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- Manchester United manager José Mourinho and Chelsea boss Antonio Conte have accused each other of fixing matches and suffering from dementia.
- The animosity got so bad that Conte effectively challenged Mourinho to a fight, asking if the Portuguese manager wanted to meet him alone in a room.
- The two contest the FA Cup final as United and Chelsea clash in Saturday’s season-ending match at Wembley Stadium in London.
Two of the most respected managers in world football exchanged insults like bad-mouthed boxers the day before a championship bout.
Fighting out of the red corner we had Manchester United manager José Mourinho. Out of the blue corner we had Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.
The two coaches mocked each other’s backgrounds, appearances, and abilities over a headline-hogging 24 month period. Conte once accused Mourinho of being unable to identify young, elite talent. Mourinho, meanwhile, implied that Conte is a clown.
Things reached fever pitch when Mourinho recalled previous match-fixing accusations levelled at Conte while the Italian was at former club Siena. Conte then challenged Mourinho to a fist-fight.
This was a level of hatred that the Premier League had not witnessed since former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger traded blows from 1996 to 2005.
Those were the days when Ferguson bruised David Beckham because he kicked a boot at the midfielder’s head in a fit of locker room rage, all because United had lost 2-0 to Arsenal in 2003.
They also saw Ferguson get hot soup poured over him after the infamous Battle of Old Trafford, and ultimately saw the Metropolitan Police intervene to urge the warring managers to bury the hatchet over fears the tension would transfer to the crowds in 2005.
When Ferguson and Wenger started doing business together, exchanging players for money, the hostility ended and they began respecting and admiring each other’s achievements and longevity in the game.
Sure, other spats have emerged, but in the 2017-2018 season there was no feud as white hot as Mourinho and Conte’s.
How did it all begin?
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Mourinho and Conte’s rivalry arguably began on July 3, 2016. That is the date Conte took charge of the Blues, just six months after Mourinho was sacked having left Chelsea lingering just outside the relegation zone after a disastrous run of Premier League results.
It was not long before Mourinho and Conte got to meet face-to-face. Chelsea welcomed United to Stamford Bridge in October – and it is a game that the Portuguese will hope to forget. Why? Because Chelsea obliterated United by a 4-0 score and Conte celebrated every single goal with highlight-reel enthusiasm.
“You don’t celebrate like that at 4-0,” Mourinho seethed on Italian TV, according to Reuters. “You can do it at 1-0, otherwise it’s humiliating for us.”
From there, Conte rubbed salt into Mourinho’s wounds by implying his predecessor mismanaged one of his former players at Chelsea. In November, Conte told Gazetta dello Sport that he immediately recognised the potential of Victor Moses and could not understand why Mourinho denied him chances in the first team. “I find it incredible that someone like him has been overlooked,” he said.
Rivalry turned into verbal abuse
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Last summer, Conte told his players that he would not allow Chelsea to finish 10th under his watch. “We want to avoid the Mourinho season,” Conte is quoted by the BBC to have said. Another humiliation for the United boss.
Mourinho shrugged off the insult at a separate news conference. “I’m not going to lose my hair to speak about Antonio Conte,” he said – a barb at Conte’s famous hair transplant.
With time, the verbal abuse just got more offensive. For instance, earlier this year Mourinho implied that Conte is a “clown” and “a crazy guy” on the touchline.
“I don’t behave as a clown,” he said at a conference, as reported by Goal.com. “I prefer to behave more mature. I don’t think you have to behave like a crazy guy on the touchline.”
Conte, clearly remembering the times Mourinho spent running up and down touchlines, responded by accusing his rival of having dementia.
“Maybe he was speaking about himself in the past,” he said in The Times. “Sometimes I think there is demenza senile [senile dementia] when you forget what you do in the past.”
Conte later retracted that statement and said he meant amnesia. However, the damage was done and even Italy-born former England manager Fabio Capello told Sky Sports News that Conte “made a mistake.”
Then, with no sense of irony, Capello said both managers were “totally out of their minds.”
Yet those comments seem kind when compared to what came next.
The point of no return
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The simmering rivalry turned piping hot when Mourinho brought up the match-fixing scandal that plagued Conte’s former club Siena in the 2010-2011 season.
Conte had been accused of failing to report match-fixing by Filippo Carobbio, a former Siena player who was charged with extensive involvement in the crisis. Though Conte, through his lawyer, denied all allegations he was suspended for 10 months. This was later reduced to four months. He was eventually acquitted of all charges, cleared of any wrongdoing.
“What never happened to me – and will never happen – is to be suspended for match-fixing,” Mourinho said at a conference according to the BBC.
It did not take long for Conte to fire back at Mourinho. He called him a “little man” with a “very low profile” who “doesn’t know the truth.” He also called him “a fake.”
But the bad blood did not end there.
Eladio Parames, who MARCA says is a close friend of Mourinho’s, wrote an open letter to Conte in his column for Portuguese newspaper Record.
Parames reminded Conte of his midfield playing days at Juventus in the 1995-1996 season, a time when there were accusations that the players were doping, had been doping, or were doped with the performance-enhancing drug EPO (Erythropoietin).
The matter went to trial in 2004 and Riccardo Agricola, the club doctor, was given a suspended prison sentence for doping the players. A year later, however, he was acquitted on appeal.
“Mr Conte: Do you know what EPO is?” Parames said in the letter. “The analysis was overwhelming.”
Parames said Conte may deny accusations of “fixing matches” but he “didn’t get rid of the reputation of being involved in shady business dealings.”
The whole situation has rankled Conte, livid at Mourinho for bringing up a case he was cleared of.
“When is the game against United?” Conte told BBC Radio 5 Live before issuing a call to arms. “We can meet in a room. To try and explain about these comments. I don’t know if he is ready to meet me in a room, just me and him.”
Conte didn’t have long to wait. Chelsea traveled to Old Trafford for a Premier League tussle against United on Febuary 25, but the Blues returned to London empty-handed as Manchester United won 2-1.
Ultimately, Conte didn’t fight Mourinho that day but later today both managers will scrap in a match that could save their respective seasons.
The FA Cup final
United and Chelsea have both failed to land a major title in the 2017-2018 season so victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London can mask an otherwise underwhelming campaign.
This game, with the backstory the managers are bringing, could feature great drama.
Greater, perhaps, than those old days.