This wasn’t the job Antonio Conte signed up for.
When Cesare Prandelli resigned after Italy failed to advance from the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, and Conte agreed to take charge of his native country, he thought he’d be leading one of the world’s leading teams.
Instead, Conte, who was coming off three straight Serie A titles with Juventus, ended up with a team that many in the media have called Italy’s least talented ever.
Conte, recognizing his misfortune, has, to some extent thrown in the towel. In April, he accepted the Chelsea job. He’ll start in London after the conclusion of Italy’s Euro 2016, and leave the national team after just two years – without managing his country in the World Cup.
Certainly the Chelsea job was a great opportunity for a coach looking to get back into the rhythm of club management, but it’s hard to argue that Conte wasn’t also, in some small way, bowing to circumstance.
The fact that Italy’s next coach has been announced as 68-year-old journeyman Giampiero Ventura suggests that the role can no longer attract top talent.
So for the Conte, with Italy, this is it: Euro 2016 in France, missing his two best midfielders in Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio through injury, and, seemingly going nowhere.
But the Azzuri fading away at this tournament would have been too simple.
And sure enough, on Monday night in Lyon against star-laden Belgium, Italy turned the continent upside-down with a classic, wire-to-wire 2-0 victory to go top of Group E.
Conte’s team was every bit the rag-tag collection of characters it promised to be. Of the Italian goal-scorers, Emanuele Giaccherini couldn’t stick at Sunderland, while striker Graziano Pelle couldn’t get a game at the end of the season for Southampton.
But it hardly mattered. Behind the famous BBC Juventus back-line of Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli, anchored by the legendary Gianluigi Buffon and the kind of fortune that favors those who deserve it, Italy turned in a truly spine-tingling performance.
The buy-in, from the first note of the Italian anthem, was remarkable. Italy came to prove a point. Beyond that, Conte struck up a masterful game plan that led players to step into new and unfamiliar roles with zeal and comfort.
Center-back Bonucci went full Andrea Pirlo to set up Giaccherini’s opener. And when Pelle sealed the game after a tremendous counter-attack in stoppage time, the entire Italy bench poured onto the field to celebrate.
Just behind the substitutes was the 38-year-old Buffon, racing the length of the field to join in the fun – and that after Conte was left with a bloody lip after celebrating Giaccherini’s first half strike.
Belgium has great players, but in Marc Wilmots, they have a guy who is in charge – and barely that. Italy has a coach. The difference was everything.
Daniele De Rossi, whose involvement in this Italy was only down to the rash of midfield injuries, said of Conte, “I’ve played under a lot of good managers but he is one of the best there is. He’s a special kind of coach.”
Andrea Pirlo, a player who didn’t make the cut for this tournament, said, in his inimitable style, of the manager, “When Conte speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently and settle deep within you.”
From all corners, the plaudits for Conte after the win on Monday night poured in.
Throughout his career, Conte has connected with players and molded teams like few others in the business. His attention to detail, his obsessive preparation, and his intensity for the game are, in this European Championship field, unparalleled.
But this challenge of challenges, with this particular Italy team, is especially well tailored to Conte’s talents. The Lecce native always coaches with a chip on his shoulder, and this team is the perfect vehicle for that chip.
So while this might not be the job Conte signed up for, this very well might be the job he was made for.
With three points in the bag against Belgium, and games against inferior Sweden and Ireland teams to come, Italy is all but through the group stage. And although you’d never guess it, this is a team no one will want to run into in the knockout rounds.
In a tournament where the favorites – from France, to Germany, to Spain – all have their weaknesses, a team bound together like Italy is can do serious damage. Winning the title is not out of the question. Crazier things have happened in European Championships.
Some team, some player, or even some coach, is going to seize control of this tournament. So far, with every team having taken the field at least once, Italy looks most like that team.
Conte would be the first man to try to dispel any such notions of grandeur. He reminded the press after the game that Italy also won a big victory in their first game in Brazil – 2-1 over England – only to lose their next two and crash out.
Still – to listen to Conte right now is to be swept away. As he said on Monday night, “I’ve been repeating from the beginning – and I’m not one to tell lies – that this is a group foremost of men, and then footballers.”
“We can do great things.”
At this point, against the odds, it’s hard to disagree. Italy might just be in for a summer to remember.
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