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Grant Wahl
March 07, 2011
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
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March 07, 2011

What's So Special About Jose Mourinho?

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

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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 Barça 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 Barça 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 Galácticos, 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 Kaká, but Real Madrid saw Barcelona sweep to victory in the Spanish league.

This season's new Galáctico was Mourinho himself, the miracle man who had vanquished Barça, 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."

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