In the context of a managerial career spanning 1,000 games, it would be easy to overlook the first 11. To many, Jose Mourinho’s rise to greatness began with his trophy-laden spell at Porto. But before that, before everything, there was Benfica.
Mourinho took over at Estadio da Luz in September 2000 and was gone just three months later. But not because of poor results. In fact, he departed with his reputation enhanced. His brief tenure, and its explosive end, sowed the seeds for what was to come.
Benfica were gripped by crisis at the time. It had been six years since their last title and their finances were in a dire state. Joao Vale e Azevedo, the club’s president, had sacked Jupp Heynckes and needed a coach to reinvigorate the side with no investment.
He settled on a 37-year-old Mourinho.
The Portuguese had spent the previous four seasons serving as assistant to Sir Bobby Robson and then Louis van Gaal at Barcelona but left the club that summer intending to strike out on his own.
His appointment at Benfica raised eyebrows in his homeland. Mourinho had become known within the game as a forward-thinking coach with a bright future but it was a huge job for a managerial novice – especially given the circumstances.
Mourinho was undeterred, however, and signed a six-month contract which would be extended for two years should Vale e Azevedo win the upcoming presidential election. Fatefully, he didn’t, paving the way for Mourinho’s exit. But a lot happened in between.
In Jose Mourinho, the 2005 biography written by his friend Luis Lourenco, Mourinho describes inheriting a “weak squad with no future and no ambition”. The players were “used to losing”, “worked little”, and “didn’t really care”, he added.
Mourinho’s first impressions of the squad – or, “bunch of players”, as he preferred to call them – were cemented when Benfica slumped to a meek 1-0 loss against Boavista in his opening game in charge.
Mourinho was dismayed not just by the side’s performance in that game but by the general lack of intensity and aggression in training. He soon resolved to shake things up.
There were certain senior players he felt he could trust, among them striker Pierre van Hooijdonk, whose spiky personality he loved, midfielder Maniche, who would later follow him to Porto and Chelsea, and the now deceased goalkeeper Robert Enke.
For the rest, though, he turned to the club’s academy.
Left-back Diogo Luis was one of the players he promoted.
“It was perfect for me and for all the academy players because we understood that it was possible for us to live our dream, to go to the first team,” Luis tells Sky Sports.
“Mourinho didn’t look at names; he looked at other qualities. For him, it wasn’t important whether you were a 28-year-old Portugal international or a young player from the B team.
“What was important to him was how you performed in the training sessions. He wanted to find a way to make the side competitive, so he pushed young players up to give blood to the team.”
The decision to promote youngsters was a bold one but it helped to change the culture around the training ground. And even at that early stage of his managerial career, Mourinho did not shy away from confronting the senior players who refused to fall in line.
During one game, he noted that former Egypt international Abdel Sattar Sabry, one of the club’s biggest talents, had taken seven minutes to put on his boots and tie his laces after being told he would be coming on as a second-half substitute.
When the player’s agent subsequently complained about his client’s lack of game-time under the new coach, Luis recalls Mourinho making an example of him both in the dressing room and publicly.
“The next day, when Sabry came into the dressing room, Mourinho said to him, in front of all of us, ‘Do you know how long you were tying your laces for? Seven minutes. Do you know when you are going to play for me again, if you have that mentality? Never.’ He then went to his press conference and said the same thing.
“With that kind of approach, you win the dressing room,” adds Luis, “because it means everyone is treated the same way. So, if you have a guy who thinks he is better than the rest, he won’t fit.
“From then on, everyone knew that Mourinho was noticing every detail and we became stronger as a group.”
Mourinho would go on to use similar techniques throughout his managerial career and his time at Benfica was also the first example of him creating a siege mentality.
The dressing room, previously accessible to club directors, became a sacred space for the players. Any criticism from outside, of which there was plenty in the early days of his tenure, was used as fuel for the ‘us versus them’ mentality Mourinho wanted to build.
“We started to have confidence him because we understood he was protecting us and we didn’t feel the same about the board of directors, who were always speaking in the press,” says Luis.
Results soon improved – Benfica only lost one of the next 10 games under Mourinho following the defeat to Boavista – and it helped that he brought revolutionary training methods as well as discipline and togetherness.
In Lourenco’s book, Mourinho describes training at Benfica at the time of his arrival as “a group of nice guys kicking a ball about a bit and doing some running” but he soon set about changing it.
Instead, he applied the principles of tactical periodisation, a training methodology devised by Portuguese academic Victor Frade in which the physical, technical and tactical elements of training are integrated into shorter, more intense sessions.
It was unlike anything the players had experienced before but they quickly embraced it.
“Portuguese coaches are good and we are becoming better and better year by year, but at that time, 20 years ago, Mourinho was 10 years in front of the others,” says Luis.
“Before Mourinho, we would run around the pitch for 15 or 20 minutes but with him we didn’t run. We just had the ball. We worked for one hour with the ball and, for him, nothing more was necessary.
“You would go to the training session and the pitch would look like an airport, divided into different sections with cones. You would start in one section, then go to the next one, then the next one.
“Before, we trained for two or three hours with long breaks, but with him, we would have one minute between drills to drink water and that was it.
“You started at 10am and by 11am, you were back in the dressing room. You would think, ‘we’re not going to have the capacity to play full games’, but then the games would come and you would fly.”
Portuguese coaches are good and we are becoming better and better but at that time, Mourinho was 10 years in front of the others
Mourinho would later overhaul training in much the same way at Chelsea, his success ultimately inspiring other managers to apply the same methods in the Premier League and beyond, and his attention to detail at Benfica did not end there.
“He prepared every detail,” says Luis. “Not just in terms of the training sessions but mentally as well. He pushed you and he made you believe you were the best player in the world.
“He had the capacity to motivate all the players – and not just the ones who were playing. If I played badly in one game, he would come into the dressing room and say, ‘Hey, Diogo, if you continue playing like that, the other guy gets your place.’
“So, I would be motivated to improve, and the other guy would be motivated too. Little details like that made the difference and he also analysed the opponents really well. Nowadays, every coach does that but 20 years ago, it was not normal.”
Mourinho carried out much of the analysis himself after an early opposition scouting report was returned to him listing 10 players rather than 11. Luis recalls him shutting himself away in hotel rooms and working “from 7am until 11pm”. It paid off.
“When we went into the games, we knew what we had to do in every moment,” he says. “When every player is focused on his task and knows what his opponent is going to do, whether he is going to try to beat you to the left or to the right, it gives you confidence.”
Mourinho would be criticised for negative tactics later in his career but not at Benfica. There was boldness and spontaneity to his football as well as tactical rigour.
“Even when things were not so good, he always demonstrated his confidence in us by taking risks,” says Luis.
“I think he changed in Inter Milan. There, he discovered he could have success with a really defensive approach and I think that created a different mindset in him.
“But at Benfica, he would say, ‘If we are losing, I’m going to take a defender off and we are going to play man-to-man in defence and attack them.’
“We started to grow because of that. Every game, step by step, it was like we were getting taller, standing on tip toes.
“Suddenly, instead of looking down on us, the opponents were are looking up at us. He gave us that confidence and belief in ourselves.”
It all came together in a thrilling 3-0 win over local rivals and reigning champions Sporting Lisbon in December but by that point, Vale e Azevedo had lost the presidency to Manuel Vilarinho, who was eager to appoint former player Toni as his manager.
We were going to the match with the whole country thinking that the champion would dominate the derby, but we won, and we won in such a fantastic way
A game that should have secured Mourinho’s future at Benfica instead caused his tenure to unravel spectacularly.
“The new president wasn’t Mourinho’s guy,” says Luis. “Mourinho felt he wasn’t going to have an easy life at Benfica but he decided to continue, to win games and show he had the quality to put the club back where it belongs, then talk to the new president.”
He did the first part – the win over Sporting was Benfica’s fourth in a row – but it was the manner in which he approached the subsequent conversation with the president that did for him.
Mourinho had been irked by Vilarinho’s public comments on Toni and felt the club’s hierarchy had been deliberately trying to provoke him by changing hotel bookings at short notice and interfering in other logistical matters without his consent.
His frustration spilled over in the aftermath of the Sporting game.
As his jubilant players celebrated the victory in the dressing room at Estadio da Luz, Mourinho was in his office speaking to his wife on the phone when Vilarinho appeared at his door.
The president waited patiently to be ushered inside but Mourinho, emboldened by a resounding victory which had put Benfica back within reach of the league’s summit, ignored him.
After driving home from Lisbon to Setubal that night, he decided to take it further, informing Vilarinho he would leave unless his contract was extended for another year there and then.
His request was rejected. Mourinho’s abrasiveness had cost him his job – and it wouldn’t be the last time. He left Benfica under a cloud, just days after the victory over Sporting.
It was an episode he would regret – he later admitted to Lourenco he had used a form of blackmail on Vilarinho and apologised for his behaviour – although not as much as everyone at Benfica.
“We were doing really well, both in terms of our performances and the environment we had in the dressing room,” says Luis. “If Mourinho had continued at Benfica that year, I think we could have achieved great things because we were going in the right direction.”
Instead, the club slumped to a sixth-placed finish – the lowest in their history. Mourinho took his next step in management at Uniao de Leiria. Within a few years, Benfica were watching him lead rivals Porto to UEFA Cup and Champions League glory.
His extraordinary success there propelled him to prominence and earned him his move to Chelsea. But the road to 1,000 games began before that. Both on and off the pitch, for the good and the bad, his three-month spell at Benfica set the tone for all that followed.