Jose Mourinho arrives in Rome: We want to leave a legacy

Mourinho’s image has already been plastered on a Rome building.

Yes, something bigger has hit Rome than Italy’s national soccer team playing for its first European title in 53 years Sunday night. He came by private jet from Lisbon but he may as well have come by horse from battle, similar to the statue he passed on his way to Thursday’s introductory press conference. Only Jose Mourinho would include himself in the same sentence with Marcus Aurelius, on said statue in Rome’s Campidoglio, one of the seven hills on which Rome was founded. It was a fitting place to introduce to a soccer-crazed city a manager who is called “The Special One.”

Since his reign in the 2nd century A.D., Marcus Aurelius has been considered one of Rome’s five greatest emperors. We A.S. Roma fans will settle for Mourinho just beating Lazio.

“Well, we are near to the statue of Marcus Aurelius.,” Mourinho said. “As he once said, ‘Nulla viene dal nulla, nulla ritorna dal nulla’ (‘Nothing can come out of nothing, any more than a thing can go back to nothing’). This has a very similar feeling to what I experienced when I spoke with (owners) Dan and Ryan (Friedkin) for the first time.

“What they want for the club is very clear. You should never forget the past, but we want to build a future. In football the word ‘time’ never seems to exist, but here it does. What the ownership want is not success today and then problems tomorrow. They want to create a sustainable system. They want to leave a legacy for the future. That is why I am here.”

The reaction

Roma’s eternal second-rung status in Italian soccer is why this city is abuzz like I haven’t seen it in my 7 ½ years here as a Romanista. The ink on his 3-year, 7.5-million euro annual contract hadn’t dried before street artist Harry Greb drew a giant portrait of Mourinho on a Vespa decked out in an A.S. Roma scarf.

A local gelateria has made a “Special One” gelato made from the “freshness of citrus fruits with sweetness of white chocolate.” A local Pizza Mourinho is being pitched that includes red and yellow peppers (for the club’s colors), anchovies, pangrattato (bread crumbs) and Roman mint. 

Hundreds showed up to greet his jet when it arrived Friday. Thousands came to the training ground to cheer him. A clothes store down the street from me is selling T-shirts with the Vespa drawing — for 65 euros. 

Since the club formed in 1927, Roma has won only three Serie A Italian titles, its last in 2001. Its last trophy was an Italian Cup in 2008. Since then it has gone through nine managers.

“They just finished 29 points behind the title winner and 16  off of fourth place,” Mourinho said. “We can’t shy away from that. First and foremost, why did it happen? And what direction do we need to take?”

So on the heels of a seventh-place finish, matching Roma’s worst in 16 years, here comes a manager who has eight league titles in four countries, Champions League trophies with two clubs, a UEFA Cup and 10 domestic cups.

And this Jose Mourinho, “The Special One,” thinks we’re special enough to manage us?

My reaction

When I heard the shocking news of his hiring, my 40 years as a sportswriter in my previous life left me cautious and quiet. Yes, he has more silverware than the queen. But in his last four jobs, he left Real Madrid in 2013 by mutual agreement, left Chelsea in 2015 by mutual agreement, got fired by Manchester United in December 2018 and got fired by Tottenham Hotspurs in April.

As one journalist asked, is he no longer at his peak?

“I’m a victim of my own success,” he said. “I’m a victim of how people perceive me. I won three trophies with Manchester United and it was a disaster. At Tottenham we reached a cup final and weren’t able to play it (due to Covid). What’s a disaster for me is fantastic for other coaches.”

The more I let the news settle in my frayed nerves left over from an awful 2020-21 campaign, the more I’m coming around to the idea. It’s not just that Mourinho is one of the three or four biggest managerial names in world soccer. It’s that Roma needed to get off the straight and narrow path it always took and take a mountain bike ride up the tallest peak.

Roma always goes for the up-and-coming coach from a lesser league or club. Most recently, Paulo Fonseca came from Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine, after Eusebio Di Francesco came from Sassuolo in Serie A, Luciano Spalletti from Zenit in Russia and Rudi Garcia from Lille in France.

All started strong and then flatlined. Only Spalletti left on his own accord.

Why not take a chance on a living legend who, deep down, may be pissed as hell at Spurs and Man U and wants to prove them wrong? Granted, Mourinho may take us for a ride off a cliff but he’s seen a few mountaintops. Roma hasn’t seen a summit in two decades.

Me at Terrazza Caffarelli

That’s why the club chose a special setting for The Special One. When I want to impress a visitor or have a romantic afternoon with Marina, I take them to Terrazza Caffarelli. It’s adjacent to Campidoglio, the piazza designed by Michelangelo and where Rome has its City Hall. Terrazza Caffarelli is one of the most beautiful spots in the city, with a wide terrace to sip wine and a panoramic view of the city, including three domed churches sticking in the sky like shiny gems. 

It’s where people come from all over the world to get married, a metaphor the local press quickly jumped on as they want this marriage between manager and Roma to last. For a change.

The press conference

This marriage is more anticipated than in some royal families. The press conference was broadcast to 50 countries, from Vietnam to Haiti. Only 70 credentials were given due to Covid but 21 were given to foreign journalists from places such as Iran, China and Brazil. I sat next to a woman reporting for Albania.

However, Dog-Eared Passport got one.

I knew the Italian media has a different view of objectivity but I’ve never been to a press conference where a coach or manager got an ovation as he arrived. Mourinho did. Looking relaxed in a black sportcoat and a white, open-collar shirt, he looked fit and energetic. Except for his hair, which resembles the silver of the trophies he’s collected, he doesn’t look 58.

Mourinho took control of the press conference early and didn’t let go for the full 30 minutes. In fact, he asked the first question.

“Why am I here?” he said.

I can guess the answer. If he’s not toxic in England’s Premier League, he at least wore out his welcome. In Italy he’s remembered for winning back-to-back Serie A titles in 2009 and 2010 with Inter Milan before jumping for big coin at Real Madrid. Roma also has what appears to be a dynamic father-son owner team in Dan and Ryan Friedkin who have been mutes to the media but made a lot of noise with this monumental hire.

 “They don’t want overnight success,” Mourinho said. “They want a sustainable future for the club with a lot of passion behind it. That’s the main reason I decided to come to Roma.”

Mourinho also has lost not a twit of confidence. He has no problem jumping into the pressure cooker that is Roma whose fans have reputedly the most unrealistic expectations of any fan base in Europe. Five radio stations in Rome are devoted to 24-hour A.S. Roma talk. Then again, the fans also drop what they’re doing and throw rose petals at his feet as he enters the city.

“I’ve had to change my number three times,” he said. “All jokes aside, the fans are incredible. For those who’ve worked in Italy, when you’re not here, you do miss it.”

It has been 11 years since he left Italy and since then he’s had prickly relationships with owners, with the media, with opposing managers. Even he admits, “As you know, I’m not the nicest guy at work.”

He was asked how much he’s changed in those 11 years.

“I’m a better person and a better coach,” he said. “As people, we all need to do that. If you don’t become better people, something is wrong. I’m more mature. My DNA hasn’t changed.”

The problems ahead

He has a lot of work to do. Edin Dzeko, No. 3 on Roma’s all-time scoring list, is 35 and his status isn’t set. Roma’s best young player, 22-year-old Nicolo Zaniolo, is coming off his second major knee injury in two years. Leonardo Spinazzola, maybe the best midfielder in this year’s European Championships, blew out his Achilles in the quarterfinals and is out until at least January.

Oh, and … “Sorry director,” Mourinho said while turning to sporting director Tiago Pinto on the podium, “but we do need a left back.”

They’re bringing in a new goalkeeper, Rui Patricio, from Wolverhampton in the Premiership. They appear to have the inside track on Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, the captain who helped lead Switzerland to the Euro semifinals.

Training for the 2021-22 season began shortly after the press conference. If Roma’s strikers run as fast as Mourinho did when he left the room, we could have hope.

“I didn’t come here as a tourist,” he said. “I’m not here on holiday. We’re here to get to work.”