Chapter 3 of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator

Chapter 3: El Traductor

Jose-Mourinho-BookHaving left Sporting holding top spot in the Primeira Liga when he departed, Sir Bobby Robson could hold his head up high and was snapped up by Porto in the summer of 1994. The Englishman had not seen the offer coming and had originally planned to follow the final leg of England’s cricket tour of the West Indies in April. With the Porto deal in place, the dedicated Robson cancelled his trip to the Caribbean and, tellingly, rather than bringing Manuel Fernandes with him to the Estádio das Antas as his assistant, he took Mourinho. Tami, meanwhile, was to stay in Setúbal and was soon to expect the couple’s first child, Matilde Jr.

There was still confusion about Mourinho’s exact role amongst those inside the club, with rumours of Mourinho being the most expensive interpreter in Portuguese football on £35,000 per year. However, the scouting dossiers Mourinho compiled were invaluable and Robson – who had worked with the eyes and ears of the likes of Dave Sexton and Howard Wilkinson previously – rated them as the best he had ever seen.

Mourinho was to take the art of compiling scouting dossiers to a whole new level and to put this into context, Nigel Worthington – who played under Wilkinson for six years at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds – told me about the preparation of a typical Wilkinson report: “Howard Wilkinson’s scouting dossiers had everything planned to the most minute detail. Whether he was looking at an opposition player or planning pre-match tactical reports, he probably covered both instances a minimum of four or five times both home and away. This was to make sure of the performance by both the player and the team, and to see if there were any discrepancies.”

Russell Latapy, who played under Robson and Mourinho at Porto between 1994 and 1996, gave me a breakdown of Mourinho’s scouting dossiers: “We always, and I mean always, had all the information to win the game against the other team. We knew, for example, if there was a right-footed player playing left-back; if the centre forward had a tendency to go in behind or drop deep; and what was the player’s strongest foot. We knew exactly how the other team played and that made it a lot easier, in terms of one v one battles on the field.”

* * *

Without the medium of Manuel Fernandes, Mourinho and Robson’s complimentary styles began to blossom and, as a result, their bond strengthened in Robson’s eyes: “The more time we spent together, the more we liked each other. Somehow, our talents and personalities interlocked.” This was partly why Robson signed the then 16-year-old upstart, André Villas-Boas, to Porto’s observation department as he saw the same enthusiasm, attention to detail, and daring that Mourinho had displayed. After all, Villas-Boas, infamously, had the audacity to question Robson’s persistence with the misfiring Sergei Yuran, instead of Domingos Paciência, after realising that the Englishman lived in his apartment block at Rua Tenente Valadim.

It was not just Mourinho and Villas-Boas who were feeling Robson’s influence and under the Englishman’s guidance, Porto were to enjoy landmark success. As well as hoisting the 1994 Taça de Portugal, Porto won the 1994–95 and 1995–96 Primeira Liga titles. With Robson’s free-flowing football and the all-out attacking trident of Domingos, António Folha and Edmilson, it came as little surprise that the Englishman’s reputation as one of the continent’s greatest managers was restored. The Portuguese press even awarded him a double-meaning nickname, Bobby 5-0. As well as this being a reference to the numerous high-scoring results Robson achieved with Porto, it was also a jibe at Robson’s cautious predecessor, Tomaslav Ivić, who often played with five defenders.

Latapy gave his take on the success of the Robson/Mourinho partnership at Porto: “It was a fantastic time. At the time, you were talking about one of the real legends of world football. I really learnt a lot from Sir Bobby. Just the simple things in the games, you know: control, passing, maintaining a really high concentration level, and the will to win. Every day in training he was focused on that desire to do well and to win. More importantly, for me, it was the values he gave to the team: to respect the game and everything that comes along with it.

“We played on a Saturday, so on a Thursday, for example, we would only train for 75 minutes. Then, Bobby would take all the balls off the pitch and get all the players off the pitch. I don’t know if it was because we had so many games to play; we were playing in so many competitions: the Champions League, the cup, and the league. Maybe he wanted to keep us fresh for matchday, but the players, actually, wanted to do more – he was holding us back!

“It was in the early days of Mourinho’s career that I met him. At that time, I didn’t speak Portuguese too well and Mourinho was the link between the coaching staff and players. That was the thing that really caught my eye at the time. It was really easy for him to intermingle between the two sets… He was on the training pitch and close to Bobby, passing on the messages that Bobby wanted to relay. He was always there, hands-on, on the pitch and getting involved. It was really easy to speak to him and to get my point across and, also, for the coaches to get their view across. He got on really well with the players. He would even go out with our families for meals; the players trusted in him.

“This is my take on his translations, especially since I speak Portuguese a lot better now. There are certain things that get lost in translation. Sir Bobby wanted to get a certain message across and it’s difficult, at times, to translate word-for-word. Mourinho understood the message that Bobby was trying to get over and he was able to explain this message perfectly to get the desired message over.

“It would be difficult to say that I saw something in him that would put him up there with the world’s greatest coaches. In all honesty, at the time, you couldn’t see it. What I would say, though, is that you could tell, straightaway, that he was a very organised and very good coach. He wanted to get things done. He had a way of getting his philosophy over to the players, and the players were really close to him and liked working for him. But, becoming one of the best coaches in the world, obviously, is a lot of hard work and you need that element of luck – which he has had along the way. In saying that, you need also time and he’s had that too, in most of the jobs he has taken.”

* * *

Tragedy was to overshadow every club Robson and Mourinho were to work together at. On 28 August, 1994, 26-year-old central midfielder Rui Filipe was killed in a car accident. Filipe was a Portuguese international and was one of the team’s most influential playmakers. Having barely recovered from his guilt over Serhiy Scherbakov’s paralysis, Robson was inconsolable for days and the Englishman played a pivotal role in Porto’s immediate decision to erect a bust memorial of Filipe outside the Estádio das Antas. Poignantly, each day from then on in, Robson was to place his hand on the head of the bust on his way to work.

Latapy reflected on that early period of both his, and Robson’s, career at Porto: “I remember it perfectly, because I had just arrived at the club. Rui Filipe, at the time, was an established player at the club and these were the players you had to compete with if you wanted to play in the team. Obviously, as a young player, you paid particular attention to what guys like him did on the pitch. You needed to learn from the established players if you wanted to become an established player yourself. But, yes, it did have a great effect – not only the technical staff but all the players as well… One of the strengths of Porto is the camaraderie, the teamwork – they fight for each other. The players are not only colleagues on the pitch, they are friends off the field too. The players live as a family.”

 * * *

Amid his renewed popularity, Arsenal were the first to approach Robson, to replace George Graham in February 1995. However, Porto’s affable president, Pinto da Costa, begged the Englishman to stay. Robson remained, but after establishing Porto as one of the most attractive football teams on the continent, he was headhunted by Barcelona to replace Johan Cruyff in the spring of 1996. Such was Mourinho’s importance to Robson, the Portuguese became heavily involved in the discussions and even travelled to Barcelona to discuss terms. Having driven Robson to Barcelona and then back to Porto at 2am in his Suzuki Vitara, Mourinho planned to continue the extra 350km to reach the heavily-pregnant Tami in Setúbal. The journey provided a lucky escape for Mourinho, with the Portuguese falling asleep at the wheel but only splitting his head open in the resulting crash.

Again, Mourinho followed Robson and such was his understanding of the delicate culture of Barcelona and the importance of their cantera, he even learnt Catalan in preparation. Still, replacing an icon like Johan Cruyff was never going to be easy for Robson, with the Englishman even acknowledging Cruyff’s standing as Barcelona’s most groundbreaking manager of all-time in his opening speech to the squad. Ernesto Valverde, who played under Cruyff at Barcelona between 1988 and 1990, told me about the scale of the challenge that awaited Robson: “Apart from pre-season, we always trained with the ball in reduced spaces. Cruyff also restored our threat in set plays and we constantly practiced them until we dominated them completely. He was so dedicated: [his assistant] Charly Rexach and him participated in ball possession drills and even in short matches. That was a problem because even though they weren’t as strong as us physically, they played better than we did on some occasions!

“In the beginning it was difficult to adjust to his philosophy, because he was very daring and the players were not used to playing with three defenders and lots of space at the back. It demanded absolute game control and sometimes this was not possible. With time, everything was far better as everybody knows.

“Cruyff was always very demanding with his players. He wanted absolute perfection in all the training sessions, in each and every pass; he didn’t allow mistakes. He forced us to be at our best in every match… Football training methods have not been the same since he arrived and we owe him a great deal for the evolution of football in Spain. I consider myself quite lucky to have been there at that moment. I learned what it meant to play for a great team such as Barça, whose only objective is winning match after match and relishing the pressure that entails.”

So, even though Cruyff’s son, Jordi, assured Robson that there would be no hard feelings and that he would be happy to play for him, Mourinho felt otherwise. Despite the Dutchman’s placidness, Mourinho advised Robson to sell Cruyff to Manchester United and curb any danger of a mole or a dressing room mutiny. Mourinho would even attend negotiations with Sir Alex Ferguson, Martin Edwards, and Maurice Watkins when Manchester United’s delegation visited Barcelona.

Robson was later thankful for Mourinho’s gut instinct: “Jordi would have gone back home and his Dad would have asked him what happened at the club… and if a story had leaked from the dressing room, he would have been seen, unfairly or not, as the prime suspect. It would have been a no-win situation, for if I hadn’t picked him, it would have been seen as me getting back at his father and I couldn’t let people think that way. Even though it wouldn’t have been true, it would have been manna from heaven for the anti-Robson, anti-Barcelona brigade.”

So, although Robson certainly took Mourinho with him for professional reasons – with the duo spending hour upon hour honing a hybrid of Robson’s trademark attacking instincts with Mourinho’s blossoming defensive nous – there was a clear affinity between the pair as well. Regardless of a 30-year age gap, it was, after all, Robson who taught Mourinho that there was more to life than winning: “I always remember with a little smile that after I was upset after a defeat, he said, ‘Don’t be sad because in the other dressing room, someone is bouncing around with happiness.’” Also, both the Mourinhos and the Robsons lived in the same apartment complex in Sitges, which was the perfect seaside getaway from the intense pressures of life at the Nou Camp. The couples would spend many an evening at the Mourinhos’ apartment, with Tami bonding over cooking with Robson’s wife, Elsie, and Mourinho and Robson sharing a passion for Anthony Hopkins’ films.

Mourinho’s role and influence was growing and during pre-season in 1996, he took centre stage as El Traductor (the translator). Mourinho gave eloquence and nuance to Robson’s trademark short answers, and a clear shift had taken place since 1992. Santi Giménez of AS newspaper remarked that, “It was immediately obvious that Mourinho couldn’t translate because he had such strong opinions of his own.” Realising that Mourinho had worked with Robson before and was far from an agency-hired translator, Giménez mischievously asked Robson in broken English if Mourinho was his boyfriend. In a remarkably similar precedent to Zlatan Ibrahimović facing the same question regarding Gerard Piqué at Barcelona in 2010, a markedly confident Mourinho’s reply was: “Bring your sister along and we can find out if that’s true.” Remarkably, though, in contrast to some 15 years later, Mourinho enjoyed a positive relationship with the Spanish press and even liaised with them during social occasions.

Still, around the corner, yet another tragedy was to strengthen Robson and Mourinho’s friendship even further. Mourinho’s cherished, and only, sibling, Teresa, died from diabetic septicaemia in 1997 – epitomising the circle of life, just under a year after the birth of Mourinho’s first child, Matilde Jr. Having his family and Robson so close, somehow, helped to carve Mourinho’s incredible, and now trademark, mental strength and focus on the task at hand. So, while the Barcelona hero, José Ramón Alexanko, was Robson’s official assistant, the Englishman fought desperately for Mourinho’s appointment; in the words of Barcelona’s then vice-president, Joan Gaspart: “[President] Núñez told Robson that in no way would he hire a translator, when he [Robson] already had a home aide, and at his insistence, Núñez offered Mourinho only 10,000 pesetas a month. He [Mourinho] stayed for free at my hotel room, the Arenas, because he barely had enough money to live. When he proved that he was more than a translator, Núñez raised the salary and searched for an apartment for him.”

Reflecting his newly-appreciated skills, Mourinho was put on a whopping £300,000 annual salary as Robson’s El Traductor. With a greater platform and budget – which was clearly evident in Robson’s world-record signing of Ronaldo for $17 million – Mourinho, too, benefited: compiling then revolutionary and carefully edited individual video dossiers on opponents for each member of the squad. Samuel Okunowo, who would go on to join Barcelona in 1998, told me about a typical Mourinho report: “The reports were great. Mourinho would tell us about individual players and how they played. So, when we played, he didn’t have to point things out – it was second-nature. We knew multiple things about the player: what he can do and how to get at him. That’s what he was always after.”

These incredibly modern methods complimented Robson’s old-school coaching – which included writing tactics in chalk on the dressing room floor and being known as Grandad Miquel by his players – brilliantly. Laurent Blanc, then entering the peak of his career at 30 years of age, was among those to appreciate Mourinho’s homework and Mourinho was unfazed when dealing with such illustrious names. After all, rather than lecturing these stars,Mourinho preferred the guided discovery method, whereby the said player would make a suggestion about a given drill and his observations would be compared to Mourinho’s. The duo would then ‘discover’ a compromise. In fact, the Portuguese even quibbled with Ronaldo on one occasion: “It’s no good scoring a wonder goal and then spending the other 89 minutes sleeping.”

This would offer a telling precedent ahead of Mourinho’s coaching of flair players years later and, according to Robson, the Portuguese went down well with the players: “Ronaldo, among others, took to José quite quickly. So, if a player was left out, he [the player] blamed me, not José. I had to keep a distance from the players, as a manager does. José could cross over that line and come back again.” One of those players was Pep Guardiola, the former Nou Camp ballboy, who graduated from La Masia under Cruyff in 1990.

A fans’ favourite, as a Catalan icon and one of the world’s best deep-lying midfielders, there was little evidence that Mourinho and Guardiola were soon to endure one of the bitterest managerial rivalries in football. In fact, after Barcelona defeated Paris Saint-Germain in the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup final, the first player Mourinho hugged was Guardiola. The Catalan, though, was quick to downplay the significance of this in 2011: “We did talk about things when we both had doubts and we would exchange ideas, but I don’t remember it as something which defined our relationship. He was Mr Robson’s assistant and I was a player.”

Samuel Okunowo believed there was nothing prophetic about Guardiola’s early relationship with Mourinho: “When Mourinho and Guardiola were at the Nou Camp, everything between them was respectful… I’m not surprised that Guardiola went on to become the manager that he did. When we played together, he was just like a coach on the pitch and Mourinho recognised that. They‘played’ together. Mourinho understood Guardiola’s importance, as the club’s captain. You have to respect your captain and huddle together to get their opinion and insight. There didn’t seem any problems between them but when they became managers, of course, everything changed: Mourinho had his system, Guardiola had his.”

If Mourinho’s bond with Guardiola was shocking in hindsight, so, too, was his relationship with Barcelona’s fans. There were two prime examples of this in 1996-97. When Barcelona played Athletic Bilbao at the San Mamés on 26 November, 1996, Mourinho managed to get under the skin of Bilbao’s spiky coach, Luis Fernández. The Frenchman believed Mourinho was influencing refereeing decisions by constantly leaving the technical area and Fernández “warned the second coach, who I don’t know, that the San Mamés dugouts are close together.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, the pair clashed on the touchline when Fernández made a beeline for Robson.

Having memorably broken down in tears after Barça recovered from 0-3 down to defeat Atlético Madrid 5-4 in an astonishing second-half comeback four months later, the cult of El Traductor had been established. Unsurprisingly, therefore – with thousands of Culés cheering his name during Barcelona’s open-air civic reception after the 3-2 victory in the Copa del Rey final against Real Betis on 28 June, 1997 – Mourinho declared in Catalan: “Today, tomorrow, always with Barcelona in my heart.”

It was to prove the last time Mourinho was to share the stage with Robson.

José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator is available from Amazon via paperback and Kindle, and Dubray Books in Ireland.

The Author

Ciaran Kelly

Sports writer and author of José Mourinho: The Rise of the Translator, featuring exclusive interviews with key figures not synonymous with the traditional Mourinho narrative and Johan Cruyff: The Total Voetballer, an ebook which peaked in the Top 40 of Amazon's top 100 Sports Books' chart. I have also written for Britain best selling football magazine, FourFourTwo and other British publications. I am a fully qualified reporter with an NCTJ Diploma in Journalism and a Masters degree in Sports Journalism from St. Mary's University, London.

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