How many managers could inspire a mural before taking charge of their first game? José Mourinho was not even officially in the job yet at Roma when the street artist Harry Greb depicted his likeness on a wall in the Testaccio neighbourhood of Italy’s capital.
The Portuguese was shown riding an iconic model of Vespa, known colloquially as “il Specialino”. This version was rebranded as “Specialone”.
Roma had announced Mourinho’s appointment three days earlier, revealing that he would replace Paulo Fonseca at the end of the 2020-21 campaign. It was a spectacular PR coup. In a city famous for the obsessive media scrutiny applied to its two leading football clubs, not a whisper leaked out ahead of time.
The story even relegated Inter’s title win off the front pages. Mourinho was the last man to lead the Nerazzurri to the Scudetto. Now he was back to topple them, just as Antonio Conte had ended the reign of his former club, Juventus.
Or was he? In an interview with the Italian edition of GQ Mourinho asserted that “people look at me and think about me only one way: as a winner”. That claim may raise an eyebrow of anyone who followed his recent stints at Manchester United and Tottenham, yet it remains broadly true in Italy, where memories of his Inter treble prevail.
Rather than promising further success, however, Mourinho sought to juxtapose this reputation with the fact Roma have not won a Scudetto for 20 years. They were the closest rivals to his Inter team a decade ago but lately have slipped back. Since finishing third and reaching a Champions League semi-final in 2018 the Giallorossi have slumped to sixth, fifth and seventh in Serie A.
Mourinho played down the idea that he can offer a quick fix, insisting it was the promise of a long-term project that attracted him to the job. His stated goal is not to win right away but to lay foundations for ongoing success. “I hope that the results of our work will be something you can see while I am here,” he told the club’s website. “But we will take on one thing at a time.”
Hiring Mourinho to lead such a project was not an obvious choice. Even his best teams had a reputation for burning bright then burning out. He has had five postings that lasted longer than two years. Only at Porto were results in his third season better than those in his first.
He is accustomed to working with bigger budgets than Roma’s. The club was bought out by the Friedkin Group, led by the American billionaire Dan Friedkin, last August, but between Financial Fair Play rules and the new owners’ desire to build a long-term future on a sound footing there are no expectations of a lavish outlay this summer. Roma have posted substantial losses in recent years.
Mourinho said he “expects some gifts” from the owners but the headline signing to date is a 33-year-old goalkeeper, Rui Patrício from Wolves. Roma have been strongly linked with Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and there has been talk, too, of a move for the Paris Saint-Germain forward Mauro Icardi, but neither signing may be possible without players leaving.
Roma’s wage bill is weighed down by expensive contracts for veterans, including Pedro (who is 34) and Edin Dzeko (35). At least those two contribute on the pitch. Javier Pastore, another high earner, has started 13 Serie A games in three years.
There is a core of exciting talent, led by the Euro 2020 winners Leonardo Spinazzola and Bryan Cristante. Roma’s captain, Lorenzo Pellegrini, would also have featured were it not for a thigh injury.
Mourinho gave the 22-year-old the armband when he returned in a friendly this summer. He has let Dzeko wear it too, working to repair bridges burned during the latter part of Fonseca’s tenure, as well as clearing the air with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player for whom he seemed to have little enthusiasm during their time together in Manchester.
Fans have delighted in Mourinho’s little touches, dropping splashes of Roman dialect into conversation, showing off his new red and gold phone cover and citing Marcus Aurelius. Players, likewise, seem enthused. Spinazzola said Mourinho “left a great impression right away”.
There can be no real judgments, though, before the season begins. Mourinho has not promised a quick fix but he will be assessed on his team’s performances regardless. Competition in Serie A ought to be fierce, with the Milan clubs resurgent and Atalanta established in the top four.
Roma start their season with a Europa Conference League qualifier on 19 August. Preparation time will be short, with Cristante due to start training only on Monday.
Spinazzola is not expected back from the achilles injury suffered against Belgium at Euro 2020 for at least another four to five months.
The mural lasted three days before it was vandalised, Lazio supporters superimposing an image of their new manager, Maurizio Sarri, blowing a cloud of smoke into his rival’s face. Mourinho has still not taken charge of a competitive game at Roma, yet he has inspired works of art already both from those who would see him succeed and those who would love him to fail.