Benfica’s Greatest Mistake: Jose Mourinho

Ed Angeli
Ed Angeli
Managing Editor
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Manchester United’s visit to Estádio da Luz sees the homecoming of former Benfica fan favourites, Nemanja Matić and Victor Lindelöf; both players have experienced different starts to their United careers, but their return to Portugal is overshadowed by Red Devils boss, Jose Mourinho – the United manager is going back to where it all started in the hot seat.

Despite Mourinho’s time as Benfica boss being as short as three months, it typified everything we have come to expect from the Portuguese-man in his managerial career; short, direct, and his way.

Mourinho’s tutelage could not have been better before being awarded a six-month contract at Benfica; four years as an assistant under Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal at Barcelona gave Mourinho the combination of a footballing philosophy and a stubbornness that is likely to have been installed by van Gaal.

Such was the admiration of the two world-class coaches towards Mourinho was evident by Robson’s determination to make Mourinho his assistant at Newcastle, and by van Gaal’s adamance that Mourinho should only settle for the top job in Benfica; it’s clear to see why Mourinho had so much self-belief at just 37.

After snubbing Robson’s offer and agreeing with van Gaal that he was only fit for the top job at Benfica, Mourinho was given six months in the hot seat to prove himself. Character traits of Jose shone through as early as his first week in charge; the Benfica hierarchy wanted Jesualdo Ferreira as Mourinho’s assistant, the boss wanted Carlos Mozer – signs of Mourinho’s stubbornness and a manager who will only settle for ‘his way’ already clear to see.

Regardless of who was Mourinho’s right-hand man, the boss had a great relationship with the players. They were low on confidence, sat in the bottom-half of the table and had fallen out with Mourinho’s predecessor, Jupp Heynckes. With Mourinho’s arrival, it saw a manager who focused on football rather than fitness in training, increase competition in the squad by promoting reserve team players to the senior team, and most importantly, speak the same mother-tongue as most of the players; it felt like a team again.

Mourinho’s record at Benfica proved this – six wins and three draws from 11 games was a great start to a team who were low on confidence and lacking direction at the time. However, this success, and the biggest one of that being Mourinho’s 11th and final game in charge of Benfica was the deciding one.

Benfica were hosting the much favoured Sporting Lisbon in the fourth-round of the Portuguese Cup, despite being underdogs, Mourinho led his team to a 3-0 victory over the fierce rivals. As Mourinho reportedly does after every game, he called his wife to celebrate the victory, which led to the Benfica boss not speaking to Manuel Vilarinho, the then-President of the club.

After this conversation, Mourinho called the President on his route home, demanding a permanent and improved contract with the club; the President refused which led to Mourinho handing in his notice; the Benfica-Mourinho relationship was over before it started:

“[Put me] back then, I would do exactly the opposite: I would extend his contract. Only later I realised that one’s personality and pride cannot be put before the interest of the institution we serve.”

Manuel Vilarinho, the then-President of Benfica

Vilarinho’s preference at the time was for former Benfica player, Toni, to be in charge of the club; a decision which ultimately ended in failure for the club and Vilarinho.

It seems fitting that Mourinho returns to the place where it all began with talks ongoing that the United boss is after an improved contract at his current club; it’s the mark of the man, always wanting more, and an opportunist who will be direct when he’s on top. Mourinho was on top after that 3-0 win against Sporting, and he’s on top right now with United looking a force again – will Ed Woodward make the same mistake as Manuel Vilarinho?

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