The 2023 Europa League final could have been so much more.
The much-maligned José Mourinho has often been accused of being more a gamesman than a tactician. While his feats in Europe are undeniable (a UEFA Cup with Porto, two Champions Leagues–one with Porto, one with Inter–and a Conference League title with Roma), a shadow looms over his legacy.
Cinderella stories aside, the dark side of Mourinho’s footballing persona is the use of any kind of dark art that can gain his team an advantage. This includes pressuring referees, playing head games with opponents, and using the media to his advantage.
It is true that some of these tactics might even fall under the umbrella of sportsmanship. Many of the great coaches of all time have used press conferences to their advantage to do many of the same things that Mourinho does. Many have made snide or indirect comments to try and influence officials. Many have tried to distract from the game itself to weaken their opponents.
However, what makes Mourinho different is that his use of these dark arts is not only absolutely systematic but also one of his primary strategies. On Wednesday night in Budapest, Mourinho’s Roma had received no less than ten yellow cards, seven going to players and three going to Roma coaching staff. One of the enduring images of the match was José Mourinho protesting, smirking, gesticulating wildly, and otherwise provoking. There was no other attempt at football, no tactics, no game plan.
The main effect of Mourinho’s “performance” was invoking the ire of the officials and transmitting tension to the players on the field. The match was one of the ugliest finals in recent memory. In the more than 140 minutes the match lasted (including time added), it is difficult to recall any stretch of play that lasted more than four or five minutes. There were fouls, protests, fake injuries, real injuries, dives, and other elements that usually creep into the dying minutes of a match. However, here, they were front and center, present from beginning to end.
On the one hand, the seven yellow cards picked up by Roma’s players are more than anything symbolic of their instructions to destroy, frustrate, and interrupt the opposition. Meanwhile, Mourinho’s staff members picking up three cards is a sign of his systematic approach to attempting to influence the officials much in the way an immature, unruly, and spoiled child might try to manipulate a parent. The idea was to sow doubt, stress, and nervousness among the match officials by protesting any call that did not go Roma’s way, using screaming, gesturing, and verbal abuse as tools. Indeed, it worked when the VAR chalked off a penalty that was initially given to Sevilla.
However, Mourinho’s plan ultimately backfired. Anthony Taylor, while under immense pressure, did not cede to these non-footballing tactics. There were a few calls that were debatable throughout the match. A potential second yellow for a couple of Sevilla players, the dismissal of a penalty appeal for a Sevilla handball.
However, by that point, Mourinho and his acolytes had made it clear that there was another contest going on: them versus the officials. And that match, as Seb Stafford-Bloor pointed out in The Athletic, was won by Taylor and company. In the end, Mourinho undid his team’s chances with his arrogance and his obnoxious, annoying approach to the game. Just as a parent might (and should) close off all doors to dialogue when a child who knows better is disrespectful and abusive, the officials wrote off Roma’s strategy and forced them to try and win by playing football rather than provocation.
Meanwhile, on the opposite bench, Sevilla’s miracle-maker José Luis Mendilibar stood stoically, focused on the football for the entire (too-long) duration of the match. He conducted his own masterclass of ignoring the deliberate distractions of his opposite number. This facilitated his team keeping its focus after coming back from 1-0 early in the first half and keeping steely cool in the shoot-out.
By the night’s end, Sevilla collected their winners’ medals. Mourinho threw his second-place medal to the crowd. After the match, he threw what little was left of his reputation in the trash after pursuing Anthony Taylor in the parking lot and cursing at him. In doing so, José saved many writers time by writing his own obituary.