Winning Roma’s first trophy in 14 years makes Mourinho close to immortal in the Eternal City

Winning Roma's first trophy in 14 years makes Mourinho close to immortal in the Eternal City
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Around 11 p.m. Wednesday, a flock of seagulls descended on the Stadio Olimpico. There was a sea below them. Il Mare di Roma. A rough and swollen sea by Roma supporters. A sea that roared as it released all the emotion it had held deep inside for so long.

The floodgates had opened full-time in the Europa Conference League final. More than 50,000 people rushed onto the pitch to celebrate what they had just watched on the big screens around them. After 14 long years, the wait was over.

Across the Adriatic Sea in Tirana, Roma captain Lorenzo Pellegrini, born and raised in the Eternal City’s Cinecittà district, lifted a trophy at the 21,000-seat neutral Arena Kombetare too small for fanbases as large as his club’s. and Dutch opponents Feyenoord.

“I was just saying the other day that I never imagined being part of a success like this, at 25, in that shirt, wearing that armband,” Pellegrini said.

And why would he imagine such a thing? Not since Giuseppe Giannini in 1991 has anyone from the city led Roma to play in a European final. Standing in the stands, Francesco Totithe club legend who had the midfielder known as Er Principe on his childhood bedroom wall, couldn’t even say that.

“Today was not work,” said head coach Jose Mourinho in tears. “That was history, and we wrote it.”

It was the club’s first European honor since Giacomo Losi hosted the Intercity Fairs Cup, a bygone competition considered the precursor to the UEFA Cup and Europa League, in 1961 after beating Birmingham City.

One goal was enough not only to separate Roma from Feyenoord on the night, but also from the club’s fallen runners-up from years past.

(Photo: Tullio Apulia – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

“It was my dream,” said Nicolo Zaniolo. By blasting off centre-back Gernot Trauner, dropping Gianluca Mancini’s ball over the top and scoring just over half an hour, the 22-year-old became the youngest Italian player to find the back of the net in a European final from Alessandro. Del Piero’s heel kick for Juventus against Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

On the one hand, of course, it had to be Zaniolo. He made his debut for Roma as a teenager at the Bernabeuand his hat trick succeeded their Norwegian group stage foe Bodo/Glimt when the two teams met again last month in the quarter-finals. And yet on the other hand the youthful promise he showed risked never being satisfied after suffering ACL tears in both knees in the span of nine months in 2020.

He is now in the annals of Roma with Paolo Pestrin as the only player to have decided a European final in their favor.

The game was not easy in Tirana.

Mourinho lost Henrikh Mkhitaryan after a quarter of an hour when the muscle tear he had spent the last month rehabilitating reopened. Trauner then hit the post early in the second half and Rui Patricio drove a stinging shot from Tyrell Malacia over the bar.

The crowd at the Olimpico was growing increasingly nervous and there were fears of a repeat of 1984, when thousands of Roma fans who were unable to take part in the European Cup final against Liverpool attended a concert by the legendary local crooner Antonello Venditti. It was supposed to be an after-party only for Roma, unfortunately lost on penalties.

This time it was Marco Conidi who performed a crowd favorite at the Olimpico. It included the lyrics “Ovunque tu sarai, mai sola mai” – Wherever you are, you are never alone. Not even 624 kilometers (337 miles) east in Albania.

The Roma dug deep. Chris Smalling got in the way. Roger Ibanez too. Tammy Abraham went down with a small nod and wink, conjuring up Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets against Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final. Rick Karsdorp rolled up his socks and tried to massage the lactic acid from his leg cramps.

There were times when the team looked exhausted, chasing down Feyenoord and their 67 per cent possession.

After Zaniolo’s goal, the applause at the Olimpico was mostly reserved for the big screens showing Patricio’s saves, a VAR ruling that Mancini failed to handle the ball in his penalty area and the bookings that Feyenoord players obtained during a tactical foul against Roma.

(Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

But in the end, this team got the job done and whether it was nice or not the change in mentality, the Mourinification of a group of players is undeniable.

Roma have had more talented squads in recent memory. Better to watch, like the 2014 vintage of Rudi Garcia with Radja Nainggolan, Miralem Pjanic and Gervinho or that of Luciano Spalletti two seasons later with Alisson, Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko. Stick either of these teams in Serie A this season, and they might have won the scudetto. But it was this one that ended the wait for silverware, not just for Roma but for Italy, who haven’t been able to celebrate a European winner since, you guessed it, Mourinho won the hat-trick with Inter 12 years ago.

“Winning the Europa League with Man United (as he did in 2017) is almost natural,” Mourinho said. “Winning the Champions League with Porto (the 2004 triumph that took him to Chelsea and global fame) is not normal.

“Winning the Champions League with Inter gave people joy. Winning today with Roma gives people joy. It has a special meaning.

Whatever you think of the Europa Conference League after its first year. Whatever you think of Roma’s 2021-22 season and where Mourinho stands in his career arc, he’s undoubtedly right. What some call a “coppetta” – a small cup – is a big deal here.

Rome once had the greatest empire this planet has ever seen. It was “caput mundi”—capital of the world. And yet, over time, it turned inward and adopted a small-town mentality. The singers and poets of Rome, like Venditti and Trilussa, are not known far outside the Aurelian walls. Even Totti’s brilliance as a player would be appreciated more had he left Roma to play on a bigger stage like Real Madrid’s Bernabeu.

And yet, what greater scene could there be than Rome? It’s a city with a club in Rome that should have won so much more, and so when the team achieves success at national or international level, the emotion flows like the Trevi Fountain.

“We are Romans, but we are much more Romanists,” says the lyric of Lando Fiorini’s song, which was released on Wednesday night.

For hours after full time, a cacophony of car horns echoed around this ancient venue. A convoy went to Fiumicino airport to welcome the team as heroes at four in the morning.

When Mourinho arrived a year ago, he emerged on the balcony of Roma’s Trigoria training ground, pointing to the club’s badge, a she-wolf, on a red and yellow scarf.

This morning he got off a plane from Tirana with a trophy, close to the immortal in the eternal.

(Top photo: Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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