Awaiting Mourinho: AS Roma and the quest for credibility

IT DIDN’T take long for José Mourinho to find himself a new job, in fact, if we didn’t know. Better, you’d think this was plan all along. Most likely, AS Roma’s owners felt that if they didn’t act quickly, they might miss out on luring one of the biggest names in football management to the Italian capital. 

It could be a very good move for Roma, one of European football’s great enigmas, and it may be a very comfortable new role for Mourinho. But what do Roma expect and what are their ambitions? Champions League football, almost certainly, but a scudetto? Roma have only won the title three times in their long history, a paltry figure given the size of the club and the city they jointly represent with Lazio.

Rome, as a football city, is one of the biggest underachievers among European capital cities. Between Roma and Lazio, only five scudettos have been won, compared to the 43 won by Turin and 36 secured by Milan. The industrial north, with clubs supported by wealthy industrialists, has long dominated Italian football. Rome has always been a passionate football city, but its teams have sold themselves rather short.

Roma won their first scudetto in 1942 when Italy were in the clutches of Benito Mussolini. It took 40 years before they would win it again, in 1982-83 with a team that included Carlo Anecelotti, Falcao, Bruno Conti and Roberto Pruzzo. Their last Serie A success was in 2001 when they just edged-out Juventus. This was the Roma of Gabriel Batistuta, Francisco Totti and Cafu. 

With Juventus seemingly less potent than they were a year or two ago, Inter facing financial pressure and AC Milan still some way off being genuine contenders, Roma may feel that with a push here and there and a bit of the old Mourinho “special” magic, they could join the 2021-22 title race.

But do they have the financial clout and playing resources to mould a team that can challenge the top teams? Losing 6-2 to a far from formidable Manchester United in the Europa League semi-final first leg at Old Trafford should tell Mourinho something about the team he will inherit. Roma’s record against the three northern giants of Juventus, Inter and AC Milan, has not been especially good over the past five years. In 29 games, they have won nine, with five of those in 2016-17. 

And yet Roma have been relatively consistent over the past decade, finishing no lower than seventh (their likely spot in 2020-21) and coming in as runners-up three times. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2018 after a memorable comeback against Barcelona and have reached four Coppa Italia semi-finals, losing in the final in 2013.

Financially, Roma are way off the pace set by Europe’s elite, notably Juventus in their home market. Their revenues in 2019-20 totalled € 149 million, a 37% drop on the previous season and over € 250 million less than Juventus and half of Inter Milan’s total income. Roma’s revenues declined more than any of Italy’s top six clubs and they suffered a huge € 172 million net loss. Only AC Milan lost more money, but Italy’s clubs were very negatively impacted by the pandemic in 2019-20.

But their wage bill is clearly too high, € 155 million in 2019-20, representing a wage-to-income ratio of 104%. This is obviously unsustainable and will be a key discussion point as Mourinho takes up his position. The club’s net debt is also very high, almost € 300 million. 

One can only assume the attraction of Roma is based on more than the fundamentals, which are not over-appetising. Maybe the owners, the Friedkin Group, led by billionaire Daniel Friedkin, are going to heavily invest in the team to give Mourinho the tools he needs. Certainly, Friedkin’s announcement spoke of installing a “winning culture” at the club as he declared Roma had pulled off a coup in hiring the Portuguese tactician. But there will be no “instant team” fixes, so expectations will have to be realistic.

Meanwhile, what has Mourinho got in the current Roma squad? It’s sizeable, but apparently, too many fringe players are earning too much. There’s some familiar names, but age is not necessarily on their side: Chris Smalling (31), Edin Dzeko (35), Pedro (33) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (32). Some of these players may not be overjoyed at the prospect of working with Mourinho. With the right new signings, and Mourinho has already hinted he wants a new goalkeeper, a central midfielder and a striker to back-up the veteran Dzeko, Roma can move closer to the top. If nothing else, Roma are going to be good box office for a while as the project takes shape. Mourinho’s last spell in Italy was spectacularly successful but nobody expects a repeat. It will be fascinating to see if he can conjure up a season or two that reminds us why, for some time, he was the future.


Photo: ALAMY

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