It was late summer on the coast of Catalonia, 1996. Englishman Sir Bobby Robson had just taken the reins at F.C Barcelona, bringing with him a young Portuguese translator. Standing at just over 5 ft 9”, the diminutive figure of one José Mourinho cast a stern expression over a room filled with Spanish journalists, who joined himself and Sir Bobby for the manager’s first press conference at the Nou Camp. Although seemingly moody from his onlooking countenance, local media and indeed, the footballing world over, would soon come to realise that this was nothing more than a habitual characteristic of Mr Mourinho’s.
In his early years, José was a methodical and articulate character. His general demeanour reflected that of an individual willing to absorb as much information as humanly possible; analysing every and any situation meticulously. His first training session involved meeting the first team players of which one in particular, unbeknownst to Mourinho at the time, would provide the prelude for one of the modern era’s most absorbing rivalries.
Josep Guardiola was truly a man of the city. Having risen up through La Masia’s ranks under the stewardship of none other than Johan Cruyff, the Catalan-born defensive midfielder personified Barcelona’s footballing philosophy. The pair would establish a firm friendship over Mourinho’s four-year stint with the club. Sir Bobby, known for his attacking style would entrust Mourinho to lead defensive sessions with the squad, complementing each other’s approaches to fuse a deadly combination.
Robson would leave the club just a year into the job whilst José chose to stay with new manager Louis van Gaal identifying him as a promising young coach. Mourinho went on to manage Barcelona to the triumphant lifting of the Copa Catalunya in 2000 after van Gaal afforded him licence to coach the side in the competition. Outright managerial spells in his native Portugal and England would follow, bringing him paramount success but it wasn’t until 2009 that the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ would encounter his old ally again.
Guardiola had spent the last year building an empire at his boyhood club. Barcelona won an unprecedented sextuple in his first season in charge and were showing no signs of slowing. Mourinho, now at Inter Milan met his adversary in the Champions League group stages where the San Siro played host to a 0-0 draw. The corresponding fixture brought about a 2-0 victory for Pep’s men before their sides would meet again in the semi-finals. Things turned ugly when Mourinho’s men knocked the defending champions out, besting them 3-2 on aggregate amidst claims a penalty should have been awarded in Barca’s favour. Inter would go on to lift Ol’ Big Ears in a season that saw the Milan club win the treble.
The feud intensified further upon José’s arrival at Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid in 2010. The defining moment of the year came when Madrid were demolished at the Nou Camp, conceding five without reply as Barca swept to victory. Later on in the season, the two teams would contest four fixtures in little over two weeks. It is this fortnight that quintessentially captures the duo’s rivalry with their old friendship souring rapidly.
Madrid would clinch the Copa Del Rey, defeating Barca after which, Pep would sarcastically express his admiration for the linesmen’s collective eyesight for ruling Pedro’s early goal offside. Mourinho responded “Up until now there was a very small group of coaches who didn’t talk about referees and a larger group who did. Now, with Pep’s comments, we have started a new era with a third group, featuring only one person, a man who criticises when he makes good decisions”. With the Portuguese’s sharp tongue finally infuriating Guardiola, he broke his cool persona labelling Mourinho “the fucking boss” of the press room, suggesting that his side were inferior on the pitch. Barcelona went on to knock Madrid out of the Champions League, claiming the European trophy and league title.
Their sides came to loggerheads once again in 2012 during a two-legged contest for the Spanish Super Cup. Mourinho found himself embroiled in controversy after tempers flared in a hostile first tie. The aftermath of the 2-2 draw saw Mourinho poke Barcelona’s assistant manager Tito Vilanova in the eye in a heated ruckus involving players and coaching staff. Many Catalans later claimed his actions were bringing the game into disrepute. Sadly for them, it was Real who would have the last laugh, going on to win La Liga that season with the ‘Special One’ claiming to have broken the Catalan’s dominance.
The pair didn’t meet again until 2013 where both found themselves under new employers. Pep’s Bayern overcame José’s Chelsea on penalties to lift the UEFA Super Cup, Mourinho bitterly remarked that “the best team clearly lost”. Since then it has been a contrast of fortunes between the coaches. Guardiola finds himself at Manchester City having accomplished three consecutive Bundesliga titles whilst Mourinho, now at United endured a hellish third season at Chelsea after winning the Premier League the previous year. Two Manchester Derbies have thus far brought one win a piece with begrudged civilness seemingly the new mantra.
It is a long-standing rivalry between the two, but one that has enticed spectators from across the globe. Whether you align yourself with Guardiola’s slick, attacking brand of football or Mourinho’s psychological, steely defensive masterclasses one thing to take away is that these are two of the greatest managers in the modern era. Fleeting friendships, conflicting ideologies, personality clashes and a whole lot of jaw-dropping football.