Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao had previous. Andoni Goikoetxea, ‘The Butcher of Bilbao’, had slain Diego Maradona in the previous decade and Barça’s visits to the Basque cathedral of San Mames had been marred by a toxic hatred. In 1996/97, new Barça boss Bobby Robson took his side to Bilbao.
His counterpart was Luis Fernandez, the former France international who’d become the first French manager to win a major European trophy with Paris Saint-Germain before moving to boss the Basques.
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Fernandez was a feared man. He thrived on the bile and aggression on and off the pitch as his side won 2-1. Robson wasn’t drawn into confrontations, but his hitherto unknown assistant was. Several times, he clashed with Fernandez between the rival benches. The home fans behind the bench who witnessed it were stunned at the bravado shown by the unknown young man who was giving it back to their imposing manager, on his own turf.
Jose Mourinho, 33 years old, would not back down and he frequently questioned decisions. Infuriated, Fernandez began shoving Mourinho on the touchline, displaying disdain for a face he didn’t recognise, a name he’d never heard before. Who, he seemed to be asking, are you to stand up to me?
Not that this fazed the Portuguese upstart. Because even before winning the Champions League with Porto; before becoming the Special One at Chelsea; before being the first manager to guide an Italian side to an unprecedented league, cup and European Cup treble; before taking his place at the centre of the football universe at Real Madrid; before recapturing the league with the Blues; before taking the reins at Old Trafford, he had a certain arrogance. It was a swagger that would later fuel his success and, at the time, give him the confidence to confront the imposing Fernandez despite only being a coach, an interpreter – a member of the Barcelona staff who, in this instance, would be saved from a pitchside pasting by his closest ally in the team, Josep Guardiola.
Bobby and Jose: The unlikely couple
Mourinho arrived in Catalonia in summer 1996 along with Bobby Robson, to whom he'd been an assistant for four years at Sporting and Porto. The sceptics were waiting for the unlikely double act. Hugely popular manager Johan Cruyff, who’d led the Catalans to four successive league titles and their first ever European Cup in 1992, had been sacked by Barcelona president Josep Nunez. It’s fortunate Robson couldn’t read or understand Castilian or Catalan, because he wouldn’t have liked what he saw.
Mourinho knew, though. He perfected his Spanish, which is far easier if you’re from Setubal, Portugal rather than Sacriston, County Durham. Not satisfied with that, he also learned to understand Catalan, to add to English, French, Italian and Portuguese. Nunez called him ‘The Translator’ throughout his time at the Camp Nou, a name which stuck in the Catalan media even if it was misleading and dismissive.
Barça wanted Robson, who’d done well at Porto, but not necessarily the unknown Mourinho. The Catalans offered Jose Ramon Alexanco, a 250-game Barça hero who’d retired in 1993, as his No.2. Robson integrated Alexanco, but was loyal to a young Portuguese man he’d been working with for four years – although there was uncertainty about Mourinho’s role.
“He was the translator when he arrived,” says a senior member of staff at Barcelona who worked with the pair. “But he was also assistant coach. The two roles were incompatible and that became apparent after just two or three press conferences. Rather than translate Mr Robson’s words, Mourinho would add his own opinions. He’d protect his boss as well – he’d have arguments with journalists. We had to pull him back from translating.”
The journalists present remember it slightly differently. “Mourinho translated the first press conference on a pre-season game in Holland, but it was immediately obvious that he couldn’t translate because he had such strong opinions of his own,” recalls Santi Gimenez from AS. “Some of the journalists can speak English; they knew he was picking and choosing which of Robson’s words to translate. He continued to translate, but only inside the dressing room and not to the press.” Robson’s answers were typically scattergun, Mourinho’s translations deep and thought out.
Mourinho had got in with Robson because of his linguistic skills in 1992 at Sporting, though it was new Sporting president Sousa Cintra, keen to support his foreign manager, who appointed him. “Jose was a personable young man who was nominated to look after me because of his good English and strong background in football,” recalled Robson, who may or may not have known that Mourinho had a dog called Gullit.
“He was a schoolteacher, and his father had been a professional goalkeeper with Vitoria Setubal [Felix Mourinho was good enough to win international honours] and then general manager of the same club. Jose was to prove a marvellous asset, covering my back and looking after me while building up a good rapport with the players of the three clubs we have been at together. Whenever I needed his support he was there, even though it often meant putting himself in the firing line.”
With Manuel Fernandes, the former Sporting player, as Robson’s coach, Mourinho was mainly a translator in Lisbon. He didn’t always deliver good news. “He told me what the players were saying when they thought I couldn’t understand,” recalled Robson.
Though his side were top of the league, the club president got on the plane’s intercom and started ranting to players, directors and fans after an away defeat to Casino Salzburg in the 1993 UEFA Cup. Robson asked Mourinho what he was saying. The embarrassed translator explained that the president was telling everyone the performance was a disgrace to Sporting and that he was going to speak to Mr Robson as soon as they were home.
He did, dismissing him on the pitch in front of the entire staff after they’d arrived back in Lisbon. Robson hadn’t been sacked before and wouldn’t get his contract paid up. Carlos Queiroz, a friend of the club president, was waiting in the wings to take over. Mourinho was again seeing what a dirty, ephemeral world football was. Again? When he was 10, he saw his father sacked on Christmas Day in the middle of their festive lunch.
The dossiers what done it
Robson was soon offered the Porto job, in January 1994. He sought the advice of Mourinho, who spoke excitedly about Porto’s status. He also agreed to the job of his assistant. So what had someone who’d come in as a translator done to impress Robson so much?
At Sporting, the Englishman had started sending Mourinho to scout forthcoming opponents. What he got back stunned him. “He’d come back and hand me a dossier that was absolutely first class,” said Robson in 2005. “As good as anything I’d received. Here he was, in his early thirties, never been a player or a coach to speak of, giving me reports that were as good as anything I ever got.”
Future scouts working under Mourinho would be admonished or not used at all if their reports weren’t up to scratch, as one of Benfica’s technical staff discovered when he reported back to the Portuguese in 2000 – a report which contained only nine outfield players.
Mourinho wasn’t new to scouting, though – he’d been doing it for his father since he was 14. His father told him at 15 that he wouldn't earn a living from football, but Mourinho had an answer – he would become a coach. Besides, he still thought he could become a player and he did, albeit in the Portuguese second division.
By 23, he had acknowledged his limitations and took several coaching courses, some under the guidance of the Football Association and the Scottish FA, where former Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh was an important influence – especially on training organisation and the techniques needed to establish practice sessions. Mourinho had coached in the youth section at Vitoria Setubal and had been fitness trainer at second division Estrela da Amadora, so he wasn’t a callow novice by the time he met Robson at Lisbon airport in 1992. Robson soon expanded his role.
Porto’s goalkeeper was Vitor Baia, who would follow the pair to Barcelona. Speaking about Mourinho, he simply said: “I’ve known him a long time, and he has this special way of organising his players and understanding how they want to play.”
Robson and Mourinho did face problems at Porto, with midfielder Rui Filipe involved in a fatal car crash, aged 26. But on the pitch things were going well, with Porto reaching the semi-finals of the 1994 Champions League to face Cruyff’s Barcelona – a game decided in a single Camp Nou tie which Barcelona won 3-0. Robson was on Barça’s radar again, more so when he led his side to two Portuguese league titles and a cup.
Barcelona approached Robson in April 1996, cementing a long-standing promise to make him manager which they’d first spoken of when he was at Ipswich Town. Robson consulted Mourinho and they agreed to go.
New challenges at Barcelona
“I owe him for so much. I was a nobody in football when he came to Portugal,” Mourinho would later say. “He helped me to work at two clubs and he took me to one of the biggest clubs in the world [Barcelona]. We are very different, but I got from him the idea of what it is to be a top coach.”
At Barça, though, they had their work cut out. “Cruyff had created a very special style of football, adapting the Ajax way with his own ideas,” said Robson, who was also aware the club wanted to continue with the Ajax way initiated by Cruyff by hiring Ajax boss Louis van Gaal as soon as possible.
Despite the uncertainty, Mourinho settled well. “He was a different person when he was at Barça; someone close to the journalists,” recalls Santi Gimenez. “The players liked him and respected him, as did the journalists,” adds Lu Martin of El Pais. “He came out with us the night before most European away games. He was great company, like a kindly uncle. Time changes us all, but the man I see now in front of the media is not the man I knew then.
“I went with him and a photographer to Belgrade to scout Red Star ahead of a European game. There were big problems in Serbia with the government, but the mood was light on our trip. We joked that there were rumours that he was Robson’s boyfriend, because he went everywhere with him. Mourinho laughed and said: ‘Bring your sister along and we can find out if that’s true.’ And I always remember something he said: ‘I don’t waste time thinking about the people who love or hate me.’
“On the same trip, there was a flat tyre on the car we were travelling in. Neither me nor the photographer had any idea how to change the tyre. Mourinho cursed, suspecting it was deliberate because someone knew he was responsible for scouting the Red Star team. But he got out of the car and changed the tyre.”
Mourinho was then known as Jose to his many friends in Barcelona. To his closest friends, he was always 'Ze'. Mourinho lived with his wife Matilde in Sitges, an affluent district just outside the city centre, while Robson lived nearby with his wife Elsie. Matilde was as helpful to the Robsons as Jose, cooking them meals. At the Camp Nou, while Robson kept a professional distance from his players, Mourinho was much closer. His excellent relationship with Portuguese-speaking new signing Ronaldo helped bring the best out of the Brazilian, who was virtually unstoppable.
Guardiola, meanwhile, was singled out for his leadership skills, the two often spending hours talking tactics in Spanish and Catalan. “We did talk about things when we both had doubts, and we would exchange ideas, but I don’t remember it as something which defined our relationship,” recalls Guardiola. “He was Mr Robson’s assistant and I was a player.” When they crossed swords in the media in 2011, Guardiola described their relationship at Barça as “friendship... well, no, not quite friendship, but a working relationship”.
Mourinho claimed that he won over the club’s superstar players by guiding them, rather than being autocratic. “You can’t help but learn when you coach players of this calibre,” he said. “You even learn about human relationships. Players of that level don’t accept what you tell them simply because of the authority of who’s telling them,” he said. “You have to prove what you say is right. The old story of ‘The Mister is always right’ is simply not applicable. Certainly it’s not with a player of a high level, which is the case at Barcelona. The coach is a guide. You provide clues; they interpret them. My philosophy is guidance and discovery.”
The players appreciated Mourinho’s attention to detail, which he showed in videos of forthcoming opponents. Future World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, who was at Barcelona for a season, would seek Mourinho’s video analysis and take them home to study opponents. Those Barça players not as studious were quick to be criticised by Mourinho. “We’ve told Ronaldo [Spain’s top scorer that season] it’s no good scoring a wonder goal and then spending the other 89 minutes sleeping,” he said in 1996.
Robson won three trophies in his one and only season at Barcelona: the Spanish Cup, Super Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup. Barça didn’t win the league, though, and Robson was dismissed, to be replaced by Dutchman Van Gaal – something he’d suspected would happen.
Mourinho had learned much and observed: “One of the most important things I learned from Bobby Robson is that when you win, you shouldn’t assume you are the best, and when you lose, you shouldn’t think you are rubbish. Bobby Robson is not so interested in study and systems or planning of training sessions. He’s a field man, who thrives on direct contact with the players. He is also a coach dedicated to attack. If we divide the game into three areas of build-up, you would say Bobby Robson’s work is to focus on the final third. It meant that a lot of the emphasis of my work was towards the defence.”
After Robson had gone
Mourinho stayed at Barça, despite Robson’s departure. He’d considered going back to Portugal to manage, but the Englishman encouraged him to stay with Van Gaal and even recommended him to his replacement. The former Ajax boss discovered “an arrogant young man, who didn’t respect authority that much, but I did like that of him. He was not submissive – he used to contradict me when I was in the wrong. Finally, I wanted to hear what he had to say and ended up listening to him more than any of the assistants.”
“His role was different under Van Gaal,” says the Barça insider. “He was trusted to scout big-game opponents so he travelled a lot. Van Gaal also used to place him in the stands rather than on the bench for a different perspective. Mourinho would report to him at the start of half-time and Van Gaal would relay this to the team. I worked closely with Mourinho and liked him. He was bright, ambitious and had a strong personality. He wanted to be part of the team and made sure he integrated successfully. I knew he’d make a good coach – but I didn’t realise he’d make a great one.”
“He was a warm person,” recalls Dutch defender Michael Reiziger, who played for Barça between 1997 and 2004. “He was genuinely interested in everyone and every detail and really wanted to be part of the group. He wanted to know everything that was going on, not just with the coaching. The players liked that, but I’m not sure Van Gaal always did, as they both wanted to speak the most. So he wasn’t a normal assistant – it was clear that he wanted ‘something else’.
“The man I see on television isn’t the man I knew – the one who came up to me when I last bumped into him in an Amsterdam hotel two years ago and treated me very well.”
Mourinho continued to learn and develop under the Dutch manager. “With Van Gaal the practice sessions were set out already,” he said. “I would know everything we were going to do in training beforehand, from the aims, to the exact time each exercise was going to take place. Nothing was left to chance; everything was programmed to fine detail.”
But Mourinho tired of working under him. Van Gaal’s downfall was that he failed to lift the Champions League. Barça fans had hoped to do it in 1999, their centenary, with the final at the Nou Camp. By that time, Mourinho knew he wanted out, though he turned down the Braga job in 1999 because he would earn more money in Spain and his family were happy.
He was also learning more about money from Barcelona players such as Rivaldo, who told him that trophies didn’t pay the mortgage. He stayed at Barcelona for one unhappy – “professionally and personally” – final year, in which he admitted he’d become “a frustrated coach, somewhat harsh, even overly critical”. He wasn’t impressed with the president who replaced the one who’d hired him either. So Mourinho left (not that his contract was renewed) and drove from Sitges to Setubal.
“The players really missed him when he left,” says Reiziger. “That’s a big compliment to an assistant.”
Back in Portugal, he remained unemployed all summer. Robson called, offering him the chance to become assistant at Newcastle United, before he was asked to replace Jupp Heynckes at Benfica in mid-September 2000. Mourinho was now a manager and while it wouldn’t work out at Benfica, four years later he would take rivals Porto to Champions League success. A week later, he would join Chelsea, and demonstrate the linguistic skills and trademark swagger that defined his early career. The Translator was now The Special One.
This story first appeared in the April 2013 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now for just £9.50 every quarter (opens in new tab)!
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Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.
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