Mourinho, the man Ibrahimovic was 'willing to die for'

The two men only worked together for one season but the Portuguese coach made a good impression on the controversial striker, especially compared to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona
By Duncan Castles

It was not until Zlatan Ibrahimovic's tenth year as a professional that he finished a league season as its leading scorer. Without Jose Mourinho's man management the Swede's wait would have run into a second decade.

They worked together for just one campaign, winning the 2008-9 Serie A with Inter. Ibrahimovic's more personal milestone arrived on that season's final day as he vied with Diego Milito and Marco Di Vaio for Italy's coveted Capocannoniere. How Mourinho ensured his striker could secure it as a little-known story.

Inter were already champions as they lined up against Atalanta at San Siro. Just 12 minutes in, Ibrahimovic broke beyond the visiting defence to put his team 2-1 up and place himself a goal in front of his rivals at Genoa and Bologna. Events, though, were about to swing against him.

Atalanta equalised, then manufactured a second-half lead. A few minutes later Di Vaio scored in Bologna to draw level as leading marksman. And Mario Balotelli was... being Mario Balotelli.

When Inter's great young hope received possession anywhere near Atalanta's goal he resolved to try to propel it into the net alone. When Ibrahimovic evaded markers to place himself in a superior position, Balotelli practised wanton ignorance. Forget about a pass.


As those watching attempted to work out if Balotelli's actions stemmed from selfishness or spite, Ibrahimovic decided he'd had enough. Inter's No.8 walked to Mourinho's dugout and asked to be removed. “I don't want to play with this guy,” was his message to the bench.

Mourinho pretended not to understand. “You want some water?” he asked. When Ibrahimovic replied in the negative, Mourinho asked the same question again, made sure the Swede received some liquid, and avoided further discussion.

If Ibrahimovic no longer believed there was a final goal to be plundered from a personal-best season, his coach was of a different mind. Mourinho added Hernan Crespo to his attack, and with nine minutes remaining, the Argentine found Ibrahimovic in the area with a low, looping centre.

The striker was caught between two defenders, the ball bouncing back away from target as he overpowered the first. The solution was genius - a backheel beyond bemused keeper Ferdinando Coppola for a 25th goal of a remarkable campaign.

The pages of 'I am Zlatan' - Ibrahimovic's wildly popular autobiography - do not lack for high-profile targets, yet they run freely with praise for Mourinho.

“He built us up before matches,” tells Ibrahimovic. “It was like theatre, a psychological game. He might show videos where we’d played badly and say: ‘So miserable! Hopeless! Those guys can’t be you. They must be your brothers, your inferior selves,’ and we nodded. We were ashamed. ‘I don’t want to see you like that today,’ he would continue. ‘No way,’ we thought. ‘Go out there like hungry lions,’ he added.

“‘In the first battle you’ll be like this...’ He pounded his fist against the palm of his open hand. ‘And in the second battle...’ He gave the flip chart a kick and sent it flying across the room, and the adrenaline pumped inside us, and we went out like rabid animals. I felt increasingly that this guy gives everything for the team, so I want to give everything for him. People we were willing to kill for him.”

Particularly notable is the stark contrast Ibrahimovic draws between Mourinho and the coach he chose to leave Inter to work for, Pep Guardiola.

“Jose Mourinho is a big star," he wrote. "He’d been my manager at Inter. He’s nice. The first time he met my partner Helena, he whispered to her: ‘Helena, you have only one mission: Feed Zlatan, let him sleep, keep him happy’. That guy says whatever he wants. I like him. He’s the leader of his army. But he cares, too. He would text me all the time at Inter, wondering how I was doing. He’s the exact opposite of Pep Guardiola. If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains. I guessed that Guardiola was trying to match up to him. Mourinho would become a guy I was basically willing to die for.”

When that guy brings his Chelsea team to Ibrahimovic's Paris Saint-Germain this week he will do so as someone who has retained a friendship despite the strained manner in which they parted ways at Inter.

Intent on a radical rebuild of the ageing and badly imbalanced squad he'd inherited from Roberto Mancini, the Portuguese asked Ibrahimovic to remain at the club so they could win the Champions League together. The Swede demurred, moving to holders Barcelona instead.

Mourinho added six starters and dispensed with a slew of players to reshape a group Mancini still claims as his own, with Ibrahimovic the only departee who joined a club on the same level as Inter. In exchange for their leading scorer, the Italians took €49.5 million (£41m) and Samuel Eto'o from Barcelona, then claimed the Catalans' European title from them only nine months later.

By that point, thoroughly disillusioned with life at Guardiola's Barca, Ibrahamovic lasted little more than an hour of each leg of the semi-final. Whether he'd have sacrificed himself for Inter's cause in the manner that Eto'o did, running the entire wing to service Milito at centre-forward if still a Nerazzurro, is open to question. What's clear is that Mourinho replaced his supernova with a brighter constellation.

“Only a stupid man would be happy to lose Ibra,” explained Mourinho the week the deal was done. “Only a stupid man would not be happy to have Eto'o. And the truth is I'm very happy to have him.

“I thought Ibra would stay because I thought only Real Madrid, who were not trying, could make such a big offer for him. But the reality is Barca made it. If it's true as [agent Mino] Raiola said that the deal had been on for one year, something strange has happened. If on the other hand it was a recent thing I can say he gave to Inter everything he could give.

“Inter had two possibilities. The first option was to say to Ibrahimovic: 'We will not sell you'. The second was to take Eto'o and €50m. It seems to me this is an extraordinary deal. Inter did the deal of the summer. Kaka - 70, Cristiano - 96. This is a deal which in my opinion is worth €100m because Eto'o is not worth one Euro less than Ibra. My team will be different and much more adapted to the Champions League.”

From individual desire to group achievement. It was the Mourinho way in the summer of 2009, and remains the Mourinho way to this day.