Dysfunctional Italy turn to Conte
Dietrologia is one of the great Italian words. It expresses the scepticism and distrust with which official explanations are met. There is always something behind or "dietro" them. What appears on the surface must instead mask a deeper hidden truth. This belief that something is being kept from them, that they aren't in on the whole story is an endless source of gossip and speculation for Italians. It indulges conspiracy theories.
Take Antonio Conte's decision to resign from Juventus for instance. The official line is that he felt he had taken the team as far as he could. Juventus had won the Scudetto three years in a row, each time better than the last.,and without the resources to turn them from outsiders for the Champions League to legitimate contenders, what else was there left for him to achieve? But why, if he had come to that realisation, did he not leave at the end of last season? Why wait until the first day of preseason a month ago?
Again, the official explanation here is that the club told him to go on holiday hoping it would do him good and that he would come back refreshed and in a new frame of mind. But on his return to Vinovo (Juventus' training facility) on July 14 Conte felt the same as he did in May. He spoke to the club and agreed to terminate his contract by mutual consent. Not everyone swallowed that reading of events, however. Inevitably, the dietrologia reflex kicked in.
Some thought Conte was resigning because of Juventus' transfer strategy. Hopeful Manchester United fans saw it as an indication that maybe Arturo Vidal's sale was imminent. It wasn't. Others pointed out that the Italy job had since become available. Cesare Prandelli had handed in his notice on June 24 after the Azzurri's elimination at the group stage of the World Cup. Had this influenced Conte's thinking? Had he even been contacted?
That seemed unlikely. The FIGC [Italy's Football Federation] was without a president at the time, and one wouldn't be elected until August 11. No one had a mandate to offer Conte the job. Did one of the candidates promise it to him in the event that they were voted in? These questions have resurfaced following Conte's appointment as Prandelli's successor on Thursday.
As was the case with (the timing of) his exit at Juventus, the reaction to his entrance into the FIGC has been one of surprise. When your country calls, it is difficult to resist; but at 45, many thought he had unfinished business at club level. Recall, for instance, the reasons Jose Mourinho gives for holding off on coaching Portugal. The expectation was that Conte's next job would be at a club capable of helping him fulfil his ambition of winning the Champions League. There had been reports of PSG making contact [which they denied] in anticipation of Laurent Blanc slipping up.
This is one of the reasons why Conte had initially been ruled out for the job by the papers and Roberto Mancini was installed as the favourite. La Stampa's Marco Ansaldo also warned how it can be close to a career-ender. Arrigo Sacchi only had negative experiences after his six-year spell in charge of Italy. Dino Zoff stopped coaching after. Giovanni Trapattoni found himself on the margins and never worked for one of Europe's elite clubs or countries again. Marcello Lippi went on a sabbatical then came back and damaged his reputation. Roberto Donadoni had to start over, first at Napoli, then Cagliari -- getting the sack on both occasions -- before re-establishing himself in the provinces at Parma. As for Prandelli, he is now at Galatasaray.
There's context and caveats to factor into each of these examples. Sacchi burned out. Zoff and Trapattoni were getting on a bit. Lippi had offers to work in top leagues abroad, but declined because of the language barrier, and then no one would touch him after his spell with South Africa, apart from other smaller national teams and Chinese outfit Guangzhou Evergrande. Napoli was a big opportunity for Donadoni, and he blew it. And had Prandelli waited, he probably would be coach of Juventus now. There are other counter points to raise. The case of Louis van Gaal this summer going from the Netherlands to Manchester United shows that bigger and better things can follow work in international football.
Rather than muse over his future job prospects, let's focus on the here and now. Considering Carlo Ancelotti wasn't available and that, Mancini aside, the other names on the list (double acts of Alberto Zaccheroni and Marco Tardelli, Francesco Guidolin and Antonio Cabrini) were all quite underwhelming, Conte was without question the outstanding candidate for the job. He'll imbue Italy with a ferocious winning mentality, bring intensity and iron discipline and a tactical coherence that they perhaps lacked towards the end of Prandelli's tenure.
Conte's resignation from Juventus represented a huge opportunity for the FIGC. Whoever became president had to at least try and persuade him to take up the post. That man was Carlo Tavecchio. He broke down in tears on becoming president of the FIGC on Monday. The whole of Italy cried too, or so went the joke. Despite huge public outcry and pressure from the media, he had been voted in even after making a racist comment while explaining his vision and making a point on work permits and non-EU players.
It was a mistake of his own making only to then see him picked up and propped up by his political cronies who were prepared to put their own interests ahead of concern for Italian football's wider image. Tavecchio should have stood aside. He shouldn't be FIGC president. Almost everyone acknowledges that. Damiano Tommasi, the head of the Professional Footballers' Association in Italy, has quite rightly asked why, now that he is in position, has Tavecchio yet to be formally sanctioned for what he said?
That's another issue. If we can leave it aside for a moment without excusing it, Tavecchio's actions as president have been louder and less clumsy than his words as a candidate. "His first step [in appointing Conte]," wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport's Luigi Garlando, "has been as opportune and sure as that of a wise Himalayan sherpa." To woo Conte from the boat he was holidaying on off the coast of Croatia just three days into his presidency (that's the official line) represents quite a coup, also because it stops the brain drain of Italy's elite coaching talent abroad.
It is however very much on Conte's terms. He will earn between €3.5million and €4million net a season over the next two years (the same if not a little more than he did at Juventus). It makes Conte the third-highest paid coach in international football after Russia coach Fabio Capello and England boss Roy Hodgson. The FIGC are only paying €1.7million of that figure. The rest will be made up by Puma and other sponsors. This has caused great debate.
Some columnists fear that Puma now have the power of decision-making in the FIGC, not Tavecchio. Nike and Brazil come to mind. La Repubblica's Maurizio Crosetti has wondered whether Conte will be under pressure to pick the most prominent face of the sportswear giant's ad campaigns, Mario Balotelli. And who will have the final say in renewing or rescinding the coach's contract? Some see a conflict of interest. Puma reassure there isn't one. They were asked to helped out and have done so. Nothing more.
Think of it as an investment. If Conte performs as well for Italy as he did at Juventus, their brand will too. And besides, this isn't anything new. Former FIGC president Antonio Matarrese claims it was the case with Sacchi's wages two decades ago. Conte's two-year deal also includes a number of bonuses too: one for qualifying for Euro 2016, a second for improving Italy's FIFA ranking by five places (they're 14th at the moment) and a third for reaching the final in France. Can he do it?
Conte's credentials aren't up for discussion. His suitability for this role is however. "This profession can be split into two categories," he once explained, "between those who manage and those, like me, who coach." Even if Conte gets his wish to have three extra training camps a year with the players, he will still have less time to work with them than at club level. He will not get to perfect, finesse and refine the side. He will have to adapt. Of course the same was said of Sacchi, another maniacal coach, yet he (or should that be Roberto Baggio) still got Italy within a penalty kick of World Cup glory.
The role of Italy head coach has also been expanded in order to make it more day-to-day and more like a club job than an international one. In addition to (slightly more) access, Conte should obtain greater collaboration with the clubs and is expected to replace Sacchi as the coordinator of Italy's youth teams. He will train the coaches beneath him and apparently have a say on how the various youth national teams play and who they pick, while also supervising the new technical centres that the FIGC plan to build. Much will be revealed at his first press conference in Rome on Tuesday.
His first game will be a friendly against the Netherlands at the San Nicola on Sept. 4. Conte, the first coach of Italy from the south, experienced his first successes at Bari. It's an appropriate venue. He has come full circle.
James Horncastle contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.