, drawing all the attention and hate onto himself and away from them. But these days, it’s more about self-preservation, to emphasise that some factor other than himself was responsible for the latest adverse result or failed signing or FA charge. But someone will always press the big red button marked ‘Jose’. Football is a short-term game now, so why even think about the third year, never mind beyond it? Only five current Premier League managers have been in charge for longer than that anyway. Four in La Liga. Just two in Serie A. Take your trophies then get rid. He might only be running on the fumes of his genius these days, but fumes can still get you somewhere. Again, those trophies. Even in the post-Real Madrid era, at the clubs that have sacked him, he won the Premier League at Chelsea and the Europa League and League Cup at Manchester United, where his claim that finishing second in 2017 was one of the best achievements of his career doesn’t look so silly now. He also won the Conference League at Roma, their first European trophy since the 1961 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and their first of any description since 2008. Mourinho celebrates with the UEFA Europa Conference League trophy last year (OZAN KOSE / AFP) (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images) He also remains popular with the people. A significant contingent of Roma fans still love him, despite recent results, and in many ways he’s the perfect modern manager for an increasing paranoid fan culture where many are convinced there is some sort of conspiracy against their club. If you want someone to sprinkle water on your wild sense of injustice, he’s your man. It doesn’t take particularly long to draw up a list of possible places he could go. There’s Saudi Arabia. Mourinho claimed last year he turned down “the biggest proposal ever in the history of football for a manager”, and later said he was “convinced” he would work there one day. You’d imagine his agent’s phone is already ringing. There’s Newcastle. Eddie Howe’s position doesn’t appear to be in any immediate peril, but if results continue to follow the current path then that might change. Newcastle’s owners haven’t been drawn in by star power yet, so Mourinho would be an out-of-character appointment, but at some point they could adopt the attitude that they need someone to ‘take them to the next level’, however misguided the idea of Mourinho being that man is. There’s Chelsea. Sounds silly, but don’t rule it out completely. Their lack of progress this season might not be all Mauricio Pochettino’s fault, but their owners’ patience will only stretch so far. In a recent survey by The Athletic, 30 per cent of Chelsea fans said they would take Mourinho back. Not an overwhelming mandate, but probably more than you thought might still hold a candle for him. There’s Real Madrid. Again, don’t rule it out. Carlo Ancelotti may have recently signed a new contract, but contracts matter little to Florentino Perez once the worm turns. And Perez apparently still loves Mourinho, they still speak, the flame is still alive. There’s Porto. An emotional return to the club where he had his first dazzling successes feels somehow appropriate. Manager Sergio Conceicao isn’t enormously popular after a rough season (by their standards) in why they are lagging behind league leaders Sporting. It also does raise the delicious possibility of Mourinho working for Andre Villas-Boas. His former coach, with whom he fell out quite spectacularly after Villas-Boas showed scandalous disloyalty by leaving Mourinho’s staff at Inter to cast out on his own, is running for the Porto presidency. He also seems to have a reasonable chance of unseating Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, who has been in place since 1982. Villas Boas (centre) and Mourinho at Chelsea in 2006 (Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC Via Getty Images) There’s Turkey. He’s got either Galatasaray or Fenerbahce written all over him, hasn’t he? Imagine how he’d thrive in the country that seems to despise referees and foster conspiracy even more than him. There's MLS. There's only one job available, and with the greatest of respect to Minnesota as a team and a place, it's tough to imagine him rocking up there. But the prospect of somewhere more glamourous could appeal to his still significant ego. Finally, there’s international management. He has said in the past he would like to manage a national team at some point. That was supposed to be the final gig of his career, but times change. And it was supposed to be Portugal, but Roberto Martinez’s feet are under the table and he probably won’t be going anywhere for a while. What about the USA? Greg Berhalter’s contract runs until the 2026 World Cup, but a bad showing at this summer’s Copa America might change that, and the authorities may not want to go into a home World Cup with the prospect of being embarrassed. There has even been talk of Brazil, even if a) they have only just got a new head coach and b) it’s hard to imagine a less ‘jogo bonito’ manager if you tried. In many ways an international gig might be best for everyone: those who are not fans of Mourinho, and those who love him. The former category can broadly ignore him for the majority of the time, while the latter can gorge themselves on pure, uncut Jose every couple of years at major tournaments. Mourinho is on a downward trajectory. Gone is the charisma and magnetism of his early years — but this is very far from it. People will always be dazzled by even the residual light of his star power. People will still think he could be the man to elevate them. And, to reiterate the point, people will remember he’s still a manager capable of success, both tangible and otherwise. If you think this is the end of Jose Mourinho, think again.

Mourinho with the Conference League trophy in 2022 (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Mourinho has stated publicly that he regrets not taking the Portugal job when Fernando Santos left after the 2022 World Cup, but in terms of top-tier European clubs — and there are many who have needed or do need a new manager this summer like Bayern Munich and Chelsea — he has not been seriously courted, despite what is believed to be hopeful suggestions to the contrary from his agent Jorge Mendes.

The Athletic understands that Fenerbahce first reached out to Mourinho in March and, while he expressed an interest, it was not until recent weeks that he started to take the prospect seriously.

From Mourinho’s point of view and depending on where he sees the autumn of his managerial career heading, there is the opportunity to dip down to Turkey for a year or two, win the league, maybe have a fun run in Europe and then get out, reputation slightly enhanced after things ended so badly in Rome.

Fenerbahce have not won the league for 10 years — their longest barren run in the history of the Super Lig — but finished second with an improbable total of 99 points last season. And champions Galatasaray have an ageing team  A number of their key players from last season are the wrong side of 30, like goalkeeper Fernando Muslera (aged 38) or the league’s top scorer Mauro Icardi (31), while Dries Mertens may have registered a league-high 19 assists last season but he is 37.  They will need a reset soon.

“It’s a very clever choice for him,” a source close to Mourinho, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect relationships, told The Athletic. “In a place like this he can be loved as he wants.”

Mourinho, then, made a play for Fenerbahce, but they enticed him too.

Which party did that was the primary question on the lips of many of the 120 journalists at his press conference, with the opening exchanges dominated by the political wranglings of an upcoming presidential election.

In summary, former president Aziz Yildirim (from 1998 to 2018) is bidding to be re-elected this month. He proposed some time ago that if he won the election, he would hire Mourinho. Incumbent Ali Koc, though, got there first, finalising the deal before the election, and Mourinho gushed over the president during the press conference.

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30,0000 fans greeted Mourinho’s arrival (Huseyin Yavuz/ dia images via Getty Imagez)

Mourinho denied a suggestion that he checked with Yildirim before taking the job — “nobody tells me what to do or gives me permission”. He stated, importantly, that he will work under whoever is elected, and he insisted the first presidential candidate to contact him was Koc. That was after a call from sporting director Mario Branco who, like Roma’s former sporting director Tiago Pinto, is Portuguese.

It was a textbook Mourinho press conference, complete with jokes, barbs and a few early excuses for the new season.

Jokes — he drew laughs, each time with a trademark knowing smirk, for moaning about the length of the questions being asked. “I can’t help but notice how long they are…shorter questions mean we have more questions and answers”, how long the press conference was “after 20 years of football this is the longest press conference of my life” and of the length of the document Branco prepared on the club’s vision “it was so big it had to be air-dropped in”. To be honest, what is coming across is that Mourinho wants more free time.

Anyway, there were barbs at Galatasarary by virtue of the fact he did not once mention their name, even when talking about last season’s champions, while he had a pop at former clubs Roma and possibly Tottenham Hotspur too, with a speech about how clubs who only aim for fifth have no ambition, but Fenerbahce represent ambition because they have to win every game to win the title. Yep, not sure about that one.

It is worth repeating in full. “What is ambition? My house is in London. To have a London club, to fight to be sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, make a miracle and qualify for the Europa League? Is that ambition?

“I love Italy. To have a team where you have to make a miracle to win a European competition and you stay fifth, sixth, seventh, is that ambition?

“To be in Portugal, to be at home, visit my mum every day, is that ambition?

“Ambition is to play to win, to feel the pressure you have to win every match to be champion. This is the reality of Fenerbahce.

“It means I’m not in my comfort zone. The project had an impact on me…now it’s my time to have an impact on the project.”

Vintage Jose.

The early excuses were centred around not one, not two but three unprompted mentions about how qualifying for the Champions League this summer will be difficult because he has eight players at the Euros and the first qualifier is next month.

“I’m going to say something maybe I shouldn’t say…but I wish our players go out early in the Euros and they come home to rest and to train,” he added.

Not as many laughs in the room for that one, probably because four of the eight play for Turkey.

He even dropped in a preemptive, Inception-style line about how the league’s smaller teams do not take enough points off Galatasaray and Fenerbahce. This was a double-edged pre-empt as to why he may not reach Fenerbahce’s record of 99 points and 99 goals from last season.

“I don’t think (99 points and 103 for Galatasaray) is good, that gap (to third) is not good. Hopefully next season we have a better league with more balance,” he said.

“I want the league to be stronger — if I could have less than 99 points and win the title, that’s what I want.”

A manager saying he wants to win the league with fewer points, we have heard it all now.

There was fawning, too. One reporter said it was an honour for her to ask a question of Mourinho having followed his career since childhood.

But hey, no wonder they are giddy; this is one of the biggest things to happen to Fenerbahce or Turkish football for many years.

We can be snide about Mourinho’s career trajectory and lament how Europe’s once-premier coach is trying to relive his former glories on a smaller stage.

Or we can wish good luck to a man who has not taken the Saudi money, who has not retired to a super yacht in the Mediterranean and who is addicted not just to winning, but to the same raw football-loving/hating emotions that burn within football fans the world over. We can all relate to that.

“I don’t like sabbatical years or holidays,” Mourinho said. “I hope we score goals in the last minute and I run to the crowd, many times. I can still run, eh?”

A corner of Istanbul just became essential viewing.

(Photo: Oguz Yeter/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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