He hasn't lost a league game at home in nine years and is eyeing an unprecedented third Champions League title with a third team. Real Madrid's maestro may be the best coach in any sport, anywhere
This is an article from the March 7, 2011 issue
José Mourinho has a problem. When fans approach the world's most famous coach—and they do so in great numbers, from Madrid to London to Los Angeles—they are seldom satisfied with a typical autograph. They want something unique. Distinct. Dare it be said: special. "I'll sign JOSÉ MOURINHO," says the Real Madrid manager after a practice in the Spanish capital. "But most of the people say, 'No, no, no. You will sign THE SPECIAL ONE!' " Mourinho sighs, the edges of his trademark smirk curling into a faint smile. "Everybody wants me to be The Special One. But I don't worry. There could be a worse nickname."
Besides, it's his own creation. In 2004, during Mourinho's first press conference as Chelsea manager, he grew exasperated by the skepticism over his arrival from his native Portugal. "The English press was speaking to me like I was coming from the moon," he says. "Who are you? Do you have the quality to work in England? For God's sake, give me a chance. I won the Champions League with Porto. I'm a special one. Don't kill me on my first day!
"But they got it as if I was saying"—here he adopts the voice of the Almighty—"I am The Special One."
And so it went. Such is the force of Mourinho's personality that more than three years after he left England, his puppet alter ego still stars in the popular BBC satire Special 1 TV. These days even Mourinho's critics—and there are many—would have to admit the accuracy of his audacious nickname. In January, FIFA named him the 2010 World Coach of the Year, the result of a remarkable trophy haul at Inter Milan that included winning the Italian league, the Italian Cup and the crown jewel of global club soccer, the UEFA Champions League. In seven full seasons as a manager with Porto, Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho, 48, has won 14 major trophies, including two Champions League titles and six domestic league championships.
Where does Mourinho rank among the world's soccer coaches? "He's at the top, there's no doubt about that," says the legendary Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho's friend and rival. "You have certain criteria in terms of top management, and that is longevity of success—which is very difficult today—and what you win. You have to regard his achievements as really first-class."
Now, nine months after taking over Real Madrid, Mourinho faces his most pressure-packed test yet: to return the most decorated club of all time to its past glory, not just in Spain (where archrival Barcelona has won four of the last six La Liga titles) but also in Europe (where Real Madrid has not advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals since 2004). "Real Madrid wants to be again the best—of the present and of the future," says Mourinho. "That's my challenge." If he can burnish his own résumé in the process, so much the better—no coach has won European crowns with three different teams. Real meets Lyon at Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium on March 16 in the second leg of their home-and-home round of 16 series; the teams tied 1--1 at Lyon on Feb. 22.
As Mourinho has risen to the summit, he has expanded his horizons, analyzing the management styles at Microsoft and Apple, reading Colin Powell's autobiography and Phil Jackson's books, studying John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. He wants to come to the U.S., both to observe NFL coaching staffs and, eventually, to manage the U.S. national team or an MLS club. "A football coach who only understands football is not a great coach," says Mourinho. "We have to be good in other things. I never forget: My players are men. Men with different personalities, different cultures. To deal with this is very important in building a team. I think I have, maybe, a gift."
Mourinho can't help himself. He is by turns smart, vain, funny, needy, tough and as thin-skinned as a pinot grape. But who's to argue with him? He has a gift. No coach today compares. Phil Jackson may have won 11 NBA titles, but he always had the best players. Mourinho conquered the Champions League with Porto and Inter Milan, teams with nowhere near the talent and payrolls of their top rivals. Joe Torre and Mike Krzyzewski may have reached the pinnacle four times, but they did not have to connect with their players in five languages. Mourinho speaks Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish, fluently. Bill Belichick owns three Super Bowl rings as a head coach, but even he can't match Mourinho's most remarkable record: He has gone nine years without losing a league game at home, 148 matches with four different teams.
Nor do any American coaches face the crushing weekly pressure of European soccer, the only game that matters on the Continent. In the political tinderbox of Real Madrid, where a single defeat can spark a crisis, Mourinho might not even survive the season. But there is a reason his $12 million annual salary is the highest of any coach on the planet. He's the best in the world.
Milan, May 2010. The news is out. Mourinho is leaving Inter Milan for Real Madrid. Outside the Bernebéu after the Champions League final, an Italian TV camera captures Mourinho ducking into a luxury sedan. The car advances, then abruptly stops. Mourinho emerges from behind the smoked-glass windows and walks 20 yards to Inter defender Marco Materazzi, the hardman best known for absorbing Zinédine Zidane's head butt in the 2006 World Cup final. Mourinho and Materazzi embrace for five, 10, 20 seconds. Both men's shoulders are heaving. Two of the toughest men in soccer are sobbing like Dick Vermeil.
Ask people what makes Mourinho unique, and one common response is this: His players almost universally adore him. Didier Drogba, the prolific Chelsea striker, says he felt "like an orphan" after Mourinho departed West London in 2007. "He's a great man," Drogba says. "You can see how close players are with him. He has a way of getting into players' minds as a manager—and as a man, the kind of man who's ready to give you all his confidence and trust because he expects that you'll give it back." Drogba, too, shed tears when Mourinho left, one of the few times, he says, that he has cried in his adult life.
Materazzi's native language is Italian. Drogba's is French. Mourinho has a rule: When he addresses his teams, he does so in the language of the team's country, the better to integrate the players into the club and the culture. (At Inter he spoke Italian even though only four of his 24 first-team players were Italian.) But in private meetings with individual players Mourinho communicates whenever possible in their native tongues. "By speaking five languages I can have a special relation with them," he says. "A player feels more comfortable explaining emotions in the language where he has no doubts. So he has no problem to open his heart, to criticize, to be criticized."
In other words, Mourinho's ability to connect is equal parts psychology and linguistics. To sit across from Mourinho and interview him is to be subject to a form of high-level seduction, though not in a sexual way. He'll lean close, elbows on knees, hands folded together, as though he's sharing a secret that nobody else knows. Is it a kind of performance art? Of course. But isn't most of sports? The details are in the delivery, and invariably Mourinho's players, to say nothing of the global media, buy what he is selling. If Ferguson is known for the scorching-hot diatribes of a drill sergeant, Mourinho is the sports world's version of a pickup artist.
Manchester, England, March 2004. Who is this man? How dare he violate the sacred turf of Old Trafford? It's the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, and tiny Porto has just stunned the soccer world, scoring in the 90th minute to eliminate mighty Manchester United. Now Mourinho is bursting from the coach's box, racing down the touchline—fists pumping like pistons, coattails flapping in his jet wash—all the way to his celebrating players at the corner flag. Who is this man? He's an attention magnet, that's what he is.
Unlike most managers, Mourinho broke into elite coaching not as a former star player—his brief career as a defender ended at age 24—but as an interpreter. He translated for English manager Sir Bobby Robson for five seasons, first in Portugal and then in Spain, at Barcelona. When Robson left Bar√ßa in 1997, Mourinho stayed on as an assistant coach under Louis van Gaal, earning the Dutchman's trust for his tactical acumen, player relationships and famously detailed scouting reports. (Mourinho had started analyzing teams as a teenager for his father, Félix, a former player and coach in Portugal.) "He works like a crazy man," says Drogba. "At Chelsea he was doing the same [scouting reports] for fourth division teams in the FA Cup as he was for Manchester United. It shows you how serious he is."
By the time Mourinho took over at Porto in the Portuguese first division in 2002, he'd formed a guiding soccer philosophy. The decisive moments in most games, he argues, are transitions, the instants when teams spring from defense to attack (and vice versa) after a change of possession, when opponents can be off-balance. "These are periods of three or four seconds," he says. "If the players are of high quality, the game sometimes is nonstop. You must have a great balance. That's why I believe in having players with the tactical culture to analyze the game. All of them have to think the same thing at the same time. It's not basketball, because in basketball there are five players. Here there are 11."
If the game is about transitions, then so too is Mourinho's career, which saw him move from Porto to Chelsea to Inter Milan, never staying more than three full seasons at one club, all the while dominating the headlines more than any of his players.
"I had the luck of making history in those three clubs," he says. "At Porto it was winning the [2003--04] Champions League without money. We played Manchester United and Real Madrid, where the salary of one player was enough to pay the Porto team. Chelsea was also very special, because it was the first time Chelsea was champion [of England] in 50 years. In the ['09--10] Champions League with Inter we were far from being the most powerful team. We had to play four times in the competition against the best team in the world last season, which was Barcelona."
Inter's stunning upset of Bar√ßa in the Champions League semifinals—a 3--2 aggregate win in which Inter held off Barcelona in the second leg despite going down to 10 men inside a half hour—convinced everyone that Mourinho, more than any other coach alive, had the chops to win with inferior players. It also further polarized the world's soccer watchers into two camps: one that hailed Mourinho as a practical genius and another that derided him as a defensive-minded killjoy. And it drew the attention of Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez. In his previous term, from 2000 to 2006, Pérez had signed the so-called Galàcticos, a Dream Team that included Zidane, Ronaldo, David Beckham and Luís Figo. Pérez started his second term in '09 by buying two more former World Players of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kakà, but Real Madrid saw Barcelona sweep to victory in the Spanish league.
This season's new Galàctico was Mourinho himself, the miracle man who had vanquished Bar√ßa, Real Madrid's most bitter enemy. He didn't come cheaply. Real Madrid paid Inter a reported $10 million transfer fee and signed Mourinho to a four-year deal worth an estimated $48 million. Beyond the money, his hiring heralded a cultural transformation for the club. "What Mourinho brings is a newfound respect for the coach, a position that has always been criminally undervalued at Real Madrid," says Sid Lowe, the Madrid-based correspondent for The Guardian. "Now the coach is the most important guy at the club. Whether that will last, of course, is another issue."
Indeed, Real Madrid's fans and directors are accustomed to winning with panache, a word that has rarely described Mourinho's teams. Jorge Valdano, Real's director of soccer, once called the style of Mourinho's Chelsea "s--- on a stick," and the two men have jousted in the Spanish media this season. For his part The Special One points out that he now has more entertaining and possession-oriented players. "With Inter we had no qualities to control the game by having ball possession all the time," Mourinho says. "At Real Madrid, I am adapting to the qualities of the players. We have people that can control the game not by defending but by having possession of the ball."
None is more electrifying than Ronaldo, 26, a whooshing force of speed, skill and hair gel who's engaged in an epic battle with Barcelona's 23-year-old Lionel Messi. Through Sunday, Ronaldo had scored 34 goals in 39 games in all competitions; Messi, 39 in 35. Under Mourinho, his Portuguese countryman, Ronaldo has returned to the devastating form he showed two years ago with Manchester United. "I've always had great players, but I've never had a Cristiano Ronaldo," Mourinho says. "Last year Real relied too much on Cristiano to decide things. The best thing is not to make him feel responsible for the success or nonsuccess of the team. He's one more—with different qualities, of course. He can make the difference when things are very equalized, but behind him he has a structure. I think he's much more comfortable."
In many ways the season's first six months have been a prologue to the Spanish Armageddon that could erupt over the next three. Real Madrid and Bar√ßa may well be the world's two best teams, and so Mourinho will be judged on how his side performs in the big games: the Champions League and head-to-head against Barcelona. The Catalans won round one on their home turf in November, a 5--0 humiliation that was the worst loss of Mourinho's career. Yet it remains one of only two Real Madrid defeats in 32 league and Champions League games, and the two rivals could meet as many as four more times this season: in La Liga (April 17), the Spanish cup final (April 20) and perhaps in a two-leg Champions League showdown.
The rivalry represents more than just two cities, tracing as it does to the days when Real Madrid was a symbol of the Franco regime, Barcelona of Catalan resistance. For now Bar√ßa has the advantage: a seven-point lead in La Liga. And yet it would be folly to dismiss Mourinho, who knows as well as anyone that the one time he beat Barcelona in four tries last season was in the game that mattered most.
London, April 2007. Talk about odd pairings. WWE Raw has come to England, and now Shane McMahon is interrupting his ring monologue: "Wait a minute, I know you! That's José Mourinho! The head coach, if you will, of the Chelsea football team!" A chorus of boos (and a few cheers) rains down on Mourinho, who's sitting between his two children in the front row. Mourinho smiles, wags a finger at McMahon. The coach is in on this. So maybe Shane-O-Mac butchered his name, pronouncing it HOE-zay instead of the correct joe-ZAY. Who cares? It's The Special One and pro wrestling! It's ... a perfect match.
When Mourinho returns home from Real Madrid's Valdebebas training center, he's no longer the boss. That role falls to his wife of 21 years, Tami, and their kids: daughter Matilde, 14, and son José Jr., 10. "I have to do what they want," Mourinho says. "I have to watch the programs they want to see, the movies they want to go to. I have to go to the wrestling because they enjoy the wrestling."
Mourinho's children have attended the American Schools in London, Milan and Madrid. He expects they will go to college in the U.S. And therein lies an opportunity for soccer in America. "We want to be close to our kids the maximum we can," he says. "So in a few years when they go in that direction, me and my wife are going to go in the same direction. I see myself coaching a [club] team, coaching the national team or helping develop soccer in the U.S. When I'm tired of winning things in Europe, it's something I want to do. I want to coach the Portuguese national team, and I want to work in the United States."
Do the math. Matilde will be college age in four years, José Jr. in eight. The timing would set up well for Mourinho to take over the U.S. soon after, say, World Cup 2018. He already brings his teams to Los Angeles for preseason training every year. "I love it," Mourinho says of America. "The people have a very open mentality. Everybody is the same. Status doesn't count a lot. I like it very much in this way."
If Mourinho eventually crosses the Atlantic, it would be the perfect coda to his international high-wire act. In the ultimate global sport, he has become the ultimate global coach, crossing borders, switching languages and winning championships wherever he goes. For The Special One, remember, the game is all about the transitions.
Now on SI.com
Planet F√∫tbol, Grant Wahl's take on the global game, Wednesdays at SI.com/soccer