MADRID, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Jose Mourinho has returned Real Madrid to the summit of world soccer but the combative and controversial Portuguese's negative impact on the club's image risks leaving behind a damaging legacy should his project come off the rails.
President Florentino Perez, the Spanish construction magnate who lured Mourinho from Inter Milan at huge expense in 2010, has gambled everything on the former Porto and Chelsea manager in his obsessive pursuit of sporting success and the 10th European crown that has eluded Real since 2002.
However, an erratic start to their latest campaign suggests the La Liga club may not immediately be able to build on last term's success, when Real ended the three-year grip of arch- rivals Barcelona on the Spanish title and narrowly missed out on a place in the Champions League final.
They are 13 points behind Barca in La Liga, are 2-1 down after the first leg of their King's Cup last-16 tie against Celta Vigo and face a Champions League last-16 clash with 2008 winners Manchester United after finishing second in their group behind German champions Borussia Dortmund.
Appointed sporting manager as well as first-team coach, an unusual step for a club in Spain where the power of Mourinho's counterparts is significantly more limited, he has ultimate responsibility for the development of the Real product, according to marketing experts.
A successful marketing strategy primarily requires success on the pitch but it should also promote an image of the club that is acceptable to existing fans and will encourage more to invest their time and money.
Mourinho, who will be 50 next month, has partly succeeded on the first measure, and winning the Champions League would make that success more complete, but has failed on the second, the experts said.
He has alienated a section of Real's more traditional supporters, who have whistled him at the club's giant Bernabeu arena, while gaining hero status among the "Ultras Sur", a group known for their extreme right-wing views.
If he decided to jump ship before his contract expires in 2016 without winning more silverware his successor would be taking on a poisoned chalice and Mourinho's stint at Real would be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Those included sneaking up behind Tito Vilanova, then assistant Barca coach, during a pitchside brawl and poking a finger into his eye, continual complaints about refereeing bias, ugly clashes with journalists and Real officials and dark hints that Barca get favourable treatment from UEFA.
"From the point of view of sporting success, so far the objectives are being achieved," Carlos Gracia de Castro, a board member of the Spanish Marketing Association, told Reuters.
"He has been the architect, along with the man who hired him, of challenging, and winning titles from the best FC Barcelona team in history," added Gracia de Castro, who is also a director general of Havas Sports and Entertainment, which lists Real sponsor Adidas among its clients.
"That's now a fact but when he arrived it seemed like mission impossible," he said.
"In addition, the club's earnings continue to increase at double-digit rates despite the difficult economic situation.
"Having said that, it's clear that his strong personality, his exaggerated claims and several episodes of unsporting behaviour have distanced the club from their traditional chivalrous image and being 'the club for all'.
"These values are in the genes of the brand and it is always dangerous to play around with a brand's DNA."
Real, the world's wealthiest club by revenue, will always be measured against Barca, the second richest, where Mourinho was an assistant to Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal in the late 1990s.
Domingo Olivo de Miguel, director of business development at Havas Spain, said early indications suggested Vilanova, who took over from Pep Guardiola at the end of last season, was having a positive impact on the Catalan club's image.
A quiet, thoughtful and intensely private character in stark contrast to Mourinho, Vilanova temporarily stepped aside this week following the news that he needs surgery and chemotherapy on his saliva glands.
A product of Barca's youth academy and a club man through and through, he is seen as a strong advocate of bringing young players through from within rather than buying in from outside, another contrast with Mourinho who is perceived as much more focused on getting quick results.
"It's also true that much of the return from (Barca's) management strategy is inherited," Olivo de Miguel said, pointing to Guardiola's success during his four-year stint in charge and the performances of a hugely gifted generation of players like Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
"Whatever the case, Barca can rely on a more balanced, more successful and more sustainable strategy for the development of their product."
Mourinho has made no secret of his desire to return to coach in England and has also been linked with big-spending French club Paris St Germain.
If he did leave under a cloud, the immediate impact on Real would be a painful economic one, equivalent to the tens of millions of euros it costs to sign a top player, Olivo de Miguel said.
"In terms of the stability of the sporting and institutional project, it would also not be in the club's interest to see him leave in the short term," he added.
"Over the longer term, it would be advisable for the club to control the negative aspects of his management, let Mourinho finish his project and begin to put together alternative strategies for the future if Mourinho's management does not meet expectations."
Gracia de Castro concluded: "A hypothetical Mourinho exit would be traumatic above all for the stability of the sporting project, which is the foundation of everything.
"It should be much easier to correct some of the most controversial aspects of his external image than find a new coach and start from scratch.
"All brands need stability and continuity. Abrupt change is always damaging." (Editing by Ed Osmond)