The race was close and [Lyndon B] Johnson was getting worried. Finally, he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his own barnyard sows.
“Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f*cker,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”
“I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofabitch deny it.” - Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S Thompson
Jose Mourinho knew exactly what he was doing last Friday night when he dredged up match-fixing in relation to Antonio Conte .
Mourinho is a clever guy. He will know well that the Chelsea manager was, in fact, acquitted of all charges in relation to his alleged involvement in Italian football’s Calcio Scommese crisis.
But he wasn’t about to let the facts get in the way of a low blow.
He would have been well aware that the finer points of Conte’s alleged involvement in the scandal get lost all too easily. Conte the match-fixer – a crass, inaccurate portrayal – has long since taken hold on social media as a stick with which to beat fans of Juventus and Chelsea alike.
Mourinho fed the trolls.
There is simply no way that the English football fan in the street has gone through the details of Conte’s case with a fine-tooth comb. The average football fan will have heard something about Conte having served a ban but Mourinho’s contemptuous allusions to the case will only serve to increase the volume and frequency of nonsense spouted about it.
Imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you in your life being mendaciously recounted in full view of the public by a person who really knows the truth. And, worse still, that it was a deliberate attempt to injure and humiliate.
“With the search which took place in my home at five o'clock in the morning, began a nightmare which at times I thought I could never finish,” Conte wrote after he was cleared.
“Those who I am close to and know me, know how much I've suffered at the very idea that we could pull over my name to the shame of Calcio Scommesse. Today finally puts an end to this ugly story.”
We sometimes forget that those involved in football are real people too, with thoughts and feelings and families and integrity and souls. It only takes a quick conversation with someone in the game who’s been sacked or scolded in some way to realise the impact goes much deeper than you might think.
Media and fans move on to the next scandal but, for those in the line of fire, whose lives have been affected by unsavoury or upsetting or humiliating instances, can, in a sense, never move on.
It was a wretched act from Mourinho, an increasingly hostile and desperate man lost in the slipstream of Pep Guardiola’s genius and foundering to meet expectations that he himself placed upon Manchester United.
Now every time a camera and microphone is thrust beneath the nose of either Conte or Mourinho these days more questions are asked about their spat.
It began innocuously enough, with Mourinho throwing a barb in a press conference at no one in particular. He referenced other managers behaving like “clowns” on the touchline leaving just enough wiggle room to avoid the accusation he had anyone specific in mind.
Was it Jurgen Klopp? Maybe. Pep Guardiola? Could be. Antonio Conte? Was it the man who picked up the pieces of Mourinho’s shattered Chelsea regime and made them champions? Was it the man who Mourinho reprimanded for his touchline behaviour – asking for more noise and more support – after Mourinho’s United were torn asunder in Stamford Bridge? You’re getting warmer.
Conte – probably against his better judgement – rose to it and in an undignified moment of his own suggested his rival could be suffering from “demenza senile ”. You don’t need to be an expert in Italian to figure out the translation of that one, with Conte believing that Mourinho would do well to examine his own touchline behaviour in the past.
Then came the A-Bomb. Following a humdrum victory against Derby County in the FA Cup, Mourinho alighted on the one issue guaranteed to wound Conte in retaliation.
The tribal football public nor a thirsty football media is capable of dealing properly with what Mourinho said. United fans will use it against Chelsea fans online going forward. Papers need to be sold and so more fuel will be added to the furnace.
In hindsight, Conte would have been better advised to stay clear of any response at all. Arguably, the best move Guardiola made against Mourinho during their time in charge of Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, was to tell the assembled media that in the press room Mourinho was “the f*cking boss” and any victory won against him would come out on the field of play.
Mourinho is a dirty fighter and whether he wins or loses, he always seems to come out on top in front of the media. That’s what Conte ought to have learned by now.
It was inevitable that he was going to defend himself. No doubt he would have preferred to do it with a place in the fourth round assured but his players could not beat Norwich City.
But Conte was forced to look those match-fixing allegations dead in the eye once again and deny them. He became the victim in Mourinho’s own version of LBJ’s “pig-f*cker” game. If you’re denying, you’re losing. Instead of spending time telling people what you are, you are denying what you aren’t.
It's the oldest trick in the book.