Not long ago, an Italian radio show opened the phones for listeners and a final‑year biology student called Marta rang in with a problem. On Wednesday Marta graduates from university in Rome but, she explained, her dad won’t be there with her: he will be in Budapest instead. When it mattered, Roma came first. The story was soon everywhere, the subject of debate, and while not everyone agrees – the club’s former captain Daniele De Rossi said he was staying behind to be with his daughter – plenty were on her father’s side.
This is only the fourth Uefa final Roma have reached, after all. Half of those have now been under José Mourinho, who has won all five of those he has been at, including last year’s Conference League for Roma. That was their first trophy since 2008. If Marta is not happy with Mourinho, everyone else is delighted. Win the Europa League against Sevilla and some think it would be the greatest achievement of his career, bigger even than what he did at Porto or Internazionale.
When he was asked recently about the prospect of Roma reaching the Champions League with an extremely limited budget – something that could be secured in Hungary – Mourinho said that doing so would not just be history or a miracle; it would be Jesus Christ himself turning up in Rome and taking a stroll around the Vatican. Not that he was thinking about that, he insisted, as he prepared his team at their Trigoria training ground: he just wanted to play, to make the fans happy.
Oh, he has. Joy may not always be the word most associated with Mourinho, the manager whose team edged through the semi‑final second leg against Bayer Leverkusen with a single shot, less than 30% possession and the ball out of play almost as much as it was in, and as he prepared for this final there was a very pointed question about his way of doing things. On the touchline, in particular. There have been 13 red cards shown to occupants of the bench this season, product of a conscious policy, pressure applied on the officials. Did it really need to be that way, he was asked?
Mourinho sat, listened to this long flowing Italian monologue, said it was a nice speech and then refused to answer. As the translator began to run through it, the coach stopped him, spitting in English: “Don’t waste your time with that shit.” If that felt almost comfortingly confrontational, it didn’t entirely fit. Those kinds of debates are for the pundits and the purists. The fans, put bluntly, couldn’t care less. In fact, in the land of Machiavelli, that only makes it better. The chest out, the competing, the sticking it to the rest, by any means necessary. This is Mourinho’s way and it is no exaggeration to say that they love him.
They are sixth in the league, their football may not be the finest, but the Stadio Olimpico has been full for 32 games in a row; the 33rd may be on Wednesday night when a giant screen shows the match against Sevilla from Budapest. There was excitement from the start, a welcome that spoke of warmth, but now it is something else.
So, he says, is he. It is 20 years since his first European title, with Porto in this competition’s forerunner. Five finals, five victories. A sixth final coming, unexpectedly. Some claim these games were gone, glory days behind him, but no. Asked how he has changed, he replied: “Better coach, better person, same DNA.
“The DNA is motivation, happiness, the desire to have these big moments. Our job is not like a player’s job; our job, you can be better and better with your experiences.
“As a player, you use your body and your body does not respond the same way when you are 30 as when you are 40. As a coach, your brain becomes sharper and the accumulation of knowledge is better with the years. You stop when you lose motivation, which is not the case. My motivation goes up every day. So I think I am better now.”
Tammy Abraham refers to Mourinho as his Roman uncle and if he’s been called worse things, these days he’s much more likely to be called better ones. Midfielder Nicola Zalewski described him as the mastermind behind Roma’s success. Paulo Dybala called their relationship “special”; few men had been so direct, which is what he does of course, all part of what supporters like about him. The former Roma director Walter Sabatini said Mourinho was a “miracle worker”. Club legend Giuseppe Giannini described signing him as a brilliant idea. The love Roma’s fans have, he said, was “unique”: Mourinho is the beneficiary, and that is not something to turn your back on.
The fear, implicit in that advice, is that he will. The resources mean they find it hard to imagine him staying, maybe even impossible: this is a man for something bigger. Some of his remarks, Christ’s return included, have carried the hint of dissatisfaction at the limitations. When he turned up to watch Roma’s B team recently – and to deliver the half-time team talk – the 300 or so fans at Tre Fontane serenaded him, pleading with him to stay. “Don’t go, Rome loves you,” they sang.
“With Roma, one day it will be hard to leave, but we will be connected for ever,” he said. And although he said that was true of almost everywhere he went and much as he couldn’t resist a dig, there is something different at Roma, the affection deep. “I hope Tottenham fans don’t get me wrong, but the reality is that the only club in my career where I don’t have still a deep feeling is Tottenham,” Mourinho said.
“I give everything and people are not stupid. I don’t think it is about winning or not winning. You can win sometimes, but the margin is very, very small. It is about the feeling. In Roma’s case, it is not about winning or being in the final; they feel like I wear the shirt and I fight for them every day. People laugh when I say I am Madridista, I am Interista, I am Romanista because [they think] I cannot love every club. Yes, I love every club. I love every club because I always felt that they also love me. With Roma, I will be connected for ever, like I am with all my previous clubs, apart from Mr Levy[’s] club.”
There are those who think Roma are yet to defeat a truly testing team en route, whereas Sevilla have faced Manchester United and Juventus. Mourinho is not one of them.
“We have come a long way, we played 14 tough games: we went to Ludogorets, getting back at 7am, we played in the cold in Helsinki, we went to Betis where it was win or bust, we played Real Sociedad who have had a fantastic season. We have had injuries, players out of positions, kids played in both legs of the semi-final. We played Bayer Leverkusen, a Champions League team. And now we want to play it, enjoy it, with the Romanisti.” Even if it does mean missing a daughter’s graduation.