On Wednesday, Andre Villas-Boas’ globetrotting career will make another pit stop in England.
In the seven years since departing Tottenham Hotspur and north London, the 43-year-old has ventured to Russia and China, rallied through South America and, for now at least, settled in southern France.
The Portuguese coach will compete on English soil for the first time since he was sacked by Spurs in December 2013 when his Marseille side face Manchester City on Wednesday (20:00 GMT kick-off).
Marseille’s Champions League campaign is already over, their hopes of reaching the Europa League also slim, and Villas-Boas looks set to leave the Ligue 1 club when his contract expires at the end of the season.
It has been a whirlwind 11 years since taking his first management role at Academica and the motorsport enthusiast has always maintained he will retire by his mid-40s.
Villas-Boas still harbours ambitions to manage in Brazil and Japan, but after trophies, fallouts and plenty of stamps in his passport, is this the twilight of his nomadic coaching career?
In the beginning… Jose & Sir Bobby
Villas-Boas has always struggled to shake off comparisons with Jose Mourinho.
He worked under his compatriot at Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. He was regarded as Europe’s brightest coaching prospect after winning a Primeira Liga, Portuguese Cup and Europa League treble with Porto, a feat that convinced the Blues to pay a then world record £13.3m for a managerial reign that lasted just 40 games.
Like Mourinho, he also counts Sir Bobby Robson as a mentor, and it was the former England manager who gave a 17-year-old Villas-Boas his first taste of professional football.
They lived in the same apartment block and the teenager took his chance to quiz then Porto boss Robson about his team selections.
“He embraced this kid in some way,” Villas-Boas told Football Focus in 2012. “He found it funny I was asking this question. Out of the excitement that he saw, he told me to be there at 9 o’clock in the morning the day after to go to the training session.
“Something clicked – going to the training ground, coming home after the matches, starting to do statistics for him. I started having a desire to be involved in the game.”
The aspiring coach continued to cut his teeth under Mourinho at Porto, Villas-Boas’ hometown club.
“In my formative moments, working with Jose was the best time of my life,” Villas-Boas said in 2016. “I was able to learn many things and working with him takes you to another level.
“You fall in love with him and he becomes your idol. I wanted to be like him, know everything that he knew and absorb all the information he was giving.”
They severed ties at Inter with Villas-Boas, wanting more input, choosing to carve his own route into management.
“Then you fall on the wrong side of Jose,” he added. “That’s when things change and you realise you’ve been blinded by someone.
“He has this fascinating capability of getting the best out of you, which has good or bad consequences for people.”
Can ‘Special Two’ win a special title?
Fast-forward a decade from his split with Mourinho and Villas-Boas, charming reporters with his French, arrived at Marseille after 18 months out of the game, during which he competed in the Dakar Rally.
Marseille may have struggled in Europe after reaching the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2013-14, but they continue to impress on the domestic front and the Portuguese has shaken off his “Special Two” tag.
Villas-Boas, who steered Marseille to a second-placed finish last term, boasts the joint best points-per-game record of any pf the club’s managers in Ligue 1, alongside Gerard Gili, who won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990.
“He is pretty highly regarded,” explains French football journalist Ian Holyman. “There were a few question marks over how well he would do, but it turned out he was absolutely sensational in the first season.”
Victory at Nimes on Friday made it five wins on the bounce and extended his team’s unbeaten away run in Ligue 1 to 14 games – the best streak in Europe’s top five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain).
Win both their matches in hand and Marseille will even leapfrog Paris St-Germain at the top of the table, having beaten the French champions for the first time in nine years in a heated encounter in September.
“Marseille is one of these rare places in France that is an absolute football city. There is nothing else that exists – there is no rugby, no tennis,” says Holyman about the clamour for Marseille to win a first title since 2009-10.
“Leonardo, the sporting director of PSG, caused a huge furore recently by saying Paris isn’t really a football city like Marseille is.”
Villas-Boas has quelled talk of the title, instead making headlines recently for suggesting Fifa should retire the number 10 shirt following Argentina legend Diego Maradona’s death, and calling Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa’s nomination on the five-man 2020 Best Fifa Coach Award shortlist “a scandal”.
Players love him, pundits ‘want his job’…
Villas-Boas is expected to leave Marseille when his deal runs out in the summer – his longest stint at a club was just over two years with Zenit, where he won a league title, Russian Cup and domestic Super Cup – but he almost did not make it into a second season with the French outfit.
Former Spain goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta was ousted as the club’s sporting director last season and Villas-Boas was ready to walk too, saying their futures were “intimately linked”.
“Zubizarreta is a big mate of Villas-Boas and had a lot of influence in bringing him to the club,” says Holyman, producer of The Ligue 1 Podcast.
“The players rallied and convinced Villas-Boas to stay – goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, Dimitri Payet and other senior pros got on to AVB and said: ‘You have to stay, you got us in the Champions League.’
“He’s made a big impression on the squad, both in terms of getting them to play well and personally.”
That has not translated to all involved with Marseille, especially after losing their opening four Champions League group matches, before beating Olympiakos last time out.
Pundit Eric di Meco, part of the 1992-93 Champions League-winning side, stated live on air he was receiving text messages from friends – including Lille boss Christophe Galtier – criticising the team’s performance during a 3-0 defeat at Porto, in which they failed to have a shot on target.
Villas-Boas responded by saying those wanting to coach Marseille “must wait a little longer”. But it is not the first time his style has come under scrutiny.
Despite Zenit St Petersburg winning the Russian title in 2014-15, former player Boris Chukhlov called their approach “nauseating” and likened it to “anti-football”.
“A team full of star names is going out on to the pitch. However, the tactics are too cautious,” he said. “The side is showing anti-football, which basically boils down to giving the ball as quickly as possible to Hulk or Danny.”
There was also a sense at Tottenham that his side were over-reliant on Wales forward Gareth Bale, who scored 21 league goals in the manager’s first campaign before being signed by Real Madrid.
It was a season in which Villas-Boas, who says he too was approached by Real and PSG that summer, clocked up more points than any previous Tottenham manager in the Premier League. He still boasts the third best win percentage of any Spurs boss in the competition, behind Mauricio Pochettino and Tim Sherwood.
At Marseille, Holyman says Villas-Boas’ side can be “pretty uninspiring”.
“But they have five wins in a row and if they win their games in hand they’ll be top of the league,” he adds. “So Villas-Boas must be doing something right.”
Villa-Boas for Porto president?
With six months to run on his Marseille contract, Villas-Boas has spoken of his next move being a “more exotic experience” like Japan or Brazil, where he spent time at Sao Paulo between jobs in 2012.
His options are not limited to football. The motorsport enthusiast, following in his uncle Pedro’s footsteps, participated in the iconic Dakar Rally in 2018 after leaving Shanghai SIPG.
Talked out of competing on a motorbike, Villas-Boas entered on four wheels but had to be rescued from the desert after fracturing his back in a crash during the fourth stage in Peru.
“When we got to Peru and saw those dunes, it felt impossible,” he told Uefa’s Champions League magazine. “But it was an excellent human experience.”
Or perhaps it will be a return to where it all began for the boyhood Porto fan, who voted in the club’s presidential elections this year and says he will stand himself in 2024.
“I want to try it, I always had that plan,” he told Telefoot in October. “For now, I feel good in France. It’s a fantastic country and it allows me to have contact with nature.
“I love having the mountains nearby so I can get on the motorbike or bike and get off to go for a walk. I’m a peculiar type.”