JOSÉ MOURINHO HAS A PROBLEM. WHEN FANS APPROACH the world's most famous coach—whether in Madrid or London or Los Angeles—they are seldom satisfied with a simple autograph. They want something unique. Distinct. Dare it be said: special. "I'll sign JOSÉ MOURINHO," says the Real Madrid manager, "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 coaching in 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. But these days even Mourinho's critics—and there are many—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 that included winning the Italian league, the Italian Cup and the crown jewel of global club soccer, the Champions League, with Inter Milan. In seven full seasons as a manager with Porto, Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho, 48, had won 14 major trophies, including two Champions League and six domestic-league titles.
Where does Mourinho rank among soccer coaches? "He's at the top, there's no doubt about that," says 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."
When Mourinho took over Real Madrid, in May 2010, he faced 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 had won four of the last six La Liga titles) but also in Europe (where Real Madrid had not advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals since '04). "Real Madrid wants to again be 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.
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 as for his having a gift, who's to argue with him? No coach today compares with him. 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 that had nowhere near the talent and payrolls of their top rivals. Joe Torre and Mike Krzyzewski did not have to connect with their players in five languages. Mourinho speaks Portuguese, English, French, Italian and Spanish fluently. And even Bill Belichick can't match Mourinho's most remarkable record: Until April 2, when Real Madrid lost 1--0 to Sporting Gijón at the Bernabéu, Mourinho had gone nine years without losing a league game at home—150 matches with four clubs in four countries.
Nor does any U.S. coach 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 has done well just to survive his first 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 Bernabéu after the Champions League final, in which Inter defeated Bayern Munich 2--0, an Italian TV camera captures Mourinho ducking into a luxury sedan. The car advances, then stops. Mourinho emerges and walks 20 yards to Inter defender Marco Materazzi. The coach and the bruiser embrace for five, 10, 20 seconds. Their shoulders are heaving. Two of the toughest men in soccer are sobbing like Dick Vermeil.