Thursday March 17th, 2011

Ask Sir Alex Ferguson to tell you his best José Mourinho story, and the Manchester United manager lets out a cackle. Sir Alex and Mourinho, the Real Madrid coach, are (arguably) the two greatest coaches in world soccer, men who have become friends over the years after competing against each other in the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League.

"We always shared a glass of wine," Sir Alex told me, recalling their days together in England. "The best story was I came down there and had this wine at Chelsea. And honestly, believe me, it was paint-stripper. It was absolutely vile. I say, 'What the heck are you pouring me to drink?' He was so embarrassed, he says, 'Don't worry! When I come to United, I'll bring the best bottle of Port wine.' So I embarrassed him into bringing with him a top wine to Old Trafford."

Speaking to Sir Alex was just one treat of reporting my recent feature in Sports Illustrated on Mourinho, the 2010 FIFA world coach of the year. I also interviewed Mourinho (on two occasions), Chelsea's Didier Drogba, former Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon and NBA star Steve Nash (more on him later), among others.

In the end, there was enough good material that I couldn't fit it all into a 3,500-word magazine story. But sometimes the B-sides are just as good as the heavily promoted single, and Mourinho deserves some credit for leading Real Madrid to its first Champions League quarterfinals berth since 2003-04. So let's dive in:

1. As you'd expect, Mourinho can fill up a reporter's notebook with prime quotes in a hurry. In one of our interviews last November, he agreed to play a parlor game in which he provided his rapid-fire impressions of some of the world's top managers. All I had to do was say their names. Mourinho made his way through Sir Alex ("Legend"), Barcelona's Pep Guardiola ("Top coach, and a good guy"), Arsenal's Arsène Wenger ("Good coach") and England's Fabio Capello ("Top coach with a great history").

The subtleties were revealing: Wenger, whom Mourinho derisively labeled "a voyeur" during his Chelsea days, got a shrug and a lukewarm review. But there was nothing subtle on that November day when Mourinho heard the name Rafael Benitez, his bête noire, the former Liverpool manager who eliminated Mourinho's Chelsea twice in Champions League and had taken Mourinho's old job with Inter Milan. Mourinho paused for effect, then dropped the hammer: "Inter coach." It was hard not to laugh. Benitez would soon be pushed out at Inter, presumably pleasing Mourinho, but the lesson was clear: The Special One unplugged is endlessly entertaining.

2. Want more evidence? These Mourinho gems didn't survive the cut for my magazine story:

• On his career choices: "I had some difficult decisions to make. But my career went so well that it would be a bit stupid if I say, 'This was a bad decision.' "

• On his media ubiquity: "Everybody speaks about me. The ones that don't are the ones that don't need me to make the headlines."

• On his regrets: "I could express myself in a different way. In an English cup final, I told the Liverpool supporters to shut up. O.K., they were making too much noise and spoiling the last minutes. But I cannot do this."

• On working in England: "For a coach, England is paradise: the quality of life, the peace you have during the week to do your work. But in Italy and Spain, you feel the emotions around football every day. This is not easy, but you get used to it. Probably one day when you leave you miss it! Probably."

3. My sense is that Mourinho's bravado is partly by design. He's a master at steering pressure away from his team and onto himself. But he also appears to enjoy the attention, not least because it enhances his mystique even more when his teams succeed. And some of it is simply human. Mourinho tends to say what he really thinks -- in public and in private.

Kenyon, the former Chelsea chief executive, speaks at length about Mourinho's charisma, leadership and intelligence. But he's honest about the positives and the negatives. "With somebody who is as committed, who is as intense, who has got the desire, those qualities spill over sometimes," Kenyon said. "To say that every day was a joy would be wrong, I think, for everybody. But he did it all for the right reasons. He did it for the team, for the players, for the owner. He did it to win. Sometimes those things do bring with them some angst, and I was the guy who dealt with the angst most of the time."

4. According to Sir Alex, the word humility can indeed be used to describe Mourinho. "The good thing about José, he can have a laugh at himself," Fergie said. "I think sometimes in our world we can become quite vain because of celebrity status and things that happen. People that can keep their feet on the ground and recognize their failures and have a laugh at themselves, I think that's a true man."

5. More than any other coaches at the club or national-team level, Mourinho and Sir Alex have gotten the most out of Cristiano Ronaldo. Part of that comes from their motivational tactics. Part of it comes from their similar tactical uses of Ronaldo on the field. And part of it comes, of course, from Ronaldo. Mourinho and Fergie sounded eerily similar when describing Ronaldo:

Mourinho on Ronaldo: "The boy is fantastic. I don't care about his private life or if he likes to be a model of Armani underwear or whatever. That's not my problem. My problem is the way he works, the way he behaves professionally. And the boy, when he's here he only speaks, only thinks, only breathes football."

Sir Alex on Ronaldo: "He's a fantastic player. One, because he wants to learn all the time. In my time with Cristiano, all I saw was progress. Each year you saw something different, a new idea coming from a new part of his technique or skill. He was one of these boys that wanted to work in practice all the time. So to work with that kind of material, you're lucky. He was never a problem, was good to work with, was yearning to do well in that time. He was a one-off in that respect."

6. Like a lot of people, Sir Alex (who played at a high level as a forward) is impressed that Mourinho has been able to earn the respect of top-level players even though Mourinho never played at a high level himself.

"That is the handicap when you're coming into the game," Fergie said. "One item that players are always working at is, Did your boss play the game, particularly at a high level? In the case of José, I think that has now passed by. I don't think anyone's concerned about it because he's proved himself in his time at Porto and then at Chelsea and [Inter] Milan and now at Real Madrid. It must have been an issue [early for Mourinho]. And what you have to do then is impress the players with your knowledge of the game. Because he didn't play doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't have the knowledge."

7. Sir Alex is almost always a good interview, and he didn't disappoint this time either. But he didn't have much to say when I asked him if he would like to see Mourinho follow him as manager at Manchester United. "I won't comment," Sir Alex said. "It's not my job."

8. For a coach who likes to dish it out to his competitors, Mourinho can be surprisingly thin-skinned himself. Ten months after Inter's victory over Barcelona in the Champions League, he's still upset over a Twitter post by NBA star (and soccer fan) Nash, who needled Mourinho's defensive style by listing 11 famous goalkeepers' names in Inter's lineup for the final.

"We should speak about what we understand very, very well," Mourinho said when I asked him about it. "I don't make stupid comments about basketball. I just say I love basketball. He could be unhappy because he's a Barcelona fan, because Barcelona didn't go to the final. But even as a sportsman, it's one more reason to say, 'O.K., respect to the other guys. They fought like animals for one hour with 10 players on the pitch. At least let me give credit to these guys.' Because if he plays a basketball match four-against-five for 20 minutes, and if he wins -- even if his four guys stand on top of the basket --I will give him credit for the spirit and for the fight!" Mourinho shrugged. "He's top and I respect him a lot. But let him speak about basketball."

Mourinho's response caught Nash by surprise. "Obviously I was going for the hyperbole and was just kidding," Nash told me. "I was just giving stick to some of my friends who were Inter fans. It wasn't necessarily my opinion. Although at times I thought they had been a bit defensive, I think overall they did the job they had to do against Barcelona. They deserved it and stuck to their game plan. I have nothing but respect for him. He's a brilliant manager."

Considering that Mourinho says he wants to coach in North America someday and that Nash is now a part-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps, maybe Nash would consider offering Mou a job someday?

9. Mourinho has a sly sense of humor. At one point (this was before Barcelona's 5-0 victory over Real Madrid in November), I asked him: Do you think Barcelona is vulnerable in any way? "Like we are," Mourinho said. "Like everybody is in football." Pause. "I don't know in basketball." (That was a dig at Nash.) "But my idea is in the structure of 11 guys, there are always weaknesses. And if you can hide your weaknesses, you are a better team. But weaknesses you always have."

10. That wasn't the only time in our interviews that Mourinho sounded like Yoda. At another point he said this about Barcelona: "They are a great club. They have years of working together with the same coach, with the same team, with the same philosophy, with great results and victories. Victories bring status, status brings confidence, confidence brings respect."

11. Mourinho's most amazing statistic is probably this: Over the past nine years he has now gone 149 straight home league games without a defeat. Nobody else is even close to him. When I asked him about it, this is what he said:

"Where I gave a big contribution to win, I feel sometimes that I did it. Sometimes I had decisions at home, crucial decisions, to win a match, to not lose a match that looks like it was lost. But other times I feel I was lucky too."

Then Mourinho brought up a game he nearly lost at home last year, when Inter Milan was down 2-1 late against Siena. "I finished the game with two defenders. I risk in a crazy way," Mourinho said. "But when I did that, the first thing that happens in the game was [Siena] hit the post. If that goes in, it's 3-1 and I kill the game for my team. After that, we scored for 2-2. There are still two or three minutes to go, and then Walter Samuel scored the winning goal. So you also need a little bit of the luck!"

12. Because Mourinho has coached in England, Italy and Spain, I asked him to compare and contrast the soccer cultures in each country. He had some provocative insights, to say the least. Listen:

"In Italy, the postmatch is deeper and deeper and deeper, and it's like you have to play another match. It's more important than the match, you know? That's something I really don't like. It's about the referees, the mistakes the referee did. We have one-and-a-half hours of live television, coaches and commentators after the match. In Spain, you don't have that. In England, you don't have that."

"In Italy, people are very focused on tactics. They don't care about the quality of the spectacle you are giving. It's results-results-results. And because of results, tactics-tactics-tactics. So to be the coach of one of the best teams is very demanding. ... In Spain, in England, it's a different kind of mentality. Everybody has a little commitment with the quality of what we are showing to people. In Italy, they lose a little bit of maybe the enthusiasm of the world around Italian football. But as a coach, to win in Italy is fantastic, because you feel you have won against the greatest difficulties."

13. Mourinho's personal goals right now are simple. "I have two things I would like to reach," he said. "One is to be the first coach to win the Grand Slam, which is the Italy, Spain and England championships. I won two. If I win the Spanish league, I win the Grand Slam. And the other one is to be the only coach to win three Champions Leagues with three different clubs. ... I have to work for Real Madrid, but at the same time, at Real I can reach some historical things for me."

It won't be easy this year in La Liga, where Real Madrid is five points behind Barcelona, but Real Madrid is alive and well in Champions League, which is something we haven't said at this point of the season in seven years.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.