Wednesday Evening: Winning Mentality swaps places with Injustice
Carrying that monkey on your back of ‘perennial also-rans’ can really be a drain.
For one, you feel as though everyone else knows you for being ‘that team that always finishes second’ when the truth (once you come out of your own self-imposed bubble) is actually even worse: Nobody cares about your perceived failures. They don’t remember the time you tripped up at the final hurdle if not for the fact you just brought it up again, they’re long over it and they would probably even root for your next success if you just got over it to take some pride in where you are today.
A Roma fan of my generation, growing our Giallorossi loyalties in the ‘00s and ‘10s, can relate to those growing pains just as much as a Juventus fan in recent Champions League times. The Bianconeri’s CV in Europe reads very familiar: 7 times Champions League runners-up, a record for the competition. A big 3 establishment - corporate-owned Bayern, bank-floated Real Madrid and ‘Mes Que Un Club’ - ahead of them in the hall of fame. A trio of bigger clubs that all the pundits fall over themselves to lavish attention over.
And now Juventus earned the final ingredient, for a short-lived moment this week or however long they choose to ride out their revenge, of the usual Roma cocktail: pundits who are paid to talk about anything other than failures take a moment to offer Juventus some hand-me-down pity and sympathy. Oh dear, it’s all so very provinciale.
‘...You came so close, it was totally unjust, after all... you tried hard.’
Words said from people who truly don’t care about your best interests because that’s not their job. They are paid to talk money and success, helping to breed yet more money and more success for the clubs they cover. If they are fuelling your sense of injustice for one evening, it’s a quicker way to get you to shut up about it and let them get on with what they really care about: The Money and The Success.
By next week you will calm down, you will understand. If you don’t? Then you must simply be letting yourself give into - to quote Mehdi Benatia - les excuses des perdants. After all, winning is the only thing that counts.
For 98 minutes on a Wednesday night at the Bernabeu, the history books saw only one thing: Real Madrid won. If anyone else felt differently, they were on the losing side. What they saw never happened. Why even bring it up?
But of course, all the winning won’t shut up the fans who know they’ve got more to say about what happened on the football pitch that day, even if you cannot read about it in the history books. Live outside those pages for a brief minute and football becomes something else; it morphs into a different level of sharing and expression entirely.
Roma knows this self-indulgence to be true on a near weekly basis, but the club culture lives to practice and perfect that indulgence to a level of exorcism only felt once ever fifteen years or so. This week, that fifteen-year average came home to roost in spades. The bile, the frustration of hope and so many ‘nearly’ moments that cannot be explained in results or trophies, the unsaid tightening the insides of your stomach, all released in 94 minutes of unreal action that make the weekly chaos of the Olimpico look like an ordered self-expression of Roman design.
Tuesday Evening: Insanity swaps places with Results
“Thousands of people, crying their eyes out. I have never seen anything like it.
People just going bananas.”
- James Pallotta, Thursday April 12th 2018 to the New York Times
Carrying that monkey on your back of ‘perennial also-rans’ can really be a drain... until it isn’t.
In Eusebio Di Francesco, Roma have found a remarkable balance. He is both an ex-player bred within the Roma club culture, and a straightforward proud Abruzzese. He gets the history of Roma - one that’s practically meaningless in the eyes of anyone who values winning trophies regularly - and balances that awareness with being crazy enough to actually defend it, even fight for more of it.
Moreso in action than in words.
But the words themselves do glimpse into the conviction making EdF tick:
“We shouldn’t get satisfied with this result because here we have a culture of getting satisfied way too quickly. We’re now in the semi finals and why be there telling ourselves ‘what will be, will be’? This team must aim to get to Kiev, full stop.
We have to treat every game with the same value, including in the league.
We’ve worked with the team from a mental perspective, I’ve worked on it. And the team has taken the responsibility upon themselves to not say ‘what will be, will be’.
I repeat this point, because it annoys me. Saying ‘we have nothing to lose’ is something I hate. We have everything to lose.”
- Eusebio Di Francesco, post-match, Roma vs Barcelona, April 10th 2018
Could it be that Roma has a winning coach on their hands, or just someone who’s conviction borders on insanity? When you’re Real Madrid and Barcelona in Europe, or Juventus in Italy, you’ve long discovered the difference between the two doesn’t matter.
It only takes repeatedly acting out your belief, exerting your will on opponents, putting them under pressure to either give in or be wrong. Do that with enough repetition until its a process, and eventually the odds will fall in your favour more times than not.
When the odds favour you in the few moments the world is watching, suddenly you can make a career out of that process in the money-driven, camera-driven world of modern football.
Something tells me even if the cameras manage to catch Roma’s coach on the big-stage moments where his self-belief blows up in his face, EdF will continue to be...well...EdF. This is a man who beat himself up as Lecce coach for giving up a huge lead at the San Siro against Milan, choosing to pinpoint his “you’ve done well to get this far, lads, what will be will be for the next 45 minutes” half time team talk to his players as the reason for their second half collapse. He similarly blamed himself for compromising and abandoning his own convictions, as the reason why he was fired at Sassuolo the first time around. His conditions to the Sassuolo president, once he was approached to take up the job with the Neroverdi for the second time around were clear: we do it my way, all the way, this time. There’s no other way. As it turned out, his tunnel vision was the perfect ingredient for this week.
Di Francesco and Allegri both went into their respective rimonte or remuntadas with one clear advantage against all the odds: when you’re 3 goals down in a tie, your objective for the return leg is clear in that moment. You don’t have to overthink, second-guess or try to be smarter than the next guy. You just have that game, that target and nothing else.
For 90 plus minutes, EdF worked towards just that one target. For Allegri, 70 minutes deep into the game and two substitutions available to keep going for it, he did the human thing and fell victim to his own self-awareness - keeping his power dry for extra-time. It backfired, Juve ran out of gas and it left the door open for Real to capitalise in one moment. Extra time never came. Real reminded Juventus of what Italian league sides have been taught for years: one moment of capitalising on your opponent caught in two minds is all you need to overcome even the biggest test of character.
And it was arguably the biggest test the European champions have ever faced - certainly at least the bigger I can remember watching - Juventus nearly achieved history in a way that even they have rarely tasted before. Meanwhile, Roma continue to reap greater rewards for their patience with EdF and his insanity.
For Juventus, there was the serene reminder from Allegri, in his calm post-match presser, not to throw everything away out of frustration. The reminder to take pride in the phenomenal work Juventus put in for damn near 90 minutes, and to carry over the good of that into the next challenge now facing them. Maybe Allegri’s spell at a player at Pescara had him rubbed off with some of that Abruzzo pride.
Di Francesco has been reminding his players of the need to let go of the old crazy for a new brand: There is no point looking too far ahead, no point anticipating what you could be about to achieve, even less point beating yourself up in reflecting on what could have been done instead. It only takes time and energy from facing what’s here, now, today.
Anyone outside of Roma would believe EdF should go on to turn his force of character into trophies at a club not named Roma. After all, let’s be clear, EdF’s gamble against Barcelona could have easily fell on his face and, while he certainly wouldn’t have been fired for it, he could definitely count on the usual voices to condescend to him for the mistake of trying. Those voices would have almost certainly come from within Rome before anywhere else. Those odds always even out in the end.
Juventus spent one week being human but, once they get over it, they will go back to the world where winning is the only thing that counts. Barcelona spent a week looking ordinary and toothless, but you can be sure they will be back. Meanwhile, Milan have already knocked on Di Francesco’s door once before.
EdF is now only the fourth man ever to get to a semi-final in his Champions League debut season (the other three before him - Guardiola, Vilanova, Enrique - all coaches of Barcelona) and the Lega are throwing the 2018 Bearzot Award at our coach already - there is little stopping the big 3 in Italy from trying to sign our Abruzzese soon once again, little other than his will to help Roma live out more weeks like this one.
Weeks they will have to live out against Lazio and even the return of Mohamed Salah’s Liverpool, in the immediate future. Who knows what that will bring?
P.S. thanks to tottiparty for posting this link earlier in the week, a 35-minute Golazzo podcast episode (with Richardson and Horncastle) on Roma’s week just gone can be streamed here.