Continental capers from Scandinavia to the Med
The Old Lady was developing Alzheimer’s. That was the analysis of Andrea Agnelli after his first year as President of Juventus.
“I am disappointed,” he said following yet another disappointing seventh place finish in Serie A. “At the end of the season it emerged with great clarity that a series of new players haven’t understood what this club represents and those that do know have forgotten.”
Agnelli himself hadn’t. How could he? The 35-year-old is the fourth member of his family to take the helm after the terms served by his grandfather Edoardo, his father Umberto and his uncle Gianni. Since 1923 the dynasty with a controlling stake in FIAT has proudly upheld lo stile Juve, the mythical Juventus style, which finds its meaning in the three S's of semplicità, serietà and sobrietà.
Many players have come to personify those values, not least Pavel Nedved, the former Czech winger now sitting on Juventus’ board at Agnelli’s request.
Speaking at the launch of his book, he looked back at the season just past and said: “The blame lies first and foremost with the players. The new arrivals haven’t understood what it means to wear the Juventus shirt while the veterans have lost this awareness and haven’t managed to transmit the winning spirit to the rest of the team. Right now we have to work.”
So when Juventus parted company with Gigi Delneri at the end of May, the criteria on which his successor would be appointed were clear. The candidate needed to walk, talk and think like a Juventino. He needed to be a winner. Agnelli looked no further than Antonio Conte. Fresh from getting Siena back into Serie A, his second career promotion after ending Bari’s top-flight exile in 2009, the 41-year-old returned to Turin, his spiritual home. Winding down the window of his car at the gates to Juventus’ training ground in Vinovo, he said: “I have always dreamed about it.”
Agnelli had got his man. That much was clear from Conte’s first official press conference as coach of the Old Lady. “The history of Juventus says that you need to win here and that’s it,” he claimed. “We have the job of working hard with a lot of sacrifice so as not to betray this history if we are to get Juventus back to where they deserve and quickly.”
Juventus have been a part of Conte’s life since the very beginning. Aside from running a car rental business back in Lecce, the family’s hometown, his father Cosimino also coached and presided over a local amateur football team.
That team was called Juventina Lecce and their colours were strictly black and white. Right from the start, there was never any question of where his support lay. At the age of 10, Conte entered a local newspaper competition asking kids to draw their favourite player. He sent a picture of Roberto Bettega, Juventus’ greying striker of the '70s and early '80s. Conte would play much deeper than his hero, though, emerging as a fearless midfield player. He soon caught the attention of the then Lecce coach Eugenio Fascetti, who would later launch Antonio Cassano further up the coast of Puglia in Bari. Conte’s rise was no slower. He was given his Serie A debut aged just 16. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juventus were top of the table inspired by Le Roi himself Michel Platini.
Conte wanted to get there too, but a fractured tibia, the first of several injuries that he would overcome, halted his progress. He stayed humble, worked hard and acted responsible. Conte put his first pay packet into a savings account. He bought a second hand Vespa and then a Volkswagen Golf from Giuliano Terraneo, Lecce’s goalkeeper at the time. There were no delusions of grandeur, especially not when his side were relegated to Serie B.
Then the phone rang at home. His mother Ada picked it up. It was Giampiero Boniperti, the Juventus President. “Signora, don’t worry,” he said reassuringly. “Antonio will find another family in Turin. We’ll make him grow up. We’ll help him in the difficult moments.” Conte couldn’t believe it. He now had the chance to swap the replica shirt he’d worn for Juventina Lecce in return for the real thing. Conte would play for the team of his heart.
Unveiled before the Turin press, the 21-year-old from Salento bullishly said: “I want to become like Beppe Furino and Marco Tardelli.” Few thought that he would last. Even Conte had his doubts. “Perhaps I was a little timid, but I remember that I didn’t say a single word. There was the great Trapattoni. There was Roberto Baggio. I was very emotional. I was a player-fan.”
Conte outlasted them all and became the club captain. In 13 years, he made 419 appearances, scored 44 goals and won five Scudetti, a Champions League and a UEFA Cup, the latter trophy coming under Trapattoni, the rest under Marcello Lippi, his biggest champion. “Antonio is a fantastic professional, a leader of all the Juventus sides in which he has played, a great captain,” Lippi told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He’ll transmit everything that he has inside, his passion and his desire to win.”
Conte hated losing. No more so was that evident than in November 2000 when Juventus went out of the Champions League in the group phase. “A team that calls itself Juve can’t make these screw-ups,” he raged. “It’s useless to think about the past. We have to look to the future. Here we need to change mentality and get back to eating and drinking football. I am the captain and I take responsibility.”
Conte was as good as his word. He relished the battle. Take May 5, 2002 as an example. Juventus dramatically won the Scudetto on the final day of the season at Friuli, avenging the time when the rain in Perugia conspired to rob the Old Lady of another title two years beforehand. He appeared in front of the cameras outside the dressing room drenched in champagne and couldn’t resist needling Lazio. “We’re loving it,” he smiled, before being dragged away by his jubilant teammates.
Nearing the end of his playing days, Conte started to consider his future. “I don’t know what I’ll do afterwards. Perhaps I’ll take my studies further and then coach.” And that’s just what he did following his retirement in 2004. He enrolled on a sports science degree at the University of Foggia and wrote a thesis entitled The Personality of a Coach. Then it was time to put the theory into practice.
He started life on the bench with a prophecy. “I am starting from zero as a manager and I want to reach the top of the mountain,” he said. “The Juventus job is my objective. If within three of four years I haven’t got to the highest level then I’ll give it up.”
By 2009, he had already been interviewed for the post after the dismissal of Claudio Ranieri. The board, however, disastrously opted for his former teammate Ciro Ferrara with reports indicating that he had been appointed on an interim basis at least until Marcello Lippi became available after the World Cup the following summer. In 2011, Juventus didn’t make the same mistake.
“The past doesn’t interest me,” Conte said. “I always look at the present and to the future.” But as a Juventus fan, he’ll surely be aware of what the names Bigatto, Cesarini, Parola and Capello have in common. That’s right, they all managed to win the Scudetto with the Old Lady both as players and coaches.
The question is can Conte join them?
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