September 05 2010
If you like your footballing stories to combine an outrageously talented individual with an iconic club in a glamorous city, then José Mourinho’s appointment as the new manager of Real Madrid has everything. I wrote about the self-styled “Special One” back in 2008 when he had just taken the reins as the coach of Inter Milan. The Nerazzurri were Italy’s domestic champions but they hadn’t won the Champions League for 43 years. Mourinho was hired to rectify that deficit and in May of this year, after only two seasons, he accomplished his task.
Inter’s path to the final in Madrid, in which they beat Bayern Munich 2-0, was anything but easy. Along the way they got the better of Chelsea, a result offering exquisite pleasure to the coach who had guided the club to six trophies in three seasons before falling out with owner Roman Abramovich. Then in the semifinals they met Barcelona, the most skilful of all European teams, but Mourinho’s tactical acumen brought about their downfall: a 1-0 win in the second-leg tie at the Nou Camp was not enough to take the Catalans to the final.
Results like that have made Mourinho the most sought-after coach in the world, and his charisma and motivational skills are all part of his success. When he returned to Stamford Bridge on the eve of the Chelsea match in March everyone in the ground, from his former players to the car-park attendant, wanted to shake his hand, catch his trademark wink and just touch the sleeve of his famous Armani coat. It was a similar story after the Champions League final when Mourinho, who had told the Milan players he was leaving, paused on his way out of the stadium to engage in a farewell bear hug with Inter’s defensive stalwart Marco Materazzi, the Portuguese weeping openly on the huge centre back’s shoulder.
It’s those unashamedly Mediterranean moments that fans of the Special One adore. Of course, some grumpy former professionals – mostly Scottish and Irish hard men turned pundits – remain deeply suspicious. In their day, they mutter, big boys didn’t cry and the closest they got to styling was the occasional jar of Brylcreem. But the grumpy old men make the mistake of underestimating just how much Mourinho likes to win. The handsome 47-year-old may be a showman but he’s a pragmatist, too, and his new charges will have to get used to following orders and defending every bit as tenaciously as they attack. Watching how they respond to Mourinho’s urgings will be one of the highlights of the new football season. Los Merengues spent a staggering £220m on new players last summer and had expected to end up in the Champions League final. But for the sixth year running they were eliminated at the first knockout stage and, for a club of their stature, that is simply not acceptable.
It’s not just the prestige, either. Real Madrid is one of the most valuable sporting brands on the planet. The club’s merchandising even extends to a range of all-white lingerie, modelled by a sultry Penélope Cruz lookalike – not the sort of thing you get at Bolton or Blackburn Rovers. But by appointing the Special One, the Real hierarchy has belatedly accepted that if you are not winning trophies, the rest is pants. I’m backing Mourinho to wrest the La Liga crown from Madrid’s arch rivals Barcelona this season at 6-5 with Victor Chandler, and I’ll wager that by May 2012 he’ll have won them back the Champions League too.