On the evening of July 2nd 2016, Antonio Conte took his Italy team to within a penalty shootout of beating current world champions Germany in the European Championship quarter finals. If not for a mistimed Simone Zaza dance and a misplaced piece of over confidence from Graziano Pelle, Gli Azzurri would have been celebrating arguably their best result since the 2006 World Cup final win.
Now those that are familiar with the history of Italy v Germany will know that seeing the boys in blue beat Die Mannschaft in a major tournament has become something of the norm. Even the most ardent German would begrudgingly admit that meeting the Italian’s in knock-out football is the last thing they want for their nation. So with that in mind it would have been no surprise to see another Italy win? The reality was different, German optimism was justified and it was the Italian’s that may have feared the worst going into the game. Prior to the tournament many labelled that Italy as the worst they had seen in recent history; with the likes of Marco Parolo, Emanuele Giaccherini, Graziano Pelle and Eder lining up for the four times world champions, it was a fair assessment of a dismal squad. The fact Italy came so close to reaching the semi-final was an achievement no one expected, beating a fancied Beligum and serial winners Spain along the way before pushing favourites Germany so close was a testament to one man – Mister Antonio Conte.
Using the famed Juventus “BBC” as his base, Conte went about dispelling all the negativity surrounding the Italy camp. Despite the apparent lack of world class players in his XI the former Italian international instilled togetherness, discipline, intensity and a never say die attitude into the squad. The passion his players demonstrated when pulling on the famous Azzurri shirt was a source of immense pride for those supporting, Conte gave this functional well drilled team the edge they needed. The coach made up for the missing quality, the players deserve credit for executing the game plan but it was Conte that made it possible.
The former Juventus midfield man has since moved onto manage Chelsea, despite winning the Premier League title in his very first season rumours have surfaced that he is unsettled at the club, with Conte said to be considering a return to the Italian hot seat. Italy’s top job remains unattached following Giampiero Ventura’s catastrophic failure, fans of La Nazionale were quick to welcome the idea of Conte returning to take charge. While hiring one of the world’s best tacticians seems like a no brainer, here is one fan that does not want to see Mister Conte return.
The re-appointment of Antonio Conte is a short term fix, this approach and way of thinking is the reason why Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World cup, it’s the reason why that since Fabio Grosso’s winning penalty in Berlin Italy have more often than not failed at tournaments. A 2012 European Championship final loss coupled with the exploits of Conte’s team has papered over the cracks, the last 12 years has consisted of embarrassing World Cup eliminations culminating in this latest failure. Italian football has been hurting itself for years, domestically the game struggled for long periods because the authorities, the clubs and their owners are unwilling to embrace change or forward plan. This lazy approach will inevitably see you get caught, overtaken and left behind, it was only a matter of time before the national team suffered the same fate.
It is not unfair to call Antonio Conte out on his inability to nurture talented prospects, the current set of players available for the national team are very different to those that Conte used during his time in charge. The Chelsea manager needs to be secure in the knowledge that when he sends a player over the white line, he knows what he will get in return. The likes of Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne, and Ciro Immobile do not offer the guarantees Conte would need to make it work. That is a minute sample size of players, there are countless others that have the talent and potential to be great for Italy but at this time we simply do not know what they are capable of. With those conditions in mind, it is exactly why a Conte comeback should not be considered at this stage.
Luigi Di Biagio has stepped up to take the reins in the meantime, his tenure with Italy’s best pool of under-21’s in over a decade did not bring the success it promised. The interim boss appears to be lacking the necessary qualities to elevate teams to the next level, when the pressure was on he was found wanting.
Italy’s rejuvenation was forced upon them rather than planned, if the FIGC and co had been proactive the Azzurri would now be in a position to push on, instead they are floundering. As usual an opportunity was missed, post Conte was the time to begin rebuilding. However, instead of selecting a youthful coach with fresh ideas they opted for the safe, cheap option in Gian Piero Ventura. The arrogance of those in charge finally came back to bite them, just because “we are Italy” it does not mean you have the divine right to succeed.
A coach should have been selected that could learn and grow with his players over a six year period, not have a new man in charge from tournament to tournament. Why wasn’t Eusebio Di Francesco or Maurizio Sarri considered at the time? Why isn’t Simone Inzaghi, Massismo Oddo or even a Marco Giampaolo being approached this time?
It is natural that the likes of Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti or Roberto Mancini are wanted by fans, they are big names in the football world and have the CV to back their reputations. The question we must ask is, how long will they stick around? How long will it be before a lucrative offer drags them away? This is not in Italy’s best interest.
The new Azzurri needs to be exactly that, new. Retired legends such as Andrea Pirlo, Paolo Maldini, Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Baggio and eventually Gigi Buffon are the kind of faces the national set up requires. Future proof La Nazionale, remove the old timers that spend their days sipping espresso and watching the months go by without a second thought as to what happens tomorrow.
Gianluigi Donnarumma and his Azzurrini companions provide a pathway for the future. Long-term gain over short-term success, it will not be easy and they will hit obstacles on the way, but with patience and time we will see the rewards. Italy’s current plight provides them with a unique opportunity, an opportunity to make the changes required that will see Italy return to the top of international football.