It took 11 years for Internazionale to reclaim top billing in Italy, winning Serie A for the first time since their historic Treble of 2010. Within two days, José Mourinho (pictured) had returned to relegate them off the front page.
News of his appointment by Roma arrived like a thunderclap from a cloudless sky. The club’s intention to move on from Paulo Fonseca was well known, but Maurizio Sarri was thought to be the frontrunner. The pivot to Mourinho was met with bewilderment and enthusiasm in the Italian capital. Fabio Capello described it as “not a choice, but a broadside”.
Mourinho’s brand has been diminished by successive disappointments at Manchester United and Tottenham, but in Italy his Special One moniker continues to be used without sarcasm. His reputation has stayed frozen in time: the man who orchestrated that unprecedented Inter treble, conquering Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona along the way.
The headline of Gazzetta dello Sport’s leader column was indicative, defining Mourinho’s appointment as “a Special coup that will relaunch the club, the city and Italian football”. Never mind that his past four seasons ended without a major piece of silverware. The newspaper’s Andrea Di Caro argued that Roma could never have generated this much publicity by winning a Scudetto.
That might have been overstating the case a smidgen. Roma have won Serie A three times and Francesco Totti observed that a title in his city was worth 10 times what it would be elsewhere.
Roma were Inter’s closest domestic challengers during 2009‑10, finishing runners-up in Serie A and the Coppa Italia. They led the league with four games to play and were on course to reclaim first place at half-time on the final day.
The press conferences when Mourinho used to torment his rivals are remembered more vividly than most of what happened on the pitch. After a 3-3 draw in 2009, the Roma manager, Luciano Spalletti, complained about a penalty awarded to Mario Balotelli. Mourinho responded with a rant against “intellectual prostitution” of a discourse focused on a refereeing decision, rather than the failures of a Roma team with great players and zero tituli (no titles).
Who could have imagined back then that he might one day be greeted enthusiastically by Roma supporters? It is almost as improbable as Antonio Conte earning the adulation of Inter fans, by ending the nine-year run of Juventus domination that he launched.
The parallel paths of the two former Chelsea managers will be a fascinating subplot to next season. They clashed repeatedly during Conte’s time in England, Mourinho criticising the Italian for his wild celebrations during a 4-0 win over his Manchester United team in 2016 and following up on subsequent occasions with accusations of catenaccio and a remark about “not losing any hair” over his opposite number’s opinions.
Mourinho continued to prod, defining Conte’s touchline demeanour as clown-like in early 2018. The Italian responded by saying that he must be forgetting his own past behaviour, adding a crude suggestion that he was suffering from demenza senile.
“Yes, I made mistakes in the past,” said Mourinho. “What never happened to me — and will never happen — is to be suspended for match-fixing.”
The reference here was to a four-month suspension Conte served in 2012 for an alleged failure to report a match-fixing attempt during his time at Siena, an offence of which he was subsequently absolved in court. Conte called Mourinho a “little, little man” live on TV.
Will the war of words resume? It is easy to imagine Mourinho’s line of attack, given his time at Inter ended in Champions League triumph, where Conte failed to make it out of this season’s group stage. Or will he choose to tread more carefully when it comes to a club he has always characterised as having a special place in his heart? Former players from Inter’s treble‑winning team have described him as the most active member of their enduring group chat.
In an interview with Gazzetta last year, Mourinho reflected on his decision to join Real Madrid immediately after that triumph, saying it was the third time they had come calling and he feared there would not be a fourth. He claimed Inter’s owner at the time, Massimo Moratti, had given his blessing. “(He gave me) the right to do what I wanted,” said Mourinho, “not the right to be happy. In fact, I was happier in Milan than Madrid.”
Florentino Pérez portrayed Mourinho as a star signing for Madrid back then, saying: “This year, the galáctico is Mourinho.” There were echoes of that sentiment in the statement released by Roma’s owners, Dan and Ryan Friedki, on Tuesday. “The appointment of José is a huge step in building a long-term and consistent winning culture through our club.”
Are they, like Mourinho, guilty of nostalgia? Is he still a manager who can guarantee success as he once did? In the era of three points for a win, only Conte has a better Serie A average than Mourinho, but Roma cannot offer their new manager the tools he had in those two glorious seasons at Inter.
There is potential in the squad he inherits, but big questions as well. Lorenzo Pellegrini, Leonardo Spinazzola and Gianluca Mancini provide a promising core and all three feature regularly in Roberto Mancini’s Italy squads. Nicolò Zaniolo was shaping up as one of the country’s brightest prospects but he will have to rebuild his career after consecutive cruciate ligament tears.
Roma have also relied on players Mourinho has coached before and not always seen eye-to-eye with — Pedro, Chris Smalling and Henrikh Mkhitaryan — as well as the 35-year-old Edin Dzeko up front. The squad is bloated, with too many fringe players on big wages, a situation that is only made harder to resolve in a time of pandemic-squeezed budgets.
The granting of a three-year contract, taken together with the emphasis on long-term planning in the club’s statement, suggest Mourinho will not be expected to fix every problem right away. There is that old saying about Rome not being built in a day. Has expectation been set too high already, though, by giddy front pages in the month of May? — Guardian.