In 1996, José Mourinho suddenly became a powerful man. Aged only 33, the unknown Portuguese had come to Barcelona chiefly to translate for the English manager Bobby Robson. However, he fast turned into more than a translator. Mourinho took a duplex in the beach town of Sitges, near Robson’s house, and often talked football with him over dinner, recounts Mourinho’s biographer Patrick Barclay. He wrote dazzling scouting reports, and had one great advantage over his boss: he spoke Spanish. When Robson talked to players or the press, Mourinho interpreted. Many felt he added thoughts of his own.
Barcelona gave Mourinho’s coaching career a lift-off. And yet, when football’s most successful coach returns to town with Inter Milan for Wednesday’s second leg of the Champions League semi-final, he does not come as an old friend. To the contrary: Mourinho is the “anti-Barcelona”, the man who stands for everything that Barça is not – and helps to define the club’s identity.
When he worked at Barcelona few locals had heard of him. Even the club’s president knew him only as “El Traductor”, the translator. Only Barcelona’s coaches and players understood his importance. Mourinho charmed the then captain, Pep Guardiola, and persuaded everyone that he knew football. He was even allowed to coach the team in some friendlies. Barça was arguably the first side he ever managed.
In 2000 he drove out of Sitges almost unnoticed to coach in Portugal. Four years later, Barça fans watching Porto win the Champions League noticed a vaguely familiar face on their television screens: “El Traductor” had become champion of Europe. They also noticed that he had rejected Barcelona’s etiquette. Barça’s motto is “more than a club”: everyone is expected to be subservient to it. But at the press conference after Porto’s victory, Mourinho talked mainly about himself. He seemed to consider himself “more than a club”. Whereas Barcelona prizes elegant humility, Mourinho is shouty.
As a tactician, too, he was the anti-Barcelona. The club’s creed is beautiful football. Mourinho’s was, “It’s not important how we play.” His genius lay in finding and exploiting his opponent’s flaws. As he said: “If you have a Ferrari and I have a small car, to beat you in a race I have to break your wheel or put sugar in your tank.”
When he returned to Barcelona as coach of Chelsea in 2005, he proclaimed that he had already won as many European cups as Barcelona in its history. To show how well he knew Barcelona’s Ferrari, the day before the match he announced Barça’s line-up. He beat Barcelona – chiefly because he had spotted that its then left-back Gio van Bronckhorst couldn’t tackle – and enraged the city. Sociologists like to say that groups define themselves by contrast to some imaginary “other”. For Barcelona, Mourinho had become the “other”.
When Chelsea visited again in 2006, Barcelona fans pounded on the team bus and jeered, “Traductor!” As in all dysfunctional relationships, Mourinho and Barcelona know just how to hurt each other: he regularly beats Barça, and Barça pretends not to respect him. In truth the club fears Mourinho. In 2008 two club officials visited him in Portugal to canvass him about becoming head coach. But Barça finally decided he wasn’t the right man. Instead it appointed his old friend Guardiola.
Before their two teams met for the first leg of the Champions League semi-final in Milan last week, Mourinho put more sugar in Barça’s tank. Inter midfielder Wesley Sneijder says: “His team talk lasted over two hours, spread across two days. He emphasised Barcelona’s strong points, and wanted us to use those to knock them out.” Inter clogged central defence, frustrating Barcelona, and won 3-1.
For decades Real Madrid functioned as Barcelona’s imaginary “other”. Now one little man has usurped Real’s role. On Wednesday, Mourinho should take those cries of “Traductor!” as a covert tribute.