'Great Ability' but 'A Bit Lazy': Remembering Jose Mourinho's Playing Days

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IMarch 6, 2020

B/R

"Does anyone know what position Jose Mourinho played? So don't blame me if you don't know. Don't say, 'Klopp has no clue.' I think he was a goalkeeper."

When Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was asked who was the better player between him and Tottenham Hotspur boss Mourinho earlier in January, the German struggled to come up with a proper response. In fact, he looked so genuinely intrigued as to which role his Portuguese counterpart used to fulfil in his playing days that he asked journalists to do the one thing everybody usually does in such circumstances.

"Come on. I want to know it now. Google it!" Klopp hilariously reacted while hearing the press officer saying they had no time for that.

"I have time!" he insisted.

Eventually, after a quick Google search, the German was told that Mourinho was a midfielder, not a goalkeeper.

The mistake likely comes from the fact that Mourinho's father, Mourinho Felix, was a talented keeper who even won an international cap for Portugal. 

Jose failed to reach the same heights as his main mentor. In truth, on the pitch, he was anything but the "Special One."

Whereas the 57-year-old might be now recognised everywhere he goes, Ze (diminutive for Jose) Mario never came close to enjoying the same popularity.

Often deemed too skinny, the young attacking midfielder from Setubal wore the No. 10 for a brief time at senior level, but he struggled to make a name for himself. He managed just one appearance for a Portuguese top-flight club while working under his father with Rio Ave in the 1981-82 season.

Having realised he had no future in the game, he then decided to retire at the age of 24 and embark on a coaching career.

Even though it's rarely brought up, that decision became a bit of a burden for him. It has been used by opposing managers as a stick to beat him with during public clashes.

"He has won [trophies], and I congratulate him for that, but before he won them, I had already done that as a player. Perhaps this is a big frustration for him because he will never be the kind of player I was," former Porto legend Jaime Pacheco said in a famous press conference in 2007.

Others, like Inter Milan boss Antonio Conte, have raised the same point, too. In a not so subtle dig after a stormy clash between his Chelsea side and Mourinho's Manchester United in 2016, Conte told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia): "I was a football player, so I know how to behave on the pitch."

Conte and Mourinho
Conte and MourinhoOLI SCARFF/Getty Images

Such wars of words seem a world apart from the little media attention Mourinho received in his playing days—which appears to have amounted to a three-question interview and little else.

One day, though, might fondly spring back into Mourinho's mind when he remembers those early struggles as a player.

The date was November 7, 1982, and torrential rains had left Portugal under water, with winds over 100 kilometres per hour reported from numerous cities.

Out of 64 Portuguese Cup games taking place that weekend, one had to be suspended, while seven others were interrupted because of the weather. 

However, in Lisbon, 3,000 brave fans went to the Restelo stadium to watch the home side, Belenenses, (then a second-tier outfit) take on Vila Franca do Campo, a semi-amateur outfit from the Azores islands.

With the score 8-0 at half-time, Belenenses coach Felix Mourinho substituted Portugal international Djao and handed his son Ze Mario a chance to impress the crowd. He didn't let them down.

The 19-year-old went on to score in the 48th minute, before doubling his tally 10 minutes from time and bagging his third goal eight minutes later. Ultimately, the match ended 17-0 to the hosts, which remains their biggest-ever win in the tournament.

But perhaps more significantly, it went down as the day Mourinho netted a hat-trick in a senior game.

"He must have learned to swim that weekend; it was raining a lot and he did very well. It was a pleasure to play by his side—he had an excellent control of the ball and the skills to beat defenders in one-on-one situations. We were a very young team, full of ambition and energy," Djao tells Bleacher Report.

Unlike the widespread assumption that Mourinho had no talent whatsoever, the potential, his old team-mates say, was there; he just lacked the hunger and desire to take it to another level.

"He was an attacking midfielder, usually playing behind the target man. He had great ability, but what may have held him back is that he already had his life sorted in a way at the time—his mother was a teacher, his father, a coach," former centre-back Baltemar Brito, who worked as his assistant manager at Uniao de Leiria, Porto and Chelsea, explains to B/R.

"Our impression was that football was like a hobby for him.

"Although he enjoyed playing it, he was a bit lazy, he didn't work as hard as he should have done physically. He did what he had to do and that was it. He didn't go the extra mile.

"He wanted the easy life, to have the ball at his feet; he was not willing to go to war for that. Perhaps, this is what stopped him from being a better footballer."

Jose Mourinho the manager says he would have sold Jose Mourinho the player.

The pair featured together at Rio Ave in 1981-82, when Mourinho senior led the northern club to their best-ever campaign in the Portuguese league, finishing fifth. After that, Felix was even considered for the national team's leading role.

One of the brightest youngsters coming through the ranks at Rio Ave back then was defensive midfielder Joao Eusebio, almost the same age as Ze Mario.

"In my opinion, he was above average as a midfielder. He had a good pass in him, was able to get out of pressure, could read the game very well, but he wasn't particularly fast. We can possibly say that he was a thinker. He had his own playing style," Eusebio tells B/R.

"His biggest problem was a lack of competitiveness. He didn't have that passion required to become a footballer. He seemed to have a different purpose than everyone else."

Instead, it quickly became clear that Mourinho had his eyes on a coaching career.

Having graduated from high school in 1981, he tried to get into university right away to study physical education, but he was denied enrollment because he had failed math. He then decided to follow his father at Rio Ave and make the best out of that field experience.

It didn't take long until his peers realised that he was more than just the coach's son.

Despite his tender age, he actually exerted some influence on his father's work and was even seen as an informal assistant.

As a coach Mourinho has won the trophies he never came close to as a player
As a coach Mourinho has won the trophies he never came close to as a playerADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

"Whenever we noticed something unusual in our training routine, we usually said that it was Ze, not Mr Felix, who had brought it in. It was obvious from the very beginning that he had a special interest in this aspect of the game," Eusebio says.

Brito adds: "I don't think he came to Vila do Conde to play, but rather to spend some time at a Portuguese league club, have this experience and also kill some time while his university plans were on hold. He wasn't there to fight for a place in the team—he didn't have that ambition."

"A while later, talking to him about those days, he told me that he used to travel to watch opponent sides and produce scouting reports."

In other circumstances, Mourinho's role may have caused a stir in the squad, but at Rio Ave, it was never an issue.

"I actually appreciated what he did because in a revolutionary move for the time, I would dare to say, he helped change things for better inside the dressing room, especially for the youngsters," Eusebio recalls. 

"Back then, it was sort of a tradition: We had to clean the boots of senior team-mates, for example. He was one of the first to question this.

"He's a born leader and we all knew he meant well. He respected everyone, had a nice sense of humor, never acted as if he were in a higher position than anybody else."

It was not like Mourinho had to skip training to compile dossiers about the opposing sides, either. 

Essentially, he was just a reserve team member, playing every Wednesday afternoon on a grassless pitch that didn't make his role as a No. 10 any easier. 

Despite the poor conditions, he still managed to thrive in these lower-quality games at the Campo da Avenida stadium, which is no longer used by Rio Ave.

Alongside experienced striker Mario Reis, who was in his last season as a player, he formed a duo that is believed to have registered around 100 goals that campaign, primarily against youth sides.

"Mourinho bagged a lot of goals for the reserves. He netted 47 times while Mario Reis scored a bit more, perhaps 49, 50—these were more or less the figures," Brito remembers.

"He was always asking for the ball. When we didn't pass it to him, he moaned a lot—he was a bit annoying on the field."

As outstanding as his goalscoring record was, he found it difficult to break through to Rio Ave's first team, having to wait until December 19, 1981, to make his only appearance for a Portuguese top-flight side.

That day, he came off the bench during extra-time in a 2-1 Portuguese Cup win over Salgueiros.

At the end of the game, he even spoke to Jornal de Noticias newspaper in a short interview, in which he explained his decision to not follow in his father's footsteps as a goalkeeper. And in a move more familiar to modern football fans, he even managed to complain about the referee.

Mourinho nearly got to showcase his talent in a Portuguese league tie against Sporting away at the Alvalade stadium, too, but that dream never materialised.

Despite the 7-1 thrashing in a match that saw the Lisbon giants celebrate the title with their fans, the scoreline was not the only talking point after the final whistle. 

Instead, a heated argument that had taken place in Rio Ave's dressing room before kick-off also drew attention.

With the injury of centre-back Filipe Figueiredo during the warm-up, coach Felix Mourinho was short of players to fill the bench and turned to his son Ze Mario, who was already planning to watch from the stands.

As soon as he heard about it, though, president Jose Maria Pinho went straight to the changing room and forbade Felix from putting his son in the game.

"That was a ridiculous attitude because we had had a fantastic season, we all worked hard, we were like family, so it was a shock to everyone. We obviously lost concentration after that and didn't play well. We felt for Mourinho, but even more for his father," Brito recalls.

"We had finished warming up and returned to the dressing room when the president showed up and said in front of everyone, 'Ze Mario, you can't be here, remove your kit and leave.' It was a horrible situation—we didn't know how to react. 

"In the end, [Jose] Mourinho stood up and shouted, 'There's no need for all this, I'm out. Go f--k yourself.' He changed clothes and left us. There was complete silence as he walked out."

Instead of having five subs on the bench that day, Felix Mourinho had just four by his side. Ze Mario was the missing piece.

That was the occasion when Mourinho promised himself that he would never be humiliated like that again.

In the following season, he moved to Belenenses with his father, playing afterwards at semi-amateur clubs Sesimbra and Comercio e Industria, this time at centre-back, before finally retiring in the third division in 1987 to pursue a coaching career.

The rest is history—two Champions Leagues, eight league titles, cup wins for five different clubs in four different countries. It is as a coach that Mourinho has truly left his mark on the game. 

You certainly don't need Google to tell you he is one of the greatest managers of all time. 

                   

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves