Two of Europe’s most passionate fan bases will descend on Tirana for Wednesday’s Conference League final, a competition belittled by some, but has captured the imagination of Feyenoord and Roma supporters.
Starved of success in recent years, both teams travel to the Arena Kombetare knowing they will be backed to the hilt for the climax to a successful inaugural season for UEFA’s new tournament.
Such is the desire to be at the end that the 20,000-capacity stadium in the Albanian capital is nowhere near big enough, with Roma coach Jose Mourinho saying that the two teams’ fans “would have filled the Santiago Bernabeau.”
Feyenoord said it was disappointed with the paltry allocation of just 4,000 tickets and asked fans not to buy from touts, but that is unlikely to deter supporters hungry for a rare chance for European glory.
Roma was last in a continental final 31 years ago – losing the UEFA Cup to Inter Milan – and its fans haven’t seen their team win a trophy since 2008.
A huge number of supporters are trying to find ways to travel the relatively short distance to Albania from Rome, as fans desperately seek tickets for the match and ways of getting across the Adriatic.
The prospect of a European trophy after reaching the semifinals of both the Europa League and the Champions League in recent seasons has created a wave of enthusiasm among Roma fans.
They have offered unconditional backing to Mourinho, whose reputation in Italy was such that he has been given leeway that other managers have not had from notoriously volatile supporters.
Seen as yesterday’s man elsewhere, particularly in England, Mourinho has created a strong team spirit and got the best out of his key summer signing Tammy Abraham.
“You’re finished when you no longer have passion for the game,” Mourinho told reporters before Roma’s win at Torino earlier Friday, which ensured them Europa League football next season.
“It’s up to us coaches to decide when enough is enough and you’ve got to wait a lot longer for that to happen to me.”
Abraham at home in Rome
Abraham has been the star of the show for Roma this season, repaying his 40 million euro ($42.82 million) transfer fee from Chelsea by scoring 27 goals in all competitions, nine of which have come in the Conference League.
The 24-year-old has settled in extremely well in Rome, not always the easiest of environments for players, and he has the knack of scoring goals that either decide matches or tip the balance in favor of his team.
His early header in the emotional second leg of Roma’s semifinal against Leicester City put his club in Wednesday’s showdown.
“For me, it’s not a little cup,” Abraham told AFP last week.
“I believe every final is a final – no matter what competition it is. You get to the final, you want to win the final.”
Feyenoord has a much fuller trophy cabinet but the vast majority of its successes came in the last millennium.
The 1970 European champion also won two of the old UEFA Cups but it has been slim pickings in the two decades since its last European success.
It has never made it past the group stages of the Champions League and has not gone further than the last 32 since groups were introduced to the UEFA Cup in 2004 ahead of the remodeled Europa League five years later.
Arne Slot has led Feyenoord to third, 11 points behind champions Ajax but an improvement on the previous season’s fifth place, and has the fans on the side with a continental cup on offer.
Standing in their way is an expert at winning one-off games who is gunning to complete the set of UEFA club trophies.
“His CV makes you wary of his team. He is known for winning many finals,” Slot said of Mourinho to UEFA.
“But we mainly have to focus on his team, the tactics and the different ways they play. We shouldn’t pay too much attention to the fact that he has such an impressive track record in finals.”