For the team's final home game against Cagliari on May 18, Juventus' fans prepared a huge choreography. They unfurled a banner depicting coach Antonio Conte pointing the way. Below it, another one read: "Without you we will not go far ... because you are the best and you have Juve in your heart." The rest of the Curva stand held up cards on which a play on his name was printed: Con te -- "with you."
Down in his technical area, he was visibly moved. He appreciated the gesture. Ever since his team had been confirmed as champions following Roma's surprise 4-1 defeat to Catania a fortnight earlier, Conte had given the impression that he was seriously considering his future. Il Corriere della Sera's Roberto Perrone even claimed that Juventus' president, Andrea Agnelli, had lined up a replacement in case he left, establishing contact with Sampdoria coach Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Sentimental though it may sound, perhaps that show of affection from the supporters prompted Conte to reflect. He wouldn't extend his contract beyond 2015 as the club wished. But he wouldn't leave either. Whatever reservations Conte had about the club's plans going forward, he'd try to put them aside and make it work. And so an awkward-looking compromise was reached. Conte went on holiday and returned to start preseason on Monday. Everything appeared to be fine. But it wasn't.
At 7:50 p.m. on Tuesday evening Sky Italia's Giovanni Guardala broke the story that Conte had offered his resignation. By 8:01 p.m. it was made official. A video message from Conte explaining his decision was uploaded at 8:13 p.m. and a statement by Agnelli entitled Grazie Antonio swiftly followed at 8:29 p.m. It all happened very quickly -- "a bolt from the blue" said captain Gigi Buffon -- though considering its well-executed coordination by the media department, perhaps an agreement had been reached after a meeting the day before.
Antonio Conte ha risolto consensualmente il contratto con la Juventus httpi://t.co/WeuUPbxIrr- JuventusFC (@juventusfc) July 15, 2014
Even with the coda to last season in mind, it caught everyone by surprise. The timing in particular was remarkable. Why now at the beginning of preseason? Why not before? Well, one imagines this was a painful decision to make. Conte, remember, is a Juventus fan. He supported the club as a boy and captained and coached the team as a man. Choosing to leave will have left him emotionally conflicted. Maybe his heart temporarily overruled his head. Juventus' board didn't want to lose him, and out of respect for Agnelli and the promise he'd made, Conte initially opted to honor his contract. But over the summer break, he just couldn't fight the feelings anymore.
"The perceptions and sensations that have brought me to this decision have matured," he said. It wasn't an overnight thing. It was something that he'd thought long and hard about. In May, Conte had been frank enough to admit that it would be impossible to improve upon what he and the players at Juventus had achieved over the past three years.
In his first season, the Bianconeri reclaimed the Scudetto for the first time after Calciopoli, and did so by becoming only the third team in Italian football history -- after Perugia in 1978-79 and Milan in 1991-92 -- to go undefeated in the league. In his second, they won it and moved up a level. Juve accumulated more points, won more games and scored more goals. In his third, they became the first team to break the 100-point barrier in Serie A and were perfect in front of their own supporters, winning every game in the league at the Juventus Stadium.
It was a season for the ages. It was also Juventus' 30th league title (their own count is 32 for the titles stripped in the Calciopoli scandal). They'd made it three Scudetti in a row for the first time since 1933, a feat that was beyond the great managers Conte had played under: Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi. To further underline just how staggering his record at Juventus has been, consider this: of the 151 games Conte faced while in the Juventus dugout, he won 103.
The 44-year-old would be entirely justified in thinking he could do no better, that he had taken this team as far as he could. It's at this point that the Champions League inevitably enters the conversation. It had to be the next objective. Yet Conte neither wanted it to become an obsession, nor the only measure by which a season is judged. He was deeply embittered by the reaction to Juventus' knockout in the group stage last season. Mistakes were made, of course they were, but it didn't necessarily follow that the entire campaign was a "failure" because of it. Far from it, when Juventus were shattering records in Serie A.
Conte is also only too aware of how hard it is to win the Champions League. The margins are fine. There are many variables at play (the snow in Istanbul, for instance, when Juve lost to Galatasaray and were knocked out). You need a bit of luck, the right breaks. He has pointed to the club's history in the competition: two wins and five runners-up medals in 59 years. To go deeper and lift the trophy rather than be an "outsider," he felt Juventus needed to spend more. True, clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have reached the final in recent years with lower turnover and wage bills, but at the end of the day they didn't win it, did they? And Conte is all about winning.
After three years, it's thought he wanted to rebuild the team. An overhaul was in order, which would require substantial investment. It put Juventus in a tough place. They've hit a ceiling as to how much money they can make right now. Until the new TV rights and sponsorship deals (with adidas, for example) come into effect in the 2015-16 season, until the investments they've made developing the area around the stadium come off, the only way to finance the signings Conte would like is to do something he would never contemplate: selling one of Paul Pogba or Arturo Vidal.
This is one of the reasons, but not the reason, he resigned. Other factors not to be dismissed include fatigue, a need to recharge his batteries. Like Pep Guardiola, Conte is a workaholic. Every minute of every hour is spent thinking about football. After games, his voice has often gone after constantly barking instructions. Also like Guardiola, it's thought that after three years in one job he might have discerned that his players no longer have the same hunger and motivation as they did before. Buffon raised this on Tuesday but it seems unlikely given Conte only had one day of preseason with an incomplete squad. Many of the players who participated at the World Cup are still on holiday.
Then there's the desire for a new challenge. The Italy job has been mentioned not least because it's vacant. Sky Italia's Alessandro Alciato has indicated that discussions were held within the FIGC (without Conte or Juventus being privy to them) about making him the offer of a part-time role until his contract with the Old Lady expired at the end of this season with a view to him then taking over on a full-time basis. It would appear unlikely, however, that any contact has been made and that Conte has been convinced to accept considering that the organisation currently doesn't have a president.
"I'm thinking about the present, to the decision taken [to resign]," Conte said when asked about the national team position by the Juventus Channel. He didn't explicitly rule himself out, but for what it's worth Buffon, someone who knows him very well, didn't detect in his words or his tone of voice anything to suggest that Conte has made a decision on what's next yet.
"We have lost the emblem of our renaissance," Buffon said. He's right. Juventus if you recall had finished seventh in back-to-back years before he arrived. He leaves three-time champions. And with that in mind it's no understatement to say Conte represents a bigger loss than either Pogba or Vidal would be. There's no greater proof of that than the glee with which his resignation has been greeted by fans of Juventus' rivals. "With Conte leaving at least the league will be more balanced now," tweeted Alessandro Nesta. "In my opinion the best coach we have in Italy is leaving."
Conte leaves a squad with a winning mentality. To paraphrase Agnelli, Juventus also have a "talented and close-knit" team of directors who have earned the fans' trust over the last four years. This, however, is their biggest test yet. If Pogba or Vidal weren't already considering their futures, are they doing so now? Vultures are circling. A deal for Patrice Evra is practically done, but will he still sign following Conte's departure? Roma also took advantage of the situation at Juventus over the past couple of days to hijack the transfer of Verona's Juan Manuel Iturbe.
And who will succeed Conte? A common refrain has been: if only Cesare Prandelli, a former Juventus player, hadn't rushed into joining Galatasaray after he resigned from the Italy job. For now Max Allegri is the frontrunner -- and reports suggested he would meet Juve officials on Wednesday morning -- despite his past at Milan and his reputation as the man who marginalised Andrea Pirlo, pushing him into Juventus' arms. How well will that go down? One imagines, not very well at all.
So why is he in the running? A company man, able to work within financial constraints, absorb big sales and keep a team competitive (his last season at Milan excepted), Allegri's doubters should also bear in mind that he was the favourite for the Italy post before Conte became available. Within the Italian game, he is highly respected. But forgive Juventus fans (and Pirlo) if they aren't at all enthused by the prospect. Conte is a legend at the club, and the Old Lady has lost her ideal man.