‘Renegade’ Conte looking to shed Italy’s Euro blues

Milan (AFP) – Antonio Conte has established himself as one of the continent’s top coaches going into Euro 2016, but he is a hated figure in his home town of Lecce and prosecutors had chased him with jail threats.

After three successful years as Juventus coach, Conte takes the ‘Azzurri’ to France looking for redemption after first-round exits from the past two World Cups. 

If successful, he will add to his stature before taking over at Premier League giants Chelsea in July. Failure will please those he sinned against as a player and a coach in Serie B.

A former midfield star of Lecce, Conte is considered a traitor by fans in the southern city.

In August 1997, Conte collected a cross from Zinedine Zidane to hit Juventus’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Lecce.

The wild celebrations that followed infuriated Lecce fans who branded Conte a ‘rinnegato’ (renegade). They regularly called on Saint Orontius of Lecce to punish Conte in their chant: “We hope Saint Orontius electrifies the Lecce Renegades!”

When Conte retired after 13 years at Juventus that saw him win five Serie A titles, one Italian Cup, four Italian Super Cups, the 1993 UEFA Cup and the 1996 Champions League, Lecce’s fans were given more ammunition. 

After two seasons coaching Serie B club Arezzo, Conte’s next appointment was at Lecce’s bitter regional rivals Bari.

In mid-season and with Bari stuck in the relegation zone, Conte orchestrated a dramatic turnaround. It underlined his coaching talent while cementing his pariah status among Lecce fans with victory over their team in the penultimate match of the 2007-08 season.

– Soccer nobility –

Lecce arguably had the last laugh, winning promotion to Italy’s top flight. Lecce fans coined a phrase with a word play on Conte’s name, which means ‘Count’: “To Bari a count, to Lecce the nobility.”

Conte got his own satisfaction when he steered Bari to the Serie B title and promotion the next season.

It was Conte’s first major coaching achievement and saw him cross paths, at least virtually, with a former Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, who recently guided Leicester City to glory in England.

When Ranieri was sacked by Juventus in 2009, Conte’s name was on the short-list. But despite a deep love for their former midfielder, the Turin giants handed the post to Ciro Ferrara. 

Conte instead swapped the sunny south for the northern town of Bergamo to become Atalanta’s coach.

It was a miserable season that Conte will want to forget. After a positive start, Atalanta’s hardline fans turned on Conte when results started going awry by November 2009.

A day after requiring police protection to leave the stadium following a 2-0 home defeat to Napoli in January 2010, Conte resigned.

He then joined Siena, leading the club back to Serie A for 2011-12, although his spell there was clouded by accusations that he failed to report alleged match-fixing.

– Cleared of fraud –

Conte denied all wrong-doing and was eventually acquitted of sporting fraud charges last month, quashing Italian prosecutors’ calls for a court to hand him a suspended six-month prison sentence.

“It’s been a terrible experience but I held my head high. To everyone who stood by me I want to express my gratitude, and reassure them that the person who has emerged from this test is stronger and even more determined,” Conte said after the decision by a tribunal in Cremona.

Conte’s appointment as Juve boss in June 2011, following the sacking of Ferrara and Luigi Delneri, led to one of the most successful periods in the club’s history before he succeeded Cesare Prandelli as Italy coach in August 2014.

Despite a successful qualifying phase, there is no guarantee that Italy can reach a second consecutive final, having lost 4-0 to Spain in 2012.

For Lecce, Conte may still be a renegade. But for goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, he is above all a winner: “It’s normal that fans of Juventus’ rivals are bitter against him.

“But I’m sure 95 per cent of Italians would like to have him coach their team and the same is true for the national team.”

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