José Mourinho: the Porto years

José Mourinho: the Porto years

The ball looped over a tired Monaco defender into the vacant fields of destiny. Dmitri Alenichev, one of many Porto predators, slithered in pursuit, before pounding it beyond the helpless goalkeeper high into the net with an almighty thud. For a moment time stood still in Gelsenkirchen, only for an explosion of joy to shake the stadium to its core.

This was the third and final goal of a demolition. On the biggest stage of all, a most unlikely Champions League final, Porto were merciless, brutal even. All night long they soaked up pressure, lured their opponents into a false sense of security, then unleashed counter-thrusts of devastating impact. It was the work of men who idolised their visionary leader, and so executed his meticulous plan with rare gusto. It was unlike anything we’d seen before in terms of the desire to achieve a common goal against all wisdom. It was, quite simply, the freshest chapter in the most compelling fairytale modern football had ever spawned.

José Mourinho, the aforementioned leader, had dedicated his life to chasing such moments of euphoria, such spasms of relief as when Alenichev plundered the ball home in the affirmation of victory. From an early age, the Portuguese was possessed of a stoic self-confidence. He yearned for the top, with nary a thought for the improbable odds stacked against him. Mourinho always portrayed an image of control, as if he was the master puppeteer, somehow privy to a superior world of football intelligence. However, in the two years of his Porto reign, success came at such a speed, and with such ease, that even he must have been frightened behind the charismatic veneer.

Big things were expected of Mourinho when he arrived at Porto in 2002. He had little playing experience, but had served an apprenticeship under the finest minds football could muster. First, he was an interpreter to the great Bobby Robson at Sporting, Porto and Barcelona, before blossoming under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal at the Camp Nou.

From Robson he learned about man-management and the need for match-winners in any side. From Van Gaal, he inherited a conscientious style and a belief in using ball possession to anaesthetise a game. From within, he honed an invincible belief. He would become a legend in football.

His image was blighted somewhat by an ill-fated stint as Benfica boss, but club politics impeded his philosophy in Lisbon. Rather, Mourinho’s first real opportunity came at União de Leiria in 2001. When, midway through the season, he steered the nondescript club to third place in the Portuguese top-flight, breaking the traditional axis of power, Mourinho was hand-picked by Porto to be their new boss.

The son of an international goalkeeper, he rode the wave of social freedom in post-revolution Portugal, gaining an education that set him on course for greatness. Even as a kid, the cogs of football strategy whirred in his mind, and he graduated from writing scouting reports for his father’s team to delivering training sessions for the revered Van Gaal. José had a precocious talent and was accorded hype at every turn, but now it was time to deliver. Porto demanded success.

Read  |  José Mourinho: the early years

When Mourinho took over the club was without a domestic title in three years. That constituted crisis for a team conditioned to expect success. Porto famously beat Bayern Munich to win the 1987 European Cup, before Robson catalysed a dynasty that yielded eight league titles in the 90s. Nevertheless, a fallow period around the new millennium saw an upheaval in the hierarchy, with Mourinho drafted in to restore Porto to the realm of global renown.

From the start he was ruthless and brazen. He said Porto had their worst team in two generations, but vowed to win the league in his first full season. The end of the 200/02 campaign was devoted to laying the foundations for a fleeting empire.

Mourinho sought a hungrier style from his players; an English passion mixed with splashes of Portuguese flair. To that end, he scoured the market for cheap players of the requisite skill and character. Maniche, Nuno Valente and Paulo Ferreira were drafted in on imaginative, incentive-laden contracts, as the rebuild began in earnest.

On the training field, Mourinho made immediate and wide-ranging reform. He implemented a more scientific approach, with every drill measured and designed for a particular purpose. Nothing was left to chance. No energy or time was wasted. The approach earned scorn from traditional quarters, but Mourinho was revolutionising the Portuguese game, one alteration at a time.

In a tactical sense, his first major change was to deploy a high, hard press from the front. In Derlei, a discount buy spotted in Brazil, Mourinho had an agile forward who set the tone, pressuring the opposition as the unit of midfield and defence compressed the space in behind, forcing turnovers and sparking lightning-quick breaks.

Costinha, a deep-lying destroyer, was essential to the scheme. He was the conduit of solidity, the link between attack and defence; the insurance policy masquerading as an offensive instigator. He would frequently intercept the ball and shift it to Deco or Maniche, magical playmakers programmed with a killer instinct.

Just as Mourinho promised, Porto won the league in 2003. More accurately, they totally demolished the field, accruing a record points tally and triumphing in the cup for good measure. They also breezed through the early rounds of the UEFA Cup, thrashing Polonia Warsaw, overcoming Austria Wien and beating Lens comfortably. Denizlispor were blown away with energy and fitness that inspired awe. The 8-3 aggregate scoreline sent shockwaves through the competition. Porto were for real.

In Europe, Mourinho preferred a direct cut-and-thrust approach. His doctrine called for Porto to suffocate and strangle to gain dominion, then go for the jugular by any means possible. Perhaps that was a long ball. Perhaps it was a sudden cross to a waiting striker. Perhaps it was a slick through ball aching with beauty. Anything that got the job done. Often there was craziness and chaos in Porto’s play, but an underlying majesty guided its success.

Read  |  How Sir Bobby Robson changed the make-up of modern football

Before the media, Mourinho was arrogant, even surly, as Porto progressed. In a quarter-final clash with Panathinaikos, his side lost the first leg 1-0 at home. However, Derlei scored two in the second leg, his seventh and eighth of the tournament, first forcing extra-time, then winning the tie.

Against Roberto Mancini’s Lazio in a tense semi-final, Porto delivered the first of many truly monumental performances. They went a goal behind in the first leg, played at the Estádio das Antas, before blowing the Italians away. Mourinho was noticeably engrossed in the action as goals from Maniche and Helder Postiga complimented another Derlei brace, but he tried to act cool, even then. The icy facade came down. Remember, he was the master puppeteer. This was all part of the plan.

In a ploy that would be repeated throughout his career, José was the centre of attention, an oozing icon of charisma. That created a buffer zone for his players, which allowed them to get on with the job. There was incredible unity and togetherness at the club, cajoled by Mourinho and his siege mentality. A goalless draw in Rome secured a place in the UEFA Cup final. It really was Porto against the world.

Celtic were the opposition on an evocative night in Seville. Two giants were reawakened, lumped together in a date with destiny. An army of 80,000 fans followed Celtic to Andalusia, vastly outnumbering their Portuguese counterparts. The game was played at a breathless pace, in a memorable atmosphere. Yet a goal wasn’t forthcoming until the very cusp of half-time, when that man Derlei pounced to plunder Porto ahead.

The immortal Henrik Larsson equalised with a looping header shortly after the break, sending the Celtic army into raptures. But Porto wouldn’t die, and their game plan to stifle and then surprise was progressing nicely. On 54 minutes, Deco provided the touch of magic Mourinho had been waiting for. He twinkled through midfield before threading a ball to Alenichev, who finished smartly. It was the moment we knew Deco, this wonderful maverick, and Porto, this raging bull.

But, quite remarkably, it wasn’t the moment a champion was crowned. Somewhat improbably, Larsson levelled matters once again just three minutes later. The tempo didn’t drop but the deadlock couldn’t be broken. In extra-time, Bobo Baldé was sent off for Celtic as the tension peaked. The watching masses simply didn’t know what to expect next.

Where these games typically trickled to penalties, Porto intervened. Where other teams would have accepted their fate, Porto demanded more. Where other coaches shut up shop, Mourinho seized the moment. With five minutes remaining, Porto reached out, believed in themselves, and grabbed a slice of history. One more raking pass into the box caused panic and Derlei, that archetypal predator, rammed the ball home.

Read  |  How Didier Deschamps led Monaco to the 2004 Champions League final on the brink of financial ruin

The whole team collapsed in a heap of joy. They had done it. Celtic had neither the time nor the energy to respond. Valente was dismissed with seconds remaining but Porto held on, carving their name into the record books once more. It was a triumph of human hunger and communal discipline. It was an achievement deserving of the utmost praise. It was just the beginning.

Asked in the immediate aftermath of the trophy celebration how Porto would fare in the subsequent Champions League campaign, Mourinho was pragmatic. “We can do some nice things,” he said. “But I don’t think we can win it. Only the sharks who can afford to spend 20, 30 or even 40 million euros on one player can do that.”

José didn’t make a splash in the transfer market that summer. Instead, he chose to believe in the spirit and mentality of the squad that went to battle and executed his vision almost like soldiers loyal to a dictator. Mourinho spurned an offer to manage Paris Saint-Germain and quietly began plotting the next steps for his nascent juggernaut.

In the 70th Primera Liga season, he steered Porto to their 20th title. They conceded just 19 goals all season and finished eight points ahead of Benfica. Derlei was joined by Benni McCarthy, who grasped the opportunity of more playing time by scoring 20 goals. Porto lost to AC Milan in the UEFA Super Cup and Benfica in the domestic trophy, but greater glory lay around the corner.

Nobody expected them to win the Champions League. Very few of their players had any tangible experience in the competition, and their financial disadvantage was stark. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s men emerged from a group containing Real Madrid, Marseille and Partizan Belgrade to the surprise of many. A draw in the Bernabéu – against Casillas and Zidane, Raúl and Ronaldo, Figo and Beckham – galvanised Porto. Contrary to all logic, they were brimming with confidence, instilled by their maverick coach, as the knockout rounds began.

In the round of 16, they faced the mighty Manchester United. Over two legs, this figured to be the end for Porto. Surely Sir Alex Ferguson would teach the young neophyte a thing or two. When Quinton Fortune gave United an early lead at Porto’s palatial new home, the Estádio do Dragão, a sense of inevitability surfaced. Porto, once again, dug deep to find new reserves of determination. McCarthy rifled home an equaliser before scoring again with 12 minutes remaining. And thus, Porto cradled a 2-1 lead heading back to Manchester in quite incredible fashion.

The second leg, played before a partisan throng of 67,000 at Old Trafford, was the moment of fate for Mourinho. Against a chorus of doubt, he wrote one of the most memorable tales in the odyssey of modern football. When the world said he couldn’t, the Portuguese produced another miracle that left neutrals agog.

Paul Scholes scored after 32 minutes, nudging United ahead on the away goals rule. The midfield maestro later scored again, only for the effort to be chalked off controversially for offside. Perhaps that would have killed the game. Nevertheless, Porto still looked doomed as the score-line remained unchanged until the dying embers of a stormy game. Then, it happened.

Read  |  José Mourinho and the dark triad at Real Madrid

In the 91st minute, a McCarthy free-kick represented one last opportunity for Porto. When goalkeeper Tim Howard scrambled and made a mess of the effort, time was once again halted. The ball was parried back into the six-yard box where Costinha, that stunning opportunist, crashed it into the net while slipping on the turf. There was an audible gasp from the Old Trafford chorus in a second of traumatic calm, before a paroxysm of joy transformed this into a truly iconic moment.

From the depths of despair, the game was won. Goliath had been felled. The Porto players gathered in a heap, tears of jubilation bubbling beneath the surface. Mourinho screeched down the touchline of a sacrosanct footballing amphitheatre, a gyrating ball of relieved iconoclasm. It was the Big Bang moment for a beautiful football mind as his team came of age against a genuine giant.

Mourinho offered a succinct comment that encapsulated the moment, and distilled its multi-faceted bliss into one stunning thought: “My team were out after 90 minutes, and in the quarter-finals after 91.” The dream continued.

Next, Lyon were dispatched in clinical fashion, 2-0 in Portugal and 2-2 in France. The world began to analyse just how Mourinho was achieving such success. It was clear that, while not necessarily a tactical innovator, he was a great enabler of team spirit, a tremendous mobiliser of human belief. His man-management skills were without equal in the modern game. In turn, his team was so well drilled and cohesive that it resembled clockwork. They were programmed for glory.

Though underestimated in the pantheon of Mourinho masterclasses, the two-legged semi-final against Deportivo was perhaps the first example of his meticulous, legendary approach to truly gargantuan matches. Of course, the UEFA Cup final was huge, as was the clash with United. But this was different. The reward for victory was exceptional, and thus Mourinho was driven to new levels of preparation.

He fostered a remarkable unity, planned for the bigger picture and covered all eventualities. Therefore, where many saw a dull goalless draw in the first leg at home, Mourinho saw the successful implementation of a strategy where the opposition was nullified, and in which no away goal was conceded.

Unlike many before him, Jose backed his players – and his vision – to win in the Riazor, Deportivo’s fortress home ground. Milan, the reigning champions, were thumped there in the quarter-finals, but Mourinho had total faith in his own ability. Costinha shackled Juan Carlos Valerón, stopping the Deportivo threat at source in a favourite Mourinho ploy. The game was duly nullified and the scene was duly set for a potent smash-and-grab act. It came after an hour when Deco was fouled in the box and Derlei scored the resultant penalty for a critical away goal.

Read  |  Deco: the understated master of his time

Just like that, after weeks of tinkering in his tactical laboratory, Mourinho had Deportivo in a world of pain, needing two goals in 30 minutes against a robust defence and complimentary midfield. That defence held firm and Porto secured safe passage to the Champions League final. Idealism morphed into reality.

Monaco upset Chelsea in the other semi, setting up an unlikely final in Gelsenkirchen. Under Didier Deschamps they had a dynamic team, with burgeoning stars such as Patrice Evra and Fernando Morientes in fine form. However, it all revolved around Ludovic Giuly, the diminutive straw that stirred the drink. He was injured in the build-up to the final but did manage to start the game. With ceaseless imagination, he floated in and out of space, creating danger even when standing still. But, after just 22 minutes, he was forced off with an injury to the midriff, and the entire game was turned on its head.

By default, the first part of Mourinho’s plan had been accomplished. Without Giuly, Monaco were restricted as an attacking force. This afforded Porto greater attacking freedom, which they used to devastating effect. Six minutes before half-time, Carlos Alberto engineered half a yard of space and stabbed the ball into the top corner.

Then, with 73 minutes elapsed and the game becoming ragged, Porto worked an ominous three-on-three scenario. The ball was pulled back to Deco who wrong-footed goalkeeper Flávio Roma with a sumptuous finish; the finish of an inspired maestro thinking in a language unattainable by mere mortals.

Just four minutes later Alenichev raced clear to cap it all off with a killer third goal. Monaco were caught upfield and Porto’s instinct to keep thrashing away drove them into the copious space. A ball over the top sat up nicely for Alenichev who fairly thwacked it home, high into the roof of the net. It was a fitting exclamation point to a wonderful ballad.

The final whistle catalysed a storm of celebration on the field. For the large part, Mourinho was understated. He kissed the famous trophy and held it aloft, but there was a relaxed edge to his demeanour. Finally, he could switch off. The job was complete. There was nothing left to grind his mind or gnash his teeth for at Porto. He plotted the route. He led the journey. It was sweet, but it was already over. A new challenge was needed.

Of course, he went on to achieve great things with Chelsea, and even greater things at Internazionale, before joining Real Madrid and returning to England. A slew of trophies followed, including another Champions League crown in 2010, as his status soared. But no matter what he achieved, or what lies ahead, it can all be traced back to one club, one era, and one dream.

FC Porto was the cradle of a visionary manager who tricked the boundaries of possibility with a simple ideology executed better than ever before. It was the starting point, the genesis. And nothing can ever change the miracles that followed.

By Ryan Ferguson @RyanFergusonHQ

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