Batman & Joker. Sid & Nancy. Super Mario & Bowser. Liam and Noel Gallagher. The Rock & John Cena. Ali & Frazier. Sherlock Holmes & Moriarty. Harry Potter & Voldemort. Biden & Trump.
Sometimes, two people develop a unique yet complicated relationship. They always seem to cross each other’s paths in the course of history even though they can’t stand each other. However, there’s also a deep and special bond between the two. It’s like fire and water. Or that U2 song “With or Without You.”
In sports, there is no shortage of rivalries with deep roots. And after the surprise unveiling of a certain José Mourinho by AS Roma, Serie A will be the stage of one of the hottest clashes between two top trainers.
Let’s start at the very beginning, as Julie Andrews would sing in the gem The Sound of Music.
In December 2009, Conte and Mourinho would clash for the first time in Atalanta-Inter. Well, not exactly ‘clash’ because both trainers were ironically banned from the touchline. This was Inter’s treble season under José while Atalanta (hard to imagine nowadays) were relegated at the end of that same season. Conte would resign a couple of days after this match after only 14 games in charge of the Bergamo side while Mourinho famously won Serie A, the Champions League, and the Coppa Italia. So far so good, no hard feelings.
It would take seven more years for the two men to meet again, and boy, this one was a lot more spectacular and a heated affair. We move to England. Chelsea vs. Manchester United. Mourinho led title favorites Manchester United while Conte was at Chelsea. For both trainers, 2016-2017 was their first season at their respective clubs and pressure was high.
It was the comeback of José to Stamford Bridge after being canned in London one year prior to this clash. And who would replace The Special One in London? That’s right, his buddy Antonio Conte.
Conte’s Chelsea easily won 4-0, including a goal from our very own Pedro, but Mourinho apparently had a problem with Conte’s exuberant behavior at the sidelines. Mourinho was so frustrated after the final whistle that the handshake and ‘small talk’ right after the game was long. Painfully long. “You don’t celebrate like that at 4-0. You can do it at 1-0, otherwise, it’s humiliating for us”, he angrily said to Antonio.
Conte took a stab back at Mourinho sometime later, using Victor Moses as a means to strike back at Mourinho. Moses, who was somewhat neglected by Mourinho during his time with Chelsea, was a vital piece in Conte’s 3-4-3 formation as a marauding wingback. Chelsea would eventually win the Premier League at the end of the 2016-2017 season, but as early as November of 2016, Conte told the media he didn’t understand why Moses was overlooked by his predecessor as he was clearly a talented footballer with important qualities.
Yup, that was aimed at José who wasn’t a fan of the Nigerian when he was at Chelsea. So Conte would happily bang his own drum and question the talent and vision of his ‘friend’ Mourinho.
It wouldn’t take too long for a next heated confrontation. Chelsea and Man U met in the FA Cup quarter-finals in March 2017. Conte was on track for the EPL title while Mourinho’s United was battling for a top four spot, not exactly the ambitions of the United owners before the season began. And again Conte won, this time thanks to a narrow 1-0 from Kante.
Man U received a debatable red card for Herrera which didn’t make Mou happy. According to José, there was a clear difference before and after the red which changed the outcome of the match. Conte didn’t want to comment on Mourinho’s outburst and focused on Hazard being the victim of hundreds of fouls from the Man U players. “This is not football for me. I don’t think this can be a tactic.”
Spicy detail: Both coaches didn’t shake hands after this game while Mourinho raised three fingers to the Chelsea crowd, to indicate the three Premier League titles he had won with the Blues. Ouch. Things were going downhill between José and Antonio fast, somebody get a Band-Aid, and I don’t mean the 80’s charity concert.
Mourinho did get his revenge later that season, winning 2-0 at home vs Chelsea in the league. And what do you know, things got heated and personal once again.
Chelsea was in a tight title race with Tottenham while the bigger, richer clubs like Man U, Liverpool, and City disappointed. Conte decided to deal some punches on both Manchester sides as United spent over 150m pounds to please Mourinho in the transfer market. Obviously, that’s something Conte couldn’t resist criticizing. “I think this season it’s very important to understand that it’s not always who spends more money who wins. This season isn’t the only season the Manchester clubs have spent a lot of money. Look at the past. It’s normal.”
What followed in the summer of 2017 was probably the pinnacle of this whole Conte-Mourinho rivalry. After being crowned EPL champion, Conte took a shot at Mourinho and the disastrous 2015-2016 season of the Portuguese at Chelsea. “Two years ago Chelsea finished 10th. That cannot happen again. We know the difficulty and for sure we want to avoid the Mourinho season with Chelsea.”
(in an Ace Ventura dialect): Aaaaalrighty then! Now I’m curious what Mourinho had in store for his Italian partner in crime. And guess what, it had NOTHING to do with football. There were rumors of a receding hairline for Conte and certain, uh, ‘operations’ to undo this. And José replied to the English media in a subtle way: “I could answer in many different ways but I’m not going to lose my hair to speak about Antonio Conte.”
Okay, so now the wheels were off, the gloves were on, the panic button was abused and more shots were fired than in your average Call of Duty multiplayer map with 64 players under the age of 16.
Round #754 (seriously, I lost count). October 2017 and Mourinho thought it was too long since he took a stab at Conte. This is what he said after the Benfica match in the Champions League: “I never speak about injuries. Other managers, they cry, they cry, they cry when a player is injured. If I want to moan and cry like the others, I can cry for the next five minutes. But I don’t.”
Antonio’s reply? That José needs to mind his own God damn business. “I think he has to start looking at himself, not others. A lot of times, Mourinho likes to concentrate on what is happening at Chelsea.”
Okay, so can we please stop now? Pretty please?
Nope, a couple of months later Mourinho called Conte a clown for his crazy behavior on the touchline while he himself is more mature. Conte’s short but sweet answer: “Senile dementia, when you forget what you do in the past”. Jezus.
There was now a quarrel between these two almost every week. Mourinho raked up Conte’s dubious past and his match-fixing scandal, including a suspension when the Italian was still at Siena in 2011, saying something like that ‘will never happen to him.’ Yawn, next one, please.
And of course, Antonio was already planning his next dig at José. “When you try to offend a person and don’t know the truth, then you are a little man. In the past he was a little man in many circumstances, he’s a little man in the present and for sure he will be a little man in the future. I consider him a man with a very low profile.” Oh, and he also called Mourinho a fake ahead of the clash between Chelsea and ManU in February 2018.
But then suddenly, it happened. A white flag. A ceasefire. World peace. Deus Ex Machina.
Mourinho took the first step to insist his war with Conte was finally over. “Really, I don’t enjoy. That’s why, for me, it’s over. Sometimes it’s my fault. Sometimes it’s other managers’ fault. In my case, when I think it’s my fault and I should behave in a different way I’m the first one to apologise.” José asked Conte to man up and say sorry as well, to put this issue to bed.
February 25, 2018, will be a special day. Man U beat Chelsea 2-1 but that wasn’t the big news of the day. Both trainers exchanged a smile, a handshake before AND after the game (mind blown) with apparently also a talk in Mourinho’s office. And these lovely, lovely words from both men.
“I think the handshake doesn’t need any words. I think that’s what me and Antonio will want to show to everyone. You have to move on and you have to respect each other.” - Mourinho.
“I think with Jose we have clarified the situation and that is the most important thing. There is not a problem between him and I.” - Conte.
Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m emotionally drained right now and need a cigarette and a drink. But is it really a happily ever, Disney style? Is the feud really over or just lingering around, ready to explode again next season?
Let’s say there’s already a Roma-Inter clash in week one and Inter gets a red card while being denied a penalty? Roma win 1-0 after a dubious goal in minute 89? Will hell freeze over? Will the mutual respect suddenly be gone? I don’t know but if there’s one thing we learned so far is that we can expect literally everything when nice guys Conte and Mourinho are involved. Don’t be a stranger to Serie A 2021-2022, it’ll be worth it.
You think you had enough drama at Roma? Believe me, you ain’t see nothing yet.