The one is Portuguese. The other is Spanish. The one is arrogant. The other is stubborn. The one is a hugely successful coach. So is the other.
But the crucial thing to remember about Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez is that they can’t stand each other.
All of which gives the new European soccer season a delicious soap opera of a subplot. Already, the latest volleys have been fired in the continuing verbal warfare between the two, even though their respective Spanish and Italian seasons began only Saturday.
Adding a fascinating twist to the tale is the fact that Mourinho, 47, is the new coach at Real Madrid, where Benitez used to coach, and Benitez, 50, is the new coach at Inter Milan, where Mourinho enjoyed unparalleled success during the last two years.
So what was one of Benitez’s first commands when he took charge of Inter? He reportedly ordered all photographs of Mourinho removed from the club’s training site.
“I don’t need photos to make those around me love me because they carry me in their hearts,” he told England’s Sunday Times. “When I was Inter coach, I never asked for the images of [former coaches Helenio] Herrera and [Roberto] Mancini to be taken down.
“If they don’t like my photos, it’s not a problem. . . . I wish Benitez success in his new role, not because I love him but because he is coaching a team that belongs to me.”
Last season, Mourinho’s Inter team swept all before it, winning the Italian Serie A title, the Italian Cup and, in a moment of rare glory, the European Champions League.
For the Nerazzurri, it was the end of a 45-year wait to once again claim Europe’s top prize. For Mourinho, it was the second time he had won it, having also done so with FC Porto in 2004. As the world’s highest-paid soccer coach at around $12 million a year, he could do no wrong. Until, that is, he left Italy this summer for Spain.
Benitez’s reaction? “I do not know if he is the right person” to coach Real Madrid, he said.
Benitez led Liverpool to its 2005 Champions League title, but after that the club could not keep pace with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in the English Premier League and by June, Liverpool had had enough. It handed Benitez several million dollars in compensation and bid him adieu.
The fact that the Spaniard subsequently landed Mourinho’s old job rankled Mourinho more than a little. Last week, he reminded everyone how Liverpool had slipped under Benitez.
“They have been getting worse, worse and worse,” he told England’s Daily Telegraph. “The Liverpool of 2004 was better than the Liverpool of 2005, 2005 was better than 2006, and 2006 was better than 2007.”
Part of that rant might simply have been a result of a bitter memory — when both men were coaching in England, it was Benitez’s Liverpool that eliminated Mourinho’s Chelsea in the semifinals of the 2005 and 2007 Champions League campaigns.
Mourinho also undermined Benitez in comments that appeared on the FIFA website.
“Benitez will not have to work as hard as I did [at Inter] because he has the chance to win three trophies: the Italian SuperCup, the European SuperCup and the Club World Cup,” he said. “It’s heaven for him. A coach who arrives at a new club usually has to build a team. Benitez finds everything ready.”
Benitez was quick to fire back.
“First of all I’m surprised that Mourinho has spoken because normally he doesn’t speak — he talks about nothing,” he said. “He’s not here anymore, but if everything was so perfect then why did he leave? Why did he choose to join another team?”
Benitez promised that, under him, Inter Milan would not only be as successful but also would play more attractive soccer.
“I believe that we can do something better . . . on a level of play,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport. This followed earlier remarks when he had said: “I don’t think I am the anti-Mourinho, but I am different. I am a coach who likes winning, who likes playing good football.”
Unfortunately, things have not started off too well. Inter Milan defeated AS Roma a week ago to win the Italian SuperCup, its fourth trophy of 2010 and its first under Benitez. That 3-1 victory left the club positioned to match Barcelona’s unprecedented feat of 2009 when it won six trophies.
But things came unstuck for Benitez on Friday night in Monaco, where Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winner, deservedly defeated Champions League winner Inter Milan, 2-0, to win the European SuperCup.
That ended hopes of equaling Barcelona’s trophy haul, and, as Mourinho rather unkindly pointed out, even if Benitez and Inter Milan win the world club championship in December, “he will have won only two games compared to my 13. Therefore it will be my trophy and not his.”
Did I mention they don’t like each other?