The World's Game (According to Us)

They only think they're light years apart. Getty Images

Five years ago when Jose Mourinho first faced Sir Alex Ferguson in the Champions League, there was a lot of drama off the field of play. The young Portuguese manager's "gamesmanship" so offended the Manchester United boss that Ferguson refused to shake hands after the first leg. Then, when Mourinho's team, the plucky Porto, sealed the victory with a late goal, the Portuguese manager in the designer overcoat burst out of his dugout and sprinted down the sideline to celebrate with his players. It was the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.

Mourinho took a shot at Fergie afterwards, "Sometimes somebody is incorrect," he said, "sometimes you play with words to try to put pressure on the opposition. But when the final whistle goes, it's finished, you shake hands, and I'm happy with that."

Mourinho's current team, Inter Milan, played United two weeks ago in a Champions League match. This time Mourinho didn't shake Ferguson's hand. But then he apologized. "I left a £300 bottle of wine in the hotel with a note saying we would meet each other after the game at Old Trafford," he said, "I am always his friend." It was a typical remark from a manager who has taken pre-game banter and competitive rhetoric to a new level and has developed a weird kind of camaraderie with his Manchester rival.

The two managers can sound similar. Ahead of today's deciding match in Manchester, Ferguson accused Mourinho of defensive tactics. "They will look to suffocate the game and aim for 120 minutes of goalless football," he said. Mourinho lobbed the same insult two weeks before: "They will not come to San Siro to win." (The first leg ended 0-0).

But if their schoolyard finger-pointing is sometimes identical, their style of delivery is different. Mourinho is the suave, talkative European who likes to play the victim. Ferguson is the gruff working-class Scot who likes to play the victim.

"We are used to Jose," Ferguson said the other day. "I'm not a little lad from the Govan alleys who finds himself on Fifth Avenue in New York. I'm not shocked by anything any more." By saying this, Fergie reminds us that he once was a little lad from Govan, the rough, blue collar section of Glasgow. He has humble roots, he implied, but he has enough worldly experience not to be provoked by cosmopolitan tricksters.

Mourinho, meanwhile, is never humble. Responding to the rumor that he wants to take over for Ferguson in Manchester when the 67-year-old retires, he said recently, "Special clubs need special managers so in theory it could work."

Mourinho's confidence can be a motivational asset. Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard put it this way: "He knew how to get into people's heads. He got into mine the moment he came. He has that air of arrogance, that confidence, and it rubs off. I have never had a manager who, while I'm standing in the shower cleaning my balls, tells me I'm the best player in the world. He did that. I'll never forget it. So casual."

When he's not in the showers, though, Mourinho is prone to angry rants with questionable effectiveness. Last week he launched a seven-and-a-half minute harangue about the Italian league, accusing his rivals of "intellectual prostitution" and claiming that Juventus was getting help from the referees. He peppered his speech with strange prophecies ("the day of the scandal is drawing near") and ended with the outrageous claim that he doesn't like talking to the media.

"I turn the television on and [Roma coach] Spalletti is always there." Mourinho said, "I have a contract with Inter and Inter have a contract with the media: I speak because I have to…I am not one to manipulate the public opinion."

Juventus manager Claudio Ranieri responded, "Mourinho? Me and Spalletti aren't great communicators, but he is very good at that, perhaps he's a better communicator than coach."

Alex Ferguson might agree. "Mourinho has a magnetic power over the media," he said the other day, "He's a great media tactician." Like Ranieri, he meant this largely as an insult, but there does seem to be an element of admiration mixed in. Ferguson after all is pretty good at mind games himself. Just after "praising" Mourinho's media skills, he subtly suggested that the rants were just a diversion from Inter's struggles (though Inter is safely in first place in Italy). Perhaps, Ferguson seemed to say, Mourinho's arrogant manner has alienated his players.

"When the game begins," Ferguson said, "it will only be Inter against the Reds, he can't do anything more. Personally I trust in those I send out on the pitch."


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