MADRID (AP) — Jose Mourinho said he was the "Special One." Now, we believe him.
Soccer's Mr. Fix-it can argue he is the best club manager in Europe after turning two teams in two different countries into continental champions. He is definitely the most sought-after.
Winning the Champions League once, as he did with Porto in 2004, could always have been called a fluke. But twice is undeniably a winning habit. Habits like that don't come cheap.
Inter Milan was a basket case before Mourinho rode to its rescue, collecting Italian championships but unable to win another European cup. Having ended Inter's 45-year wait, Mourinho can name his price. Europe's richest club, Real Madrid, is the next underperformimg outfit lining up with its wallet wide open.
Mourinho should be an easy woo. No sooner had he become only the third manager to win the biggest prize in club soccer with two different teams, he said he wanted to become the first to do it with three. Should Mourinho decide that Real is next, and all the signs suggest that he will, it is not hard to imagine him leading the Spanish giants to the Champions League final as early as next year. He really is that good.
Real haven't won it since 2002 — an eternity at a club of such huge means and ambitions. To rub salt in the wound, archrival Barcelona has won twice in the past five years. If Real president Florentino Perez doesn't already have Mourinho's number on speed-dial, he likely soon will. Mourinho says the two of them will talk on Monday, when Inter fans will still be nursing their hangovers.
"Real Madrid seems like a club that wants to win big titles," Mourinho said as Saturday became Sunday, with the party in Milan in full swing. "But winning big titles isn't just about the jersey you wear and it's not just about money — it's about personality and working together."
At Chelsea, Mourinho showed that he can manage big stars on big salaries with big egos. Mourinho's magic recipe of discipline, teamwork and millimetered attention to detail could help Real stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and others to jell into a coherent and consistent squad, instead of being just an expensive collection of big names who sometimes go AWOL at the wrong times — as they did in losing to French side Lyon in the Champions League this season.
Players Mourinho has worked with sing his praises — about the way he prepares them mentally and tactically for big games, how he makes sure that each and every one of them know exactly what to do, about his knack for finding the right words to stoke their confidence. Temperamental striker Didier Drogba wept when Mourinho left Chelsea.
And even in the heat of battle on Saturday night, Bayern's Arjen Robben paid Mourinho the compliment of exchanging a playful head butt with the Inter manager, a reminder of their time together at Chelsea.
One could not picture the Dutch winger daring to do that with his own coach, Bayern's sour Louis van Gaal. Like a suited cave troll, van Gaal spent the final mostly hunkered in his dugout, largely impassive, occasionally finger-tapping the clipboard on his knees. Mourinho, meanwhile, paced up and down the sideline. Already, his passion — not to mention his smart dark suit and designer stubble — looked right at home in the Santiago Bernabeu, Real's stadium that hosted the first Champions League final to be played on a Saturday.
Expectations in club soccer don't come any bigger than for managers of Real. In Portugal, England and Italy, Mourinho has shown that he can handle the weight. Genuine pressure, he says philosophically, is something that impoverished parents feel when they're trying to feed their children. The ability to keep some perspective on the relative importance of soccer could serve him well at the Bernabeu.
At Chelsea, Mourinho also proved he has no compunction about spending other people's money. He culled 12 players when he took over the London club to make way for his signings — expensive stars like Drogba who are still winning titles long after Mourinho has moved on. Under a president as profligate as Perez, one can only assume that Mourinho would have ample recruiting funds at Real — unlike in his early days in Portugal when he worked with "peanuts and bananas" — and he showed again at Inter that he has a knack for signing the right players.
Perhaps most interesting will be seeing what style of play Mourinho might bring to Real. Defending doggedly, as Inter did both against Bayern and in the semifinal against Barcelona, is an art. And there was grace in the stabbing, darting attacks that produced both of Diego Milito's title-winning goals for Inter.
Van Gaal, barely gracious in defeat, suggested in his raspy voice that his Bayern side had played the more attractive soccer.
But Inter won.
And that is a language that Real really understands.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org