AS Roma rejoice as UEFA’s Conference League revives old Europe

THE LAST AS Roma coach to win a European trophy was Luis Carniglia from Argentina. Like José Mourinho, the current toast of the eternal city, Carniglia had won two European Cups before arriving in the Italian capital. He had also been in charge of Real Madrid and had led his team to the La Liga title. Carniglia’s European triumph with Roma was in the long forgotten Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a competition that was not actually organised by UEFA, Mourinho’s latest prize was a much-derided idea by the governing body to provide more pan-European football to the people. In some ways, the Fairs Cup and the Conference League have something in common – the battle to win credibility.

Roma beat Feyenoord 1-0 in an interesting and tense final in Tirana, settled by a deft first half goal from Nicolò Zaniolo. There was something a little nostalgic about this pairing. It took you back to the days of the Fairs Cup and its successor, the UEFA Cup, and judging by the reaction at the final whistle, it left the crowd, the TV audience and the media in no doubt that this cup meant something to both clubs.

Feyenoord might consider themselves a shade unlucky, enjoying a frenetic second half spell that saw them hit the woodwork twice, but Mourinho’s team stuck to a plan, producing a disciplined defensive display with goalkeeper Rui Patricio and central defender Chris Smalling both outstanding. Feyenoord won plenty of friends with their bold style and the future looks bright for the club from Rotterdam and their manager Arne Slot.

We live in an age of acquired elitism, where only the finest of everything is considered worthwhile. This transcends all aspects of life, from personal possessions, property, professions, occupations and lifestyles. In football, the world has become obsessed with the Champions League, so much so that anything less than qualification for the competition is seen as failure. Hence, the Europa League has often been played down and some clubs have clearly not taken it seriously enough. There was a danger the introduction of the Conference League was adding another unnecessary layer to the UEFA competition offering, that it would not appeal to the footballing public. On the evidence of year one, such concerns have all but disappeared.

But how wrong were the sceptics? Not only was the inaugural season successful and very exciting, but it also made the Europa League stronger and more coveted. The Europa is now number two in the portfolio and what’s more, the Conference made glory (something clubs have often forgotten in the pursuit of financial reward) fashionable again.

If there has ever been an ambassador for the idea of relentlessly striving for silverware, it is the Mourinho, so UEFA had just the right man heading towards Tirana. The one-time “special one” (he has asked not to be referred by this label) may no longer be at the cutting edge and may have been usurped by the new age of smart-thinking Pep and Klopp, but he is still an avid collector of footballing objet d’art. For Mourinho, a cup is a cup is a cup and he has now won 21 major prizes (plus other lesser honours). He claimed his players had made history, but he too created a little bit of notable achievement – the first and only man to win all three of the current UEFA trophies.

The Conference League has reminded us Europe’s rich footballing heritage goes beyond clubs propped up by nation states and billionaires.

For Roma, winning was clearly a relief and sparked immense joy in Tirana and back home in Rome. Their last trophy of any kind was in 2008 when they lifted the Coppa italia and their last scudetto was won in 2001. Roma have been champions of Italy just three times, a paltry roll of honour for such a big club. Now, people are wondering if Mourinho could win Serie A in this post-Juve period. Italy has long needed its big clubs to rediscover their power at home and in Europe. The Milan duo have gone through a painful process and have won the last two scudettos, can Roma do likewise and start to become a force?

As for UEFA, they must be pleased and may question the choice of Tirana as the final venue. The limited capacity of the Arena Kombëtan meant less than 20,000 saw the game, but giving it to Albania was not inappropriate and underlined the need to remove some of the elitisim in football. They have already awarded the 2023 final to the Sinobo Stadium in Prague, a modest 20,000 arena.

The competition itself may not have seen the participation of many really top clubs – the last 24 included just four from Europe’s big five leagues –  but there were four former European champions in Feyenoord (1970), Celtic (1967), PSV Eindhoven (1988) and Marseille (1993) taking part. Little wonder that one reporter noted that, “it felt like a final from old Europe”.

Along with the Europa, the Conference reminded us European football’s rich heritage has not always revolved around clubs with nation states or oil men propping them up. We also know more about players like Cyriel Dessers of Feyenoord, Ola Solbakken of Bodø/Glimt and Tammy Abraham of Roma and late of Chelsea.

If we come to terms with the idea that a team like Feyenoord and Celtic will never win the Champions League while corporate football rules the roost, then we need to ensure UEFA’s other competitions have as much relevance and prestige. Nobody in Rome will think twice about how important the Conference League is on the morning after the Giallorossi became the first Italian side to win a UEFA prize since 2010 – when a certain José Mourinho’s Inter completed the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Roma and Mourinho are back, and UEFA’s decision to add a third gateway to Europe was heartily endorsed. An emotional Mourinho held up five fingers at the end of the game to signal he had just won his fifth European prize, an incredible achievement. Or was it to indicate he had ended a five-year barren spell without a trophy?

AS Roma need to grab the chance, despite their financial limits

WHEN José Mourinho joined Roma, it looked like a statement of intent, a sign that the giallorossi were eager to become genuine contenders. They might not have been getting Mourinho circa 2004, but any club that aspires to win trophies is attracted by his track record. 

Roma’s 6-1 defeat in Norway in the Europa Conference League was a shocker for their fans and the Italian football community, Mourinho teams don’t lose like that and even with a weakened team, there was no way that should have happened. Roma should still qualify for the latter stages of the Conference League despite that humbling against Bodo/Glimt, but the Mourinho image was a little damaged by such a setback.

If that result was embarrassing for Roma and their coach, then the club’s financial condition is also a worry, despite the new ownership of the Friedkin Group. Roma lost € 185 million in the 2020-21 season, which continued the negative financial impact of the pandemic on Italy’s Serie A. Roma may also face sanctions in connection with breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.

Juventus announced their results recently and made a loss of € 210 million, which at the time was the highest ever for a Serie A club. Inter Milan topped that with a € 245 million loss in their title-winning season. AC Milan’s loss was € 96.4 million, a huge deficit but much lower than 2019-20 when they lost almost € 200 million.

In spite of these setback, Serie A has become very attractive for US investors like Friedkin owing to the competitive pricing of clubs and future broadcasting rights. Seven members of Serie A and two from Serie B currently have US backers in some capacity. 

Roma’s revenues actually increased by 35% to € 190 million, but their wage bill accounted for a very disconcerting 89% of income. Unsurprisingly, matchday income declined by 37% and since 2018-29 has dropped by 62%. TV income was up by 44% to € 124 million and commercial and other streams were up by 50% to € 53 million.

The biggest anxiety surrounding the financial results could eventually be the Financial Fair Play issues. The club’s press release said: “On the basis of the final figures as at June 30, 2021, a deviation from the UEFA break-even requirements for the reporting period for four years has been recorded. Therefore, the club may be subject to the sending of more economic-financial information and, subsequently, the Club Control Body in charge of the control, may requiest any contradictory clarifications for the appropriate assessments.” 

This may mean the club will face sanctions, although the rules are currently being rewritten and FFP punishments suspended. When they become operational again, a number of Italian clubs could be compromised.

Roma were less active than Juventus, AC Milan and Parma in the transfer market in 2020-21 but in 2021-22, they are so far the biggest spenders in Serie A having acquired € 100 million of fresh talent, including Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham (€ 40 million). Roma’s ability to spend underlines the confidence the club’s owners have in their objective of challenging at the top of Serie A and in Europe.

The Friedkin Group recently injected more cash in the club bringing Roma’s net debt to over € 300 million. They are, however, planning a capital increase of up to € 460 million, to be completed by the end of 2022. When they took the club over in August 2020, the company’s CEO, Dan Friedkin, proclaimed that Roma could become on the greatest names in football. 

But since the takeover, Roma have shelved plans for a planned new stadium after earlier signs that the project was gathering momentum. In February 2019, the city’s mayor said private financing was willing to contribute € 1 billion towards the cost. The new 55,000 arena was being driven by the club’s previous owner, James Pallotta. Friedkin subsequently analysed the scheme and came to the conclusion the financial, economic and legal conditions were unsuitable. It’s not completely over, though, as the club has confirmed they are in talks with the Rome authorities and reviewing their options, including a green and sustainable stadium for the future.

Last season, under Paulo Fonseca, Roma reached the semi-finals of the Europa League but were heavily beaten at Manchester United (6-2) at Old Trafford and eventually went out 8-5 on aggregate. They also finished seventh in Serie A, thus qualifying for the inaugural Conference League. 

Absence from the UEFA Champions League (and the Europa) will cost Roma dear in 2021-22. Every point in the group stage of the Champions League earns € 930,000 and just qualifying for the knockout stages wins a further € 9.6 million. With Serie A clubs suffering more than most from the pandemic, the income from the Champions League is vital, especially in the current climate. The Conference League prize money is, understandably, much lower, € 500,000 for a group stage win and winning the group yields € 650,000.

Roma’s goal is clearly to get among the Champions League contenders, but they will have to improve their away form in Serie A. Their home record is good, five wins and a draw and only two goals conceded, but away from the Stadio Olimpico they have won once and lost their last three games, the most recent at Juve. Their latest performance saw them hold early season leaders Napoli to a 0-0 draw, a game that saw Mourinho sent off, but one that redeemed the team after the disaster at Bodo/Glimt.

Roma remain one of Europe’s underachievers and their three scudettos – the last in 2001 – is a paltry return for such a big, well supported club. Although they have won nine Coppa Italias, their only success in Europe has been the fledgling Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961. Although they have the potential to be champions and a European force, they are currently way behind the likes of Juventus in terms of financial clout or business acumen. Regardless of that, the 2021-22 season may be one of the most open in Italian football history, there’s an opportunity to be grasped.

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: ALAMY