The Herald - Herald Sport
Mourinho’s eternal flame reignited in Rome
After years of turmoil, Special One has proven he still has it on way to Europa League final
NOT since the days of Aquincum has Hungary seen the Roman hordes descend as they will on Budapest for tonight’s Europa League final. Even the banner left outside Roma’s Trigoria training base seemed right out of a military history textbook: “Another step toward glory, fight for us and for history”.
At this point the temptation would be to reach for an emperor, or perhaps a Duce, as we turn to the subject of the charismatic leader who will lead the Giallorossi into battle but, in truth, all-powerful dictator is never a crown which has sat easy on the head of Jose Mourinho.
The strange contradiction at the heart of the Portuguese’s career is that his best work comes as a scrappy underdog, yet his success with such sides chained him to the continental elite. Mourinho was always an outsider, the translator who became a coach, the black sheep of Barcelona who shunned Cruyff and tiki-taka in favour of winning at all costs.
It is no coincidence that the former clubs where he remains most revered are Porto, Inter and Chelsea. Mourinho took the first to a barely believable Champions League triumph in 2004 – having secured the UEFA Cup by beating Celtic the previous year – then delivered the first league title in 50 years to Stamford Bridge. Inter may be European aristocracy, and the Portuguese took over a side which was gobbling up Scudetti in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal, but on the European stage they were a kind of grizzled “Expendables” cast who bested Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona on their way to a treble.
Arguably the defining Mourinho moment came after that second leg at Camp Nou, the fallen angel defeating the club who had snubbed him and running on to the pitch to celebrate. Barca responded by turning on the sprinklers. Not only had he beaten them, he had knocked off their halo too.
While The Special One delivered trophies at Real Madrid and Manchester United – a recordbreaking La Liga win in Spain and a League Cup and Europa League double – there was a sense he never quite fit the mould. At the Bernabeu his attempts to create a siege mentality tore the dressing room apart, while at Old Trafford his refusal to play “The United Way” spelled trouble from the start, even if in hindsight his record was far from the worst.
After failing to deliver a trophy at Tottenham – though he was sacked just ahead of a League Cup final and no one delivers trophies at Tottenham – it seemed an act of, if not desperation, then certainly that of a man with few options when Mourinho returned to Italy. In the Eternal City though, the Special One has rediscovered his sheen.
Rome is both a city obsessed with football and one that is, historically, not very successful at it. Former Roma president James Pallotta, an
American, was stunned to find on arrival that there were nine unofficial radio stations in the city dedicated to talking about the Giallorossi all day, every day. When Roma won the Scudetto in 2001, 1.8 million people took to the streets to celebrate, but it was only the third time in their history they had been campione d’Italia. They have not managed it since, and bitter rivals Lazio have just two Scudetti to their name. Torino, Bologna, Pro Vercelli and Genoa have all won more league titles than the two capital clubs can boast combined.
Part of the reason for that relative lack of success is exactly the pressurecooker environment that is football in Rome. Luciano Spalletti was brutally whistled despite his Giallorossi side finishing the 2016-17 season in the Champions League places, because the Olimpico crowd blamed him for the exile of Francesco Totti, the club’s ultimate legend.
Monchi, the legendary sporting director who built the Sevilla side which will face Roma tonight was swallowed up in the machine and spat out.
Many feared Mourinho, a famously paranoid and prickly character, would soon find himself at war with all and sundry. Instead he has taken up the figurehead role the club has always seemingly needed – whether it be Fabio
Capello, Totti or Daniele De Rossi – and united all behind him. Unlike for Julius Caesar there is no-one waiting there with a knife either.
Roma’s underdog status fits right into the Mourinho playbook. The club see themselves as battling Juventus and the two Milan clubs, who have the history, the prestige and the power they lack. When Mourinho darkly references refereeing, or the ongoing situation with Juventus’ points penalty, he is playing the song his public wants to hear.
In the last full pre-pandemic season, Roma’s average Serie A attendance was a little under 39,000. This season it is 62,000 with one home fixture to play. It is not as though the fans are coming for freeflowing football – though Paulo
Dybala remains a joy to watch when not battling injury – it is because Mourinho has made them believe.
It is easy to scoff at last season’s Europa Conference League win. After all, Roma only had to beat Vitesse Arnhem, Bodo/Glimt and Leicester City on their way to a final against Feyenoord. But to do so would be to ignore the club’s tortured and, at times, tragic relationship with European football. After winning the Scudetto in 198283, the Giallorossi reached the European Cup final at their home ground, following a controversial semi-final win over Dundee United.
They lost on penalties to Liverpool and Bruce Grobelaar’s wobbly legs and 10 years later to the day, the captain of that side, Agostino Di Bartolomei, Totti before Totti, shot himself on the balcony of his villa. In a book about the midfielder’s life, his son wrote: “Perhaps it just crept into you on that date. Because, papa, I never believed and I don’t want to believe that in that moment you thought about defeat in that stupid football game.”
In 1991 they lost the UEFA Cup final to Inter – one of the hated northern powerhouses – and the Scudetto-winning team of 2001 did not make it to the Champions League knockout stage. A solitary semi-final, lost to – of course – Liverpool was about all the Giallorossi had to show on the continental level before Mourinho.
That he won that night against Feyenoord, got the job done where Roma habitually quail, cemented his status. It is why the legions will descend on Budapest today – the Romans may lose on the big occasion, but Mourinho never does.
It seemed an act of, if not desperation, then certainly that of a man with few options when Mourinho returned to Italy. In the Eternal City though, the Special One has rediscovered his sheen