Mourinho walking the tightrope in Madrid
Real Madrid President Florentino Perez adjusted his glasses, as if he couldn't believe what he was reading on the lineup card: Beloved veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas would not be playing.
That decision might have shown just how far coach Jose Mourinho has gone in his quest to exert control over the club. And it may be that Mourinho has finally gone too far.
Waves of criticism from fans and players followed Madrid's 3-2 loss to Malaga on Saturday, raising the question of whether Perez has reached his limit of support for the often successful, yet equally abrasive, Mourinho.
"Mourinho has his particular way of dealing with his squad," former Madrid player and coach Jorge Valdano said. "But this was him doubling down. It was an exhibition of power. It was him imposing his decision on a club legend."
Mourinho did not announce his decision to drop Casillas, highly respected both in Spain and abroad for his decade of quality service in Madrid's net, for the little-used Adan Garrido until minutes before the game.
The move backfired in the second half when Malaga scored on the inexperienced Adan three times to deal Madrid another loss that left them 16 points behind Spanish leaders Barcelona and their league title defence hopes shattered.
Mourinho said that he had picked Adan because he was "in better form" than Casillas. That argument was far from convincing to fans and players past and present.
A fan poll published on Monday by the Spanish sports daily Marca indicated that most of Madrid's fans want Mourinho out. Eighty-two per cent of the almost 100,000 participants in the online poll voted yes to the question "Should Real Madrid fire Mourinho?"
"Iker doesn't need to be punished to play better," said former Madrid goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez, an old teammate of Casillas. "This only brings to a boil the atmosphere of conflict that Madrid already has."
Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said after the match that he was "surprised" by the decision. Casillas told La Sexta television on Sunday that he felt fine and that Mourinho hadn't told him why he had been benched.
"I'm not used to being a backup," Casillas said. "But the team is above any player. I have to keep training and try to win back my place in the starting lineup."
Since arriving at Madrid three seasons ago, Mourinho has won a Spanish league title in 2012 and a Copa del Rey a year earlier.
But he has also ruffled more than one of Madrid's purist fans, as well as dispatching several perceived enemies within the club.
Casillas, the captain of Madrid and Spain's world and two-time European championship national team, was always seen as untouchable.
The 31-year-old goalkeeper is the most revered member of Madrid's current squad. Many fans see him as the last link to the winning days of the "Galaticos" of David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane and to the prior golden era of beloved forward Raul Gonzalez and Vicente del Bosque, the club's ultimate "gentleman" coach.
Two weeks ago, Perez called Casillas a "legendary captain of Real Madrid."
"He is one of the great captains in the history of this club," Perez said. "He shows that above and beyond winning titles, he knows how to interpret this institution."
And therein lies the potential problem for Mourinho.
Perez had not been informed of Casillas' exclusion when a journalist for Canal Plus television showed him the lineup minutes before the game. The 65-year-old club president, who in his ten years has made Madrid one of the world's richest teams, raised his glasses as if to get a better look at the player list and then, apparently stunned, just turned away.
Perez has been Mourinho's biggest backer.
He has defended the Portuguese coach every time he has been questioned by the sector of Madrid's fans who interpret that his aggressive style goes against the club's proud tradition of always behaving in a "noble" manner. Perez didn't flinch even when Mourinho poked Barcelona's then assistant and now head coach, Tito Vilanova, in the eye during a melee between the archrivals.
Last week, with Mourinho under increasing pressure to turn things around in the league, Perez told a meeting of club members that Mourinho had his "confidence" and "affection."
Mourinho is known for wanting to control how much information from his dressing room reaches the media, and he has had no problem taking on other personalities within the club.
In 2011, Valdano, then the club's spokesman, left after his conflict with Mourinho went public with the coach openly discrediting him.
Mourinho belittled player Pedro Leon before he was shipped back to Getafe. He has even ostracised former Ballon d'Or winner Kaka, for whom Madrid paid US$92 million in 2009, to an almost permanent role on the substitutes' bench.
This season, he benched defender Ramos after a supposed dispute, and he has used various news conferences to criticise the running of Madrid's B-team by coach Alberto Toril.
And through all of this, Perez has been there to grant him his wishes, including a contract extension last summer that ties Mourinho to Madrid until the end of the 2016 season.
Mourinho, a former Chelsea, Inter Milan and FC Porto manager, has enjoyed the unquestioning support of Madrid's most radical fans, which even applauded his eye poke of Vilanova with a large sign at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium that read: "Your finger points the way forward."
But that could all change after the Casillas benching. And if Mourinho loses Madrid's die-hard fans it may be a question only of time before his last defender also abandons him.