Italy job a big gamble for Conte
Antonio Conte can be accused of many things; being obsessed with climbing the managerial ladder is not among them.
On July 15 he resigned his post as Juventus manager despite three straight Serie A titles and the prospect of more. On Tuesday, 35 days later, he put pen to paper to become the Italy boss.
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It's not that coaching Italy is necessarily a step down. It's just that a cold-hearted, cost-benefit analysis that some of his colleagues might make would reveal that it's an unnecessary gamble.
The "safer" option? Announce a sabbatical, a la Pep Guardiola. Travel Europe, do some networking, learn English (and Spanish, while you're at it), and be ready when the next big job opens up. That's how you get top gigs in the globalized football landscape. Instead, he risks blotting his CV in a bad way.
For a start, he was the hand-picked choice of new Italian FA boss Carlo Tavecchio and, at least in part, such filth does rub off on people. (Tavecchio, you'll recall, is the guy who made the "banana-eaters" comment and then delivered the standard "I'm not racist, if I've offended anyone, I'm sorry ..." line. A more appropriate response would have been: "I'm not racist, my record proves it. But what I said was offensive and unacceptable and I apologize without reservation. I need to be educated on this subject because racial prejudice is a very real problem and this must never happen again.")
Beyond that, you have to ask what Conte needs to do with Italy to improve his career prospects.
Win Euro 2016? Reach the final while playing sparkling football? That would probably do it. Anything else would range from the disastrous to the "meh." Achieving success in knockout competitions is far more of a gamble than doing well with a top team, simply because you don't get second chances.
For Italy fans though, that's the good news. If Conte took the job, it means one of two things (or a combination of both): He genuinely believes he can do well and/or he doesn't view it as a stepping stone but rather something he truly wants to do and is excited about. This -- plus the obvious fact that over the past three seasons he has proved himself to be one of the best managers around -- are the positives in Conte's appointment.
Well, his record in knockout tournaments isn't great. In 2012-13, Juventus were nonchalantly swatted away by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals, an 0-4 aggregate score that didn't fully illustrate the Germans' superiority.
Last season, they were eliminated in the group stage in decidedly un-Conte fashion. They held their own against Real Madrid but then dropped points against the likes of Copenhagen and Galatasaray despite generally outplaying both. They dropped into the Europa League and looked to be marching to the finals, but found themselves bounced by Benfica in the semis in an ill-tempered clash.
Conte also doesn't have a great record of pushing youngsters -- unless you're talking about world-beaters like Paul Pogba -- and his teams have felt, at times, somewhat one-dimensional. Then again, when you have a side that's steamrolling the opposition, it's rather tough to drop your starters for one of the kids. And the "one-dimensional" charge has been levelled at the likes of Guardiola, Vicente del Bosque and Arsene Wenger, too; if it's working, it may be one-dimensional but it's the right dimension.
The main challenge for Conte is building on all the good work Cesare Prandelli did for four years right up until the final two group games in Brazil, when he lost the plot entirely. And that's a tough act to follow.
It's often said that a coach doesn't need to be likeable -- he just has to deliver. It's true that you can frequently act like an ogre and play awful football but as long as you get the results, you'll be fine.
But when you manage the national team, the job description is rather different. There really is nothing for Conte to deliver until June 2016 and the European championship. Qualifying, given the expanded field of 24 (Italy are in a group with Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta and the top two advance, with the third-place nation going into the playoffs), won't get him any gold stars. Results in friendlies impress nobody.
What Conte needs to do is galvanize and energize a fan base that only seems to care about the Azzurri once they reach the quarterfinals of a major tournament -- and one that is profoundly disillusioned after the disaster in Brazil this summer.
Prandelli managed to do that. He played attractive football, he took frequent stands against racism and homophobia and he demanded his players adopt certain standards (the much-discussed "ethical code"). His Italy team were fun to watch, they made you feel as if they had a broader message and Prandelli himself was likeable.
Conte has already said he won't keep the ethical code but that he'll make decisions on a case-by-case basis. It's not that his football is unattractive, but he certainly doesn't seem like someone who places aesthetics above results, as Prandelli sometimes did. (Again, that's not a bad thing if you want to win things but it's not ideal if you're also part salesman and part P.T. Barnum, as the Italy coach needs to be.)
It's not that Conte is unlikeable, either. In fact, over the past few seasons he has been self-deprecating and more laid-back than in the past. But in a country where club allegiance defines you, he is 100 percent a Juventus guy. And not just any Juve guy but one who, when asked how many league titles the bianconeri have won, counts to 32, while his employers at the Italian FA and most Juve haters stop at 30, leaving out the two that were revoked following the Calciopoli scandal.
Prandelli, of course, was also a Juventus alumnus. Indeed, every Italy boss since Cesare Maldini who left in 1998 has coached or played for Juve. But none of them have been as closely identified with the club as Conte, who spent a total of 16 years there as player and then manager. And all his predecessors achieved success elsewhere, whereas Conte's résumé is almost entirely Juve-based.
Juventus have historically been the most successful Italian club and have dominated Serie A for the past three years. When you do that -- rightly or wrongly -- it's hard to be liked by your rivals. There's a natural polarizing effect. And being Italy boss, especially right now, has got to be about fostering unity.
These are hurdles he needs to overcome, but they're not insurmountable obstacles. And the fact that Conte is willing to challenge himself and put his reputation at risk, rather than simply looking for the next stepping stone, says a lot about the man's character.
Still, there's a tough road ahead. And no shortage of folks who want to see him fail.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.