The most significant image of Jose Mourinho’s greatest triumph is not the goals of Diego Milito, the guile of Wesley Sneijder or the merciless marking of Walter Samuel.
What endures is the scene in the car park of the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, a short time after Mourinho’s Inter Milan have beaten Bayern Munich 2-0 on May 22, 2010, to win the Champions League and complete a historic ‘Triplete’ – a Serie A title, Italian Cup and Champions League treble.
Mourinho is about to leave the stadium in a private car when he spies Marco Materazzi waiting by the team bus. The Portuguese quickly leaves the car, approaches the defender and embraces him.
They exchange words and when Mourinho retraces his steps, he is in tears. Both men appear to know they have reached the end of an era. Six days later, Mourinho is the new coach of Real Madrid.
‘Marco was the symbol of all our sadness,’ Mourinho told La Gazzetta dello Sport. ‘I wanted to go to Real. They had tried to get me the year before and when I was at Chelsea – you can’t say no three times to Real Madrid. I wanted to be the first to win league titles in England, Italy and Spain.’
Though there were eight more trophies during Mourinho’s subsequent stints with Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United, the current Tottenham coach has never quite recaptured what he had with that Inter squad, who reached the peak exactly a decade ago.
They were a group of players operating in perfect harmony, at the peak of their mental and physical powers, who had a strong emotional connection to their coach and had complete faith in him. What would the often angry, surly Mourinho of the following 10 years have given to have all that again?
‘I have never felt so much trust from a manager,’ said Javier Zanetti, the Inter captain that day and one of the club’s greats. ‘I quickly understood that, if required, he would have played me in any position. This is the best feeling a player can have.
‘Before the final, Mourinho told us that we were one step away from making history. It was a powerful, emotional speech. We went out on the pitch with an incredible focus. That evening was my 700th game for Inter.
‘I had guessed he might be leaving, as had many of my team-mates. But we were afraid of talking about it. We were afraid it might damage us or stop us achieving the goal we were all fighting for.
‘I remember that after the game, Mou and I hugged each other and said the same, single word to each other: Thank you.’
Zanetti was one of the finest players of the modern era, able to fulfil a number of roles to a high standard, yet is strangely overlooked by most football fans when discussing their all-time XIs.
The same is true of many of that Inter team. Sneijder played in both a Champions League and a World Cup Final that year and was somehow only fourth in the voting for the Ballon d’Or.
Though Milito scored both goals in the win over Bayern, he could still walk unrecognised through most of the world’s major cities. Another Argentine, Samuel, is also underappreciated, a top-rank centre-back who would walk into any of today’s Premier League teams, is dismissed too often as a mere hatchet man.
Of Inter’s starting XI that day, perhaps only Samuel Eto’o has a global status to rival that of Mourinho – and that is why Mourinho and Inter worked so well. Players with characters like these respond well to Mourinho’s psychological tricks; the superstar of 2020 does not.
With a few exceptions, notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there is usually friction when Mourinho shares the stage with footballers whose personalities and profiles match his own. Players like Sergio Ramos, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba will not accept the teacher/pupil relationship that Mourinho likes to develop.
At Inter, he relied on artisans like Thiago Motta, Esteban Cambiasso and Goran Pandev to keep the wheels turning. Even Eto’o was prepared to play as a full-back in the semi-final, second leg against Barcelona, where Inter held out for more than an hour with 10 men to complete a 3-2 aggregate win. By contrast, Mario Balotelli, a player with Ronaldo’s swagger but little of his ability, was rarely trusted.
‘I could give you a thousands of examples from the Triplete year, but one stands out,’ recalled Materazzi. ‘We lost 3-1 to Catania in Serie A and he slaughtered us all, from the best player to the worst.
‘[The players] look each other in the eye, suck it up and four days later we go to London and beat Chelsea. Mourinho can read your feelings, even the hidden ones, and get inside your mind.
‘He presses all the right buttons, not just of his own players. I’ve never seen anyone so scientific in provoking his opponents, so good at making them nervous.’
The frustration for both Mourinho and Inter is that they have never had it as good since. Despite being one of world football’s most prestigious names, Inter failed spectacularly to build on the ‘Triplete’, on or off the pitch.
The 2010 league title remains their last, as Juventus have long since regained their iron grip on Italian football, winning every Scudetto since 2012.
Despite that dominance, Juventus have never emulated Inter’s treble yet when Brand Finance released their 2019 report on football’s 50 most valuable brands, the Turin giants were still two places above Inter on the list.
In 13th, Inter are below Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Paris St Germain on the list, four clubs with not a single Champions League title between them.
‘If I had gone back to Milan after the Final, with the team around me and the fans singing “Jose, stay with us”, perhaps I would never have left,’ Mourinho reflected. ‘That is why I decided not to go back to Milan until I’d signed the contract with Real.
‘Perhaps now I could stay four, five, six years in the same club. I left back then to achieve my goals, not to be happy. In fact, I was happier in Milan than in Madrid.’
Inter’s latest move has been to hire Antonio Conte, the Italian coach who most resembles Mourinho and the man who started Juventus’ run of eight consecutive league titles.
Yet the sad truth of their greatest day is that Inter have spent the last 10 years trying to revive the spirit of Mourinho; similarly, Mourinho has surely had moments recalling that tearful farewell and wondering why he ever left.