Confidence is something José Mourinho has probably never lacked, but if one man more than any other helped the FC Internazionale Milano coach believe in himself, it could be the one who will try to deny him a second UEFA Champions League title today: FC Bayern München's Louis Van Gaal.
When Van Gaal replaced the late Sir Bobby Robson at FC Barcelona in 1997 he soon realised the English manager's assistant was something special. Mourinho had taken his first steps as a coach under Robson, initially as a translator, at Sporting Club de Portugal before following him to FC Porto and Barcelona. When Robson left the Catalan club, Van Gaal took the ambitious Portuguese under his wing.
Mourinho had other options, but a quiet word from the Dutchman convinced him his future was at the Camp Nou. "When I spoke with [Van Gaal] about going back to Portugal to be an assistant at Benfica, he said: 'No, don't go'," Mourinho told UEFA.com. "Tell Benfica if they want a first-team coach you will go; if they want an assistant you will stay."
Mourinho would not regret his decision to remain in Spain. "
Van Gaal is a very confident person and at a moment when a coach like me was young, that was very important. He gave me the confidence to coach the team on the pitch. In friendly matches, in Copa Cataluña matches, he gave me the responsibility of being the coach. He told me: 'I go to the stands, you take charge of the team', so he was very important in my development."
Van Gaal adds: "
He was very modest back then. It was nice watching his development, to see that he has become such a personality. I knew he would help me because he was so passionate. He quickly noticed that I brought him forward. I think I educated him a little. I could immediately see he had an understanding of the game." Not that Mourinho has followed Van Gaal slavishly. As the Dutchman points out: "
He trains to win. I train to play beautiful football and win. My way is more difficult."
The pair probably never imagined one day they would be on opposite benches in a UEFA Champions League final: the former apprentice out to beat his master. "The last time we were together was in 2000," Mourinho said. "We are speaking about ten years, so for sure he is also a different person. But he is a great coach and a good person; that hasn't changed."
Van Gaal had already won the UEFA Champions League, with AFC Ajax in 1995, by the time the two came together at Barcelona. They will reunite on an equal footing with Mourinho having matched that achievement with Porto in 2004. Regardless of who comes out on top in Madrid one of them will follow Ottmar Hitzfeld and Ernst Happel as only the third coach to have won the European Champion Clubs' Cup with two different clubs.
"Sooner or later I will be in that group, because I'm a very young coach," the 47-year-old Mourinho said. "I hope I have 20 more years to coach, so sooner or later I'll be there. But I prefer to be there in a couple of weeks rather than a couple of years. Not really because I want to be in that privileged group but because I want to do it with these players, with this club, with these supporters. I would love to do it now, because Inter have not won the competition in a long time."
Van Gaal is not the only one of Saturday's opponents Mourinho needs no introductions to. Bayern's Dutch winger Arjen Robben won Premier League titles under the Portuguese coach in 2005 and 2006, and can expect the sort of attention Lionel Messi received in Inter's semi-final triumph against holders FC Barcelona.
"Messi is Messi, but when Arjen is able to play four, five, six consecutive months, he is an incredible player. He is a player you have to be worried about, but I don't change my approach, even if he is like Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo – he is a player of movement. So our defence is zonal pressing. We don't change though, of course, Arjen needs double attention, because he is a super player."
In contrast to some of the brilliant individual talents Inter have come across en route to the final, Mourinho believes it is the team ethic and willingness of his players to make sacrifices that has got them this far. "
The group is more than the sum of our parts," he said. "[Samuel] Eto'o is a great example. He is a player with big status, an attacking player, [but] when the team is in difficulty and need him to do extra work he is the first to do it. When you have that kind of player and they are able to do this, it is easy to be a leader." Confidence high, Mourinho is ready for Madrid.
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