And so it begins. The most fantastical club in world football finally finds its managerial match made in heaven in Jose Mourinho.
Florentino Perez confirmed on Wednesday his intention to appoint Mourinho as soon as he negotiates his exit from Inter Milan. The Special One will arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu (assuming he ever left) a Champions League winner—for the second time, no less—after helping Inter lift the trophy in Madrid’s fabled stadium just last Saturday.
His second success in the competition, following his breakthrough triumph with FC Porto in 2004, puts him in the company of only Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfield as a manager to have two European Cup wins with two different clubs.
Now he goes for a record-breaking third, with a third team. But even that shouldn’t necessarily give the Portuguese maestro the greatness to which he so clearly aspires.
After all, any manager can win a Champions League with their club—indeed one does every season. Doing that, or indeed doing it twice, isn’t necessary an indication of greatness—especially if you leave straight after, as if aware you are incapable of replicating the feat.
The true greats of management—Happel, Heleno Herrera, Brian Clough, Rinus Michels, Bob Paisley, Bill Shankly, Sir Alex Ferguson—build dynasties as they win trophies. Mourinho, for all his silverware, still has to do that, and there would be no finer place than Madrid to add that distinction to his ever-expanding CV.
Real Madrid are the New York of football—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
If the 47-year-old retired now, there would certainly be those capable of dismantling his achievements and of questioning the validity of the media mania that has long-surrounded him. After all, it is worth remembering this will be the first time in his elite-level managerial career that Mourinho is taking the reins at a club that isn’t leading the way in its domestic league.
In 2004, he arrived at a rapidly-rising Chelsea side that had just finished second—behind an Arsenal side at its peak—in the league under the much-maligned Claudio Ranieri, with Roman Abramovich’s plentiful funds to make further quality additions.
Just under four years later—after falling out with Abramovich before he could really build a true epoch at Stamford Bridge—he arrived at an Inter Milan side that had cemented their place at the top of Italy’s table under Roberto Mancini, building on the fortune they experienced by avoiding the fallout of the Calciopoli scandal.
In that light, albeit a harsh one, Mourinho’s four titles at both clubs—alongside numerous domestic cups—really aren’t any more special than a number of other managers could also have achieved in the same circumstances.
Indeed, even his Champions League record is only sensational if you add extra weight to more recent campaigns. His 2004 win with Porto was marvelously unexpected. However, on their way to one of the more one-sided final wins (3-0 against AS Monaco) in recent memory, the Dragons only faced one truly quality side in Manchester United—against whom they needed that memorable last minute Costinha free-kick to progress.
Since then, he has been in charge of one of the four or five best club sides in Europe at the start of every season—and has only one final appearance (albeit a win) to his credit. Purely on percentages, that isn’t even an average return. In just one attempt, Avram Grant has the same number of finals under his belt—and he did it where Mourinho couldn’t.
But Mourinho has made his career so far on capitalising on such fickle twists of fate, and going on to win the Champions League this month was a triumph worth all the applause he has so far achieved. It is hard to believe that, just a couple of months ago, Mourinho’s job was considered to be in serious danger if the Nerazzurri had lost to Chelsea in the quarterfinals.
But his eventual win in the Spanish capital was a triumph of pure managerial genius. He took a recipe for success already perfected for domestic triumph at San Siro and, with a bravery that few other managers have, systematically dismantled that group to build a team capable of capturing Europe’s biggest prize.
Club icon Zlatan Ibrahimovic was sold off, with Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito—two players who would prove vital to Inter's success—brought in to replace him. Lucio was bought to add steel to the defence. Thiago Motta, unfashionable but efficient, was added to midfield.
Wesley Sneijder was snapped up from Real Madrid, adding the vital creative trequartista the club had clearly been crying for over the past few seasons despite their success. Goran Pandev was added in January—providing the little boost the club needed in a season that ended in a treble, even when on occasions it looked like it could have lurched toward disaster.
That was, and always will be, a massive credit to the magic of Mourinho. The mystic only added by his immediate departure, like a latter-day Mary Poppins.
"My work is done. I want to win the Champions League with three clubs," Mourinho told RAI on the evening of his Madrid magic trick.
"I did what I had to, my work is done. I am in the history of the club and Inter will never be the same again. I don't want to talk too much, as otherwise I'll cry and change my mind."
Now he has landed in Madrid, a club where he will need all his nous to topple a Barcelona side widely regarded as one of the best in history. It is, almost without question, the toughest job in the world game.
At most clubs in world football, setting aside any financial targets, the manager has one prime responsibility on the pitch: to deliver results. A select elite of clubs—Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal, among others—demand attractive football to go with their pleasing results. And then there is one club where both those main courses must come with a side order of political philosophy: Real Madrid.
At Real, a manager must always be able to "play the game" off the field—giving Marca et al the quotes they want, the stories and the intrigue they need to stay off your back.
They can make or break a manager, especially if the club’s chairman is feeding them ammunition to take him down—as Florentino Perez was rumoured to be doing with Manuel Pellegrini all season.
In recent past, Real have dismissed equally storied, perhaps even more qualified managers than Mourinho—from Fabio Capello to Jupp Heynckes, through Vanderlei Luxemburgo. But none of those talented tacticians had the one skill Mourinho has in abundance: charisma.
Mourinho will soon have the local media eating out of his hand, feeding them as he will with juicy quotes every week. You thought this year’s refereeing corruption scandal—Villarato—was juicy? Wait until Mourinho is fanning the flames with thinly veiled accusations next year.
All Mourinho has to worry about—and already many pundits have worried for him—is his ability to play attractive football to go with the victories. But Mourinho is nothing if not smart—he has already shown he can tailor his team’s mentality to the situation they are in.
Inter played defensively in the Champions League because that is the way they could win. They could never out-attack Barcelona, and opening up the game against Bayern Munich would have exposed more potential variables leading to a German win than were available by playing a more restrained, defensive game.
But at Chelsea, Mourinho installed a 4-3-3 that played to the strengths of his attacking players—Lampard, Drogba, Robben—as much as defensively stability.
Mourinho sides play to their strengths and their opponents’ weaknesses. And Real's strength, especially with Cristiano Ronaldo in the side, is in rapid, incisive, attacking play.
After all, this is a man who, while at Chelsea, said, “In five years I have never had a match where my team has had less possession than the opponents.” But in the last two games of Inter’s successful run this season, the club had less than 30 per cent of possession—and barely 43 per cent across the entire competition.
Like any successful survivor, Mourinho evolves to suit his situation.
“It’s so unfair if somebody thinks that Inter is a defensive team,” he reiterated to the Sunday Times this month.
“A football team is made of balance. I don’t believe in a crazy attacking team. I don’t believe in a crazy defensive team.
My Porto had balance, my Chelsea had balance, and we have balance in this team. Football is made about balance.”
Now he brings that ideology to Madrid, a club that desperately needs balance on the pitch and off it.
Building a successful dynasty there, which would require hanging around for more than three seasons, would be an achievement that even his current moniker could not do justice to.
The last true dynasty to be seen at Real Madrid was under Miguel Munoz, the legendary coach who left the club all of 36 years ago. In his 14-year spell on the sidelines between 1960 and 1974, he won nine La Liga titles and two European Cups—a heady achievement.
Since then many managers have won major honours at the Bernabeu, but only Vicente del Bosque—in his 1999-2003 spell; two La Ligas, two Champions Leagues—has come even close to starting a dynasty of his own.
Now the responsibility—it is more than just a job—falls to Mourinho. If anyone has the combination of tactical insight, transfer market intelligence and, perhaps most crucially of all, media savvy required to be a long-term success in the notoriously hostile jungle of Madrid, it is the Special One.
It is the ultimate test for Mourinho to prove he can survive at a big club for more than three years, win more than two league titles, and add at least another European crown. After all, even at 47 he is rapidly running out of top clubs to truly plant some roots at.
As Mourinho noted to reporters this week, "If you don't manage at Real Madrid, there is a space on your CV." But if Mourinho continues not to build a dynasty anywhere, instead floating around bringing brief periods of success in circumstances favourable to him, there will be always be another space in his CV of equal significance.
But the ingredients are all there at the Bernabeu for him to rectify that.
If he does, then he won’t just be a special one—he’ll be a great one.