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?

Conference League: Mourinho’s trophy?

THERE ARE some big names still in the Conference League, probably bigger than UEFA expected, and three of the clubs are past winners of the European Cup/Champions League: PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and Marseille. Furthermore, Leicester City and Roma are also still involved, making it a reasonable last eight.

While Leicester will fancy their chances, they face PSV, but the Foxes are less consistent this season and are currently 10th in the Premier. They probably expected better after winning the FA Cup in 2021. PSV are not the force of old, but they are second in the Eredivisie and just two points behind Ajax. Their line-up is likely to include the sought-after winger, Cody Gakpo. The 22 year-old has netted 16 goals this season and is being eyed by Premier League clubs, including Arsenal. This is a tie that could go either way. 

PSV’s stablemate, Feyenoord, face Slavia Prague for the second time after meeting them twice in the group stage.  Slavia, who have had reputational problems due to accusations of racism on the pitch, are are just one point behind Viktoria Plzen in the Czech First League and are capable of surprising a few people.

One team that could emerge as favourites for the inaugural Conference League is Marseille (OM), no strangers to European success in recent years and now second in Ligue 1 but 12 points worse off than leaders Paris Saint-Germain. OM face PAOK and should be too strong for the Greek side. Marseille have an Arsenal player on loan in the form of William Saliba, who has been in excellent form this year.

The other quarter final is between Bodo/Glimt of Norway and Roma. These two sides met earlier this season and José Mourinho’s Roma were beaten 6-1, the worst defeat in the managerial career of the “special one”. One would assume that Roma won’t get fooled again and Mourinho may just see the Conference League as an ideal way to end what has been a patchy first season in the Italian capital. Roma are considered to be favourites to win the competition.

Mourinho always sees the value of winning silverware and no matter how unimportant some people think the competition is, he will be keen to add to his haul of major prizes. Roma have spurned the chance of challenging for a Champions League place in a campaign in which Juventus have been transitioning, but they have been in good form recently and are unbeaten in nine Serie A games, including a 3-0 win against Lazio in the Rome derby. What’s more, their € 40 million signing, Tammy Abraham, who joined from Chelsea, has proved to be an excellent acquisition, scoring 23 goals.

The final is scheduled to be hosted in Tirana, but UEFA are considering a switch due to possible political interference in football. Greece has been mentioned as a possible new venue.

The quality of the Conference last eight must be something of a relief for UEFA, but three of the quarter-finalists have arrived via the Europa League. Nevertheless, a decent winner will add to the credibility of the competition.