José Mourinho has a problem. When fans approach the world's most famous coach—and they do so in great numbers, from Madrid to London to Los Angeles—they are seldom satisfied with a typical autograph. They want something unique. Distinct. Dare it be said: special. "I'll sign JOSÉ MOURINHO," says the Real Madrid manager after a practice in the Spanish capital. "But most of the people say, 'No, no, no. You will sign THE SPECIAL ONE!' " Mourinho sighs, the edges of his trademark smirk curling into a faint smile. "Everybody wants me to be The Special One. But I don't worry. There could be a worse nickname."
Besides, it's his own creation. In 2004, during Mourinho's first press conference as Chelsea manager, he grew exasperated by the skepticism over his arrival from his native Portugal. "The English press was speaking to me like I was coming from the moon," he says. "Who are you? Do you have the quality to work in England? For God's sake, give me a chance. I won the Champions League with Porto. I'm a special one. Don't kill me on my first day!
"But they got it as if I was saying"—here he adopts the voice of the Almighty—"I am The Special One."
And so it went. Such is the force of Mourinho's personality that more than three years after he left England, his puppet alter ego still stars in the popular BBC satire Special 1 TV. These days even Mourinho's critics—and there are many—would have to admit the accuracy of his audacious nickname. In January, FIFA named him the 2010 World Coach of the Year, the result of a remarkable trophy haul at Inter Milan that included winning the Italian league, the Italian Cup and the crown jewel of global club soccer, the UEFA Champions League. In seven full seasons as a manager with Porto, Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho, 48, has won 14 major trophies, including two Champions League titles and six domestic league championships.
Where does Mourinho rank among the world's soccer coaches? "He's at the top, there's no doubt about that," says the legendary Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho's friend and rival. "You have certain criteria in terms of top management, and that is longevity of success—which is very difficult today—and what you win. You have to regard his achievements as really first-class."
Now, nine months after taking over Real Madrid, Mourinho faces his most pressure-packed test yet: to return the most decorated club of all time to its past glory, not just in Spain (where archrival Barcelona has won four of the last six La Liga titles) but also in Europe (where Real Madrid has not advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals since 2004). "Real Madrid wants to be again the best—of the present and of the future," says Mourinho. "That's my challenge." If he can burnish his own résumé in the process, so much the better—no coach has won European crowns with three different teams. Real meets Lyon at Madrid's Bernabéu Stadium on March 16 in the second leg of their home-and-home round of 16 series; the teams tied 1--1 at Lyon on Feb. 22.
As Mourinho has risen to the summit, he has expanded his horizons, analyzing the management styles at Microsoft and Apple, reading Colin Powell's autobiography and Phil Jackson's books, studying John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. He wants to come to the U.S., both to observe NFL coaching staffs and, eventually, to manage the U.S. national team or an MLS club. "A football coach who only understands football is not a great coach," says Mourinho. "We have to be good in other things. I never forget: My players are men. Men with different personalities, different cultures. To deal with this is very important in building a team. I think I have, maybe, a gift."
Mourinho can't help himself. He is by turns smart, vain, funny, needy, tough and as thin-skinned as a pinot grape. But who's to argue with him? He has a gift. No coach today compares. Phil Jackson may have won 11 NBA titles, but he always had the best players. Mourinho conquered the Champions League with Porto and Inter Milan, teams with nowhere near the talent and payrolls of their top rivals. Joe Torre and Mike Krzyzewski may have reached the pinnacle four times, but they did not have to connect with their players in five languages. Mourinho speaks Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish, fluently. Bill Belichick owns three Super Bowl rings as a head coach, but even he can't match Mourinho's most remarkable record: He has gone nine years without losing a league game at home, 148 matches with four different teams.
Nor do any American coaches face the crushing weekly pressure of European soccer, the only game that matters on the Continent. In the political tinderbox of Real Madrid, where a single defeat can spark a crisis, Mourinho might not even survive the season. But there is a reason his $12 million annual salary is the highest of any coach on the planet. He's the best in the world.
Milan, May 2010. The news is out. Mourinho is leaving Inter Milan for Real Madrid. Outside the Bernebéu after the Champions League final, an Italian TV camera captures Mourinho ducking into a luxury sedan. The car advances, then abruptly stops. Mourinho emerges from behind the smoked-glass windows and walks 20 yards to Inter defender Marco Materazzi, the hardman best known for absorbing Zinédine Zidane's head butt in the 2006 World Cup final. Mourinho and Materazzi embrace for five, 10, 20 seconds. Both men's shoulders are heaving. Two of the toughest men in soccer are sobbing like Dick Vermeil.