ROME — Gesticulating on the touchline in a black vest and a gray hooded sweatshirt, José Mourinho could have easily been mistaken for one of the 70,000 fans inside the Stadio Olimpico.
The outspoken Portuguese coach had told Roma supporters before the Europa Conference League semifinal that they shouldn’t come to the stadium just “to watch” the game but rather “to play” it.
Well, the fans did their part by creating a loud, suffocating atmosphere for 90 minutes and Mourinho did his job by directing Roma to a 1-0 win (2-1 on aggregate) over Leicester on Thursday and a spot in the final.
“It’s a victory of a family,” Mourinho said, “Not just the one that was on the pitch and on the bench but also inside the stadium. That is our greatest achievement, this empathy and sense of family we have created with the fans.”
It will mark the fifth European final of Mourinho’s career — and he has won all four that he’s coached in so far — over a span of nearly two decades: the 2003 UEFA Cup and 2004 Champions League finals with Porto; the 2010 Champions League final with Inter Milan; and the 2017 Europa League final with Manchester United.
“I’ve had the fortune to play in bigger and more prestigious finals than this one,” Mourinho said. “But in terms of the way we’ve created a family atmosphere here, it makes me feel special.
“Over the years I’ve become less egocentric and more like a father.”
Mourinho is already the first coach to reach a UEFA final with four different clubs (Porto, Inter, United and Roma).
“Every club that I coached I made a final,” Mourinho said. “That’s good.”
What’s more is that if Mourinho can coach Roma to a win over Feyenoord in the May 25 final in Tirana, Albania, he would become only the third coach to win three different UEFA competitions after Giovanni Trapattoni and Udo Lattek — who both won the European Cup, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup.
It was a typical Mourinho match: Roma took the lead through a Tammy Abraham header in the first half then just barely held on as the Giallorossi packed in and defended throughout the second half.
It may have not been pretty — Mourinho’s teams rarely are — but the tactic worked.
“I think our performance was extraordinary,” Mourinho said. “Others might see it differently, but when your goalkeeper makes two saves over 120 minutes against a Premier League side with so much attacking quality, it means we’ve done something good.”
While Roma is in fifth place in Serie A and has missed out on the Champions League places, the inaugural edition of the third-tier Conference League has already made Mourinho’s first season at Roma successful.
It’s quite a turnaround from little more than a year ago, when Mourinho’s career appeared in a downward spiral after dressing-room apathy and growing disillusionment at his tactics cost him his job at Tottenham.
Approaching the age of 60, Mourinho has shown that he’s willing to wait while he attempts to build Roma into a contender.
Abraham, the 24-year-old forward whom Mourinho convinced Roma to spend 40 million euros ($44 million) on in August, has been decisive all season. His nine goals in the Conference League place him third all time among English players in a single season of European competition after Alan Shearer (11 in the 2004-05 UEFA Cup) and Stan Bowles (11 in the 1976-77 UEFA Cup).
“We have a coach who knows how to win. But it’s been a growth process,” Roma defender Gianluca Mancini said. “It’s not like just because you have Mourinho on the bench you win right away.”
It will be Roma’s first European final since losing the 1991 UEFA Cup trophy to domestic rival Inter Milan. Roma also lost its only other continental final, after a penalty shootout against Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup at its home stadium.
Former Roma player and coach Claudio Ranieri, who grew up supporting the club in Rome’s slaughterhouse neighborhood of Testaccio, certainly remembers those losses.
During the 53rd minute, when an image of Ranieri was flashed onto the giant screens at each end of the stadium, both Roma and Leicester fans clapped in unison — so much so that after initially switching back to match coverage, Ranieri re-appeared a second time on the screens and he stood up and waved in acknowledgement.
Ranieri, of course, is best known for coaching Leicester to an improbable Premier League title in 2016.
This night, however, was more about Mourinho, who shed tears at the final whistle.
“This is a giant club without the trophy room in relation to the social dimension of the club,” Mourinho said. “This is not a trophy, it’s only a final, but it means a lot to them. My emotion was for them.”