Long read: The rows, rage and relegation that made Antonio Conte a winner

Antonio Conte

Don’t be fooled by the Italian’s incredible first season in England – his road to the top of the Premier League has been a constant battle 

Agghiacciante. It’s Italian for ‘terrifying’. Antonio Conte spits the word out twice like a panicked, ferocious caged animal.

Against the official black surroundings of Juventus and the charcoal tailoring of his jacket, his livid face appears to thrust forward even more violently. Then, when he pauses, there’s the deafening silence of a stunned, embarrassed media room. As the tirade mounts, Conte looks like he may burst into tears.

The word was destined to keep following him around like a ball and chain. For Conte, the match-fixing charges laid against him in 2012 were a Kafkaesque nightmare. The press conference was exposing his terror of losing the Juventus job on which he’d fixated for so long.

Antonio Conte

Conte was accused of sporting fraud for failing to report an incident of match-fixing in 2011

For Maurizio Crozza, it was a stand-up sketch just waiting to happen. Imagine a slightly less imposing and slightly more Italian version of Dara O Briain. During his new Friday night show, the comic launched into a parody of the agghiacciante diatribe. Mimicking Conte’s nasal Salento accent, Crozza-Conte is besieged by lawyers. They continue to pop up in every corner – even when he’s in bed with his wife. The whole sketch is rounded off as Crozza doffs his lavish wig in homage to the manager’s artificially augmented barnet.

Conte later admitted that even his other half was a huge fan of Crozza’s impersonation. Whenever he got angry, she would chant, “Agghiacciante! Agghiacciante!” back at him. All of the stress, he joked, “was making my hair transplants fall out”.

Coaching gene

Self-deprecation isn’t always on display with Conte, but it was the making of him as a manager

Self-deprecation isn’t always on display with Conte, but it was the making of him as a manager. He was 20, playing for hometown club Lecce, when he began coaching his brother’s team.

“I understood straight away that on the bench I had the kind of talent I lacked on the pitch,” he said. “As a player I could run, fight, be a threat in the box, sacrifice myself for the team, but that was it.”

Antonio Conte

Before joining Juventus in 1991, Conte spent six years with hometown club Lecce

Giampiero Ventrone was Juventus’s fitness trainer during Conte’s medal-laden playing career with the Bianconeri – and he believes that those deficiencies helped to form the coach.

“He was great at understanding his limits,” Ventrone explains to FourFourTwo. “To compensate, he would always apply himself to the utmost with hard, focused training. Every year he was called into question, but in the end he stayed at Juventus and became their captain. He won it all for himself with work and sweat. He took that experience into his coaching.” He also brought Ventrone, who was on Conte’s staff during several of his early managerial appointments and went by the nickname ‘the Marine’.

In 13 years as a Juventus player, Conte won a Coppa Italia, a UEFA Cup, five Serie A titles and the Champions League in 1996. Yet, in 2004 he was let go. A hangdog Conte headed to Florence to sign up for his UEFA Pro Licence at Coverciano, Italy’s sacred coaching school.

But even a year shut away in academia couldn’t drive Conte to play second fiddle to another boss. The offer came from Siena sporting director Giorgio Perinetti in July 2005. Would Conte be assistant to Luigi De Canio, the long-time worker of minor miracles at B-list clubs?

Luigi De Canio

Conte was offered the chance to work alongside De Canio at Siena

Time as a No.2

De Canio indulged Conte’s nascent mania for using video clips as a coaching tool, and sometimes allowed him take the Siena squad through parts of the previous match

Thinking it would put them off, Conte invented an elevated salary demand – but Siena didn’t blink. Conte’s self-esteem was tickled. He agreed but insisted that he wasn’t just going to be the bib-and-cone man, and would leave if offered a manager’s job.

De Canio must have felt like he was sitting on a volcano, but Conte’s ire at not being in charge rumbled mostly under the surface. “With De Canio, Antonio was extremely intelligent,” Perinetti tells FFT. “He accepted his role and grew up a lot."

Ventrone claims Conte’s charisma had stood out from an early stage. “De Canio had the honour and good fortune to have one of the three best coaches in the world for an assistant,” he says. “Conte already had very clear ideas. You could see that he was not just your average former footballer turned wannabe coach. Antonio already had his own path. He tried to impart his concept of football and it was different from De Canio’s.”

De Canio indulged Conte’s nascent mania for using video clips as a coaching tool, and sometimes allowed him take the Siena squad through parts of the previous match.

Luigi De Canio

As time went on in De Canio's tenure, Conte became more and more influential

Siena’s black and white kit seemed to magnetically attract ex-Juventini like iron filings. In addition to Conte and Ventrone, Perinetti had spent time in Turin, having headed up the club’s youth system. The Siena squad featured no fewer than eight former Juventus players, such as Nicola Legrottaglie and Igor Tudor.

On the last day of April, the Old Lady visited Siena’s Artemio Franchi stadium. A win would bring Juventus the Scudetto (later annulled by the Calciopoli scandal), while Siena were playing for Serie A safety.

Inside 10 minutes Siena were 3-0 down. The home crowd turned on their ex-Juve contingent. The scoreline didn’t change, but other results meant Siena survived. In the aftermath, Siena chose not to renew De Canio’s contract and eventually released Conte as well.

Tough times at Arezzo

Conte lasted a mere three months in charge: still, time enough for an introductory dressing-room tirade, eight league games, only four points and three crucial penalty misses

By July 2006, Conte was feeling trapped – he was traipsing around IKEA with his wife Elisabetta when Arezzo sporting director Ermanno Pieroni called. Whichever ambition was the stronger, either becoming a manager or finally being able to stop staring at flat-pack furniture, Conte’s response was an instant yes.

He found a club in bits, minus the instructions and Allen keys. Arezzo had been docked six points over their involvement in the Calciopoli affair. The important players from the previous season’s Serie B play-off challenge were deserting. Even Conte himself was the second choice. In 25 years, only two Arezzo managers had ever survived more than a single campaign.

Maurizio Sarri

Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri didn't last long at Arezzo either

Conte lasted a mere three months in charge: still, time enough for an introductory dressing-room tirade, eight league games, only four points and three crucial penalty misses. He knew he was the fall guy, but he also knew that he was determined to fill his knowledge banks up to the brim, and embarked on a mildly farcical working holiday to Amsterdam to watch Louis van Gaal.

Conte observed one Ajax training session, although was too timid to introduce himself to the Iron Tulip. The following day turned out to be a closed session and a security guard asked Conte to leave – only after asking for his autograph.

Conte switched his sights to Italy’s amateur leagues – security guard-free and, he concluded, home to many nameless gurus of the game, full of wise nuggets to squirrel away for future reference. Or perhaps driving for mile after mile between the country’s slogging fields simply scratched his workaholic itch.

Meanwhile, after four months under an alternative manager, Arezzo were bottom of Serie B. In March they called Conte back – they were 10 points shy of safety, a task he couldn’t turn down, despite his wounded pride.

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