The first time Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho crossed paths with Manchester United, over 16 years ago, they were at very different stages of their respective developments. This week they will stand up against each other.
The Dutchman was at the helm at Barcelona, having already conquered European and world football with Ajax while Mourinho was still in the early stages of his coaching evolution. The Special One was a part of Van Gaal’s trusted backroom staff as the Catalans fought out a thrilling 3-3 draw with a Treble-bound United side in 1998. The Portuguese’s ensuing career has led him around Europe’s top leagues and back to the Premier League to face the man who he described last year as: “my boss”.
Mourinho bestowed the same moniker on the late Sir Bobby Robson, and it was the Englishman who first set the managers on the same course. After the young Portuguese had interpreted at Robson’s first press conference as Porto manager in 1994, his services were utilised and gradually evolved to include scouting duties and a stint coaching the club’s goalkeepers.
When Robson left Portugal to manage Barcelona in 1996, he took Mourinho with him.
“He was super,” said the ex-England boss. “I’m not going to go to Barcelona ill-prepared, am I? I knew taking Jose was going to be an advantage to me, to Barcelona, and of course for him it was wonderful.”
But it was the appointment of Van Gaal as Robson’s replacement which put Mourinho’s ascent into overdrive.
“His analysis was good,” said the Dutchman. “You could see he understood football.” The Portuguese was made part of the Barcelona coaching staff and, over time, took the managerial reins during certain friendly matches while van Gaal observed from the stands. The Dutchman’s use of Mourinho was not universally popular within the club, however, with Van Gaal once admitting: “I sometimes think I was the only guy at the club who believed in Jose.”
Speaking in 2005, after taking Chelsea to a first league title in half a century, Mourinho reflected on the influence of his Dutch mentor.
“I have to say that Van Gaal is a beautiful person,” he said. “He’s somebody who is a little bit like me in the sense only the people who know him well know who he is.”
“Louis loves to analyse and gives you complete control of training sessions. With him you become a coach on the pitch, so you coach players. When I was very young to be a manager, to have in your hands Rivaldo, Ronaldo, [Luis] Figo, [Hristo] Stoitchkov and coach them, it was fantastic experience. With them I got something that is very important in my methodology still: communication; to get feedback from the players. I created with Louis a very, very strong relationship and he was very important also to give me confidence. He told me things that were very important for my career.”
When Benfica offered Mourinho the chance to become assistant manager working under Jupp Heynckes, he sought advice from Van Gaal. The Dutchman duly encouraged:
“Pick up the telephone and tell the Benfica president, if he wants you to assist Jupp Heynckes, no. If he wants you to be the manager, I will take you to the airport and you go, because you are ready for that. No more assistant. When you leave me, it is to be a top manager.”
Four months after Van Gaal had departed Catalonia to coach the Dutch national team, Mourinho took charge at the Estadio da Luz and set off on a managerial journey which would take in glorious stints with União de Leiria, Porto, Chelsea and Internazionale. It was in Mourinho’s second year with the Italian champions, a decade on from working together, that the pair was reunited and pitted in direct competition for the first time.
Having sidled by United in the quarter-finals, Van Gaal’s Bayern Munich had destroyed Lyon to book a place in the 2009/10 Champions League final in Madrid, while Mourinho’s Inter were halfway through the considerable job of ousting defending champions Barcelona. The Dutchman texted his apprentice ahead of Inter’s second leg at Camp Nou:
“You have one hurdle to go. I am already there. I will be waiting for you in Madrid.”
To Van Gaal’s delight, the Italians completed the job, winning 3-2 on aggregate, to book a date with Bayern at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
“I absolutely love the fact that I am meeting a man who is my friend and who I admire for the work he is doing as a coach in Europe,” the Dutchman grinned, before the game. “It’s nice for me that I am meeting Jose in the final, but it is also brilliant for the media. He was very humble and it’s great to see how he has evolved; he has gradually become a personality.”
Though victory carried the promise of a first treble for both clubs, the two managers stressed that not even the high stakes would trigger any animosity in their relationship. After Inter exploited Bayern’s profligacy and counter-attacked their way to a 2-0 victory, van Gaal magnanimously said:
“Inter deserved their win. They put in a great performance and I’d like to congratulate them. I also want to congratulate Jose.”
The Portuguese later reflected:
“We were very professional and kept our friendship on the biggest possible stage.”
Within a year, both managers had changed jobs, with Mourinho in Spain managing Real Madrid. Van Gaal in turn, left Bayern to return briefly to Ajax before taking up the reins of the Dutch national team for the second time. An altogether more successful stint culminated in an impressive third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup, by which point Van Gaal’s imminent move to Manchester had been confirmed. Speaking soon after the appointment, Mourinho explained his excitement.
“We are both great coaches,” said the Portuguese, in readiness for the second season of his second term at Stamford Bridge. “It’s what we were born to do. Louis was the best coach in the World Cup and he is a good friend. Really, a friend for life.
“He is a very, very good coach, he’ll be great for Manchester United. I have deep respect for this man. He is in the best period of his career. With coaching, if you deal with winning and losing in the right way, you improve. He analyses every experience. He has got better and better. I’m not worried about him being here. I look forward to playing against United.”
Over 16 years after arriving at Old Trafford on the same side, Van Gaal and Mourinho were divided by dugouts when they reconvened in Manchester back in November, when Didier Drogba’s opener and Robin van Persie’s injury-time leveller ensured a share of the spoils.
While Chelsea have been the Premier League’s pace-setters all term, United’s status as the division’s form team stokes hopes of another compelling spectacle on Saturday. Whatever happens at Stamford Bridge, however, nothing that unfolds in the field will be able to disrupt a longstanding bond between two of world football’s leading coaches.
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Edited By: Ojas Tripathi