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Is it possible that the Mourinho era has finally ended?

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018 – Page B11

The first time I laid eyes on Jose Mourinho was at David Beckham's Grand American Opening in Los Angeles a decade ago.

The crowd was frothing. The game - an exhibition between Beckham's new team, the L.A. Galaxy, and Mourinho's Chelsea - was awful. Beckham was notso-secretly injured, but played anyway.

He came on late and nearly had his leg bent 90 degrees the wrong way by an errant tackle. All in all, the occasion was a terrible letdown.

Afterward, Mourinho was sent out to do the first news conference. In terms of etiquette, that was correct. But theatrically speaking, it was a terrible mistake.

The Portuguese manager was still young, at the height of his powers and absolutely oozing disdain. I remember thinking how good he looked, how put together, as if he'd had a wardrobe change after the match (he hadn't).

Someone asked him what he'd thought of Beckham's performance.

"I think the objective was to give people the dessert they wanted," Mourinho shrugged, making no effort to hide how little he thought of Beckham, the Galaxy, L.A., the United States, the fans and us. He was a real soccer manager managing a real soccer team and that he had to stoop this low annoyed him.

The audience of jaded hacks - most of whom were new to the Mourinho Experience - was entranced. No North American coach carried himself this way.

Beckham came out later, limping, dishevelled and in pain.

The guy next to me - an American newbie - leaned over and said, "What's his name?" "Beckham," I said.

"No. The other guy."

The most famous athlete then at work had just been upstaged by a nobody who couldn't get a regular place in a secondtier pro team managed by his own father.

Many clubs and many trophies later, Mourinho was fired ignominiously as manager of Manchester United on Tuesday. A man who prided himself on being a step ahead of the game reportedly did not see it coming. If so, he was the only one.

He will certainly find another job, but one senses that the Mourinho Era has ended. At 55, the gloss is off him. What a pity.

For us. I'm sure he'll never notice.

More than any coach in any sport, Mourinho defined the role in the first two decades of the 21st century. He was the outsider who worked his way right into the centre. Once there, he ruled by force of personality. He was more sought out, more interesting and far more annoying than any of his players. Delightfully so.

His most memorable and on-the-nose quote was delivered upon taking over the Chelsea job in 2004.

"Please don't call me arrogant because what I'm saying is true," Mourinho said, in that halting way he had despite being perfectly proficient in English. "I'm European champion so I'm not one out of the bottle.

I think I'm a special one."

That's how he was known from then on - the Special One - often derisively. Then he won and won and won, until his quality and methods could no longer be doubted.

(They still were.)

What made Mourinho different was his striving. His father was a player of note, but despite a great deal of effort, the son failed in following him. Mourinho's mother went so far as to enroll him in business school, hoping to point him down a different career path.

Mourinho decided instead to be a gym teacher. And then a manager of a small team. Assistant manager of a bigger one. A scout at a bigger one still.

Eventually, he glommed onto British legend Bobby Robson when the latter sojourned briefly in charge of a Portuguese team. Mourinho was his translator. Robson's position didn't last, but Mourinho stuck. He followed Robson to Barcelona, then cut his mentor loose when Robson was fired and a new manager arrived. He parlayed the Barcelona shine into better jobs back home. Eventually, he was given a major club - Porto - and made it unlikely European champions. Twice. Then the Chelsea job arrived and he was off.

At points during the past few years, you would have said Mourinho was more famous than anyone who played for him.

That was certainly the implication these past couple of years in Manchester, and not in a good way.

Lots of coaches have been successful, but none had ever carried themselves like Mourinho: so regal, so pompous, and - to hear his many enemies tell it - so undeservedly.

His self-confidence was elemental. The more you doubted him, the more he projected it. His feuds were so disparate that it was easier just to say that he hated everyone. The only thing that varied was the intensity.

Most important, he helped raise up two new sporting types.

He was among the first of the wonks and/or try-hards who spun smarts, good patter and a spectator's obsession with sport, rather than any top-level professional experience of it, into global stardom. He was the one who sneaked by the backroom boys and created his own network of influence.

Mourinho also represented a new take on coach-as-main-attraction - prime-time good looks, continental urbanity and a stare that would split wood combining to make him the most charismatic man on any field. Suddenly, the best camera angle on the game was pointed at the sideline.

There had been many others who had some of Mourinho's qualities - Scotty Bowman the savant-ness, John Madden the sideline antics - but none combined them all so fascinatingly.

Mourinho cemented a system of thought - "You needn't have played game X at an elite level to understand it. If you're clever enough, you needn't have played it at all." - that allowed hundreds to follow in his wake.

Though they may not think of themselves as such, Masai Ujiri of the Raptors, Alex Anthopoulos of the Blue Jays and Kyle Dubas of the Maple Leafs are his heirs.

And that's just one city where soccer doesn't matter all that much.

After nearly three years in Manchester, Mourinho leaves behind the carcass of a once-great club and a nearly $1-million hotel tab (he never bothered buying a house).

But in the world's sporting imagination, he remains something much more. The one who would not quit, would not doubt himself and would not submit. He was, if nothing else, special.

Huh? How did I get here?
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