Long read: The making of Jose Mourinho – from translator to Bobby's boy, to Special One and beyond
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.
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.
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
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.
Rather than translate Robson’s words, Mourinho would add his own opinions
“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.