Juventus boss Antonio Conte is the architect of one of the most stunning reversals in fortune seen by a major European side in recent years. Last year, the 43-year-old Italian led his side to the Serie A title in his first season in charge and looks set to do it again this campaign. And his club are in the quarter-finals of the Champions League against Bayern Munich, just a few seasons after toiling in Serie B.
In just a season and a half, Conte has managed to turn the Turin side back into the dominant team in Italy. In the process, Conte has gone from a surprising, if not questionable selection as Juventus manager, to one of the most respected and sought-after coaches on the continent.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Conte is thriving with the Bianconeri. After all, Conte’s own playing career was spent mostly at Juventus. He embarked on his professional journey at Lecce, spending six years with his hometown club. A move to Turin beckoned in 1991 and a 13-year spell with the Old Lady saw Conte achieve legendary status. The Italian was an industrious midfielder who became club captain and was instrumental in leading Juventus to five Scudettos and a Champions League victory amongst a series of other titles. His success saw him rewarded with 20 caps for Italy including participation in the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000.
It was at Juventus where the never-say-die midfielder shone however. Conte’s passionate displays endeared him to the Bianconeri faithful who soon considered him one of the club’s symbols. Conte expressed his love for the Turin giants on many occasions and cited the support of Juventus supporters as one of the most important aspects of his career, further endearing him to the faithful. Upon his return to the side as manager in 2011, Conte referred to coming back home and commented that Juventus were like his ‘second skin’.
After retiring in 2004, Conte quickly pursued a career in coaching. He began as Luigi Di Canio’s assistant at Siena in 2005 before earning his first managerial position with Serie B outfit Arezzo in 2006. It proved to be a rocky introduction to the profession for Conte who was sacked after just three months in charge, only to be reinstated five months later in March 2007. After a promising start to his second spell, the Italian was unable to keep Arezzo from being relegated to Serie C1 however.
Matters improved in Conte’s next job at Bari. After taking over a side mired near the bottom of the table, Conte masterminded an impressive turnaround that saw the club achieve safety. In the following season he led Bari into the top flight as Serie B winners, which brought a job with Atalanta, however things turned sour quickly and with his new club sitting in 19th place, Conte was dismissed in January 2010. It was then back to Tuscany for the former midfielder, where he returned to Siena – this time as the manager. The Italian oversaw a fine season that culminated in Siena being promoted to Serie A. And with the Juventus hierarchy tired of two consecutive seventh-place finishes, Conte’s exploits with Siena were enough to convince the Bianconeri to select him to manage the Turin giants ahead of the 2011/12 season.
The Perfect Fit
The signing of Conte signalled a new era for the Bianconeri, which coincided with the opening of the brand-new Juventus Stadium, built on the ground of the much-maligned Stadio Delle Alpi. The change in manager and a squad reshuffle coupled with a wave of enthusiasm surrounding the club and supporters saw Juventus stroll to the Scudetto last season on the back of an undefeated league record. While several new stars emerged, it was Conte who was credited most for leading Juventus back to the top of Italian football.
The new boss was lauded for his ability to sway matches in the Bianconeri’s favour thanks to sometimes bold tactical moves. He also showed tactical flexibility, leaving behind his favoured 4-2-4 formation by adopting a 4-3-3 which was better suited to his personnel and eventually an extremely successful 3-5-2. Conte’s increasing reputation as a master tactician has continued into the current campaign. Andrea Pirlo, the Italian playmaker at the heart of the Juventus revolution, recently heaped praise on his boss after the club’s progression to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. “He is one of the best coaches around. He’s coaching in the Champions League for the first time and is already proving his worth”, said the former AC Milan star.
Having already won the Scudetto in his first season and being well-placed to win it again this term, along with the continental success the club have enjoyed by being one of Europe’s best eight sides, it would seem that Conte should be set for a long and fruitful stay with Juventus.
There are some clouds on the horizon though. Last summer, Conte received a ten-month touchline ban for failing to report an alleged fixed match involving Siena in the 2010/11 season, when he was managing the club. The 43-year-old strongly maintained his innocence and eventually his ban was reduced to four months; he returned to the Juventus dugout in late 2012.
Controversy has not been far away in 2013 either. Conte received a two-match touchline ban in late January after he angrily confronted the referee at the end of a match against Genoa. He was incensed by the official’s refusal to award his team a late penalty. A fiery press conference followed in which Conte continued his attack by saying, "I’ve had enough. I can accept a mistake if someone tells me ‘I didn’t see it’, but not that they just didn’t feel up to it. This is not football. We work hard all week and we want fairness."
More recently, Conte appears to be showing growing discontent with the state of Italian football. After celebrating a vital win over Bologna, he was slammed as “disrespectful” by Rossoblu manager Stefano Pioli. Conte did not hold back when faced with the charge. He countered that the Juventus bus had been subject to a hostile reception which included being pelted by rocks. “This is the sort of thing people ought to be ashamed of, not rubbish like celebrating. I understand it hurts to lose, but let’s be realistic here”, Conte tried to reason after the match.
For now, Conte appears to be serious about staying with Juventus and seeing out his project. The manager has obviously forged extremely close ties with the club and city over the years as a player and now coach, while he also recognises that the Bianconeri took a big chance on a boss who previously had only minimal success in Italy.
His appeal though is growing across Europe. His tactical acumen, enthusiasm and passion are some of the reasons the former midfielder is attracting interest from the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. And given the financial state of the Italian game at present, Conte may eventually prefer a move to a club with a bigger wallet. While he has stated that he is already at a major European club, the Juventus boss has gone on record as admitting that “the economic gap with the bigger clubs in Europe is insurmountable.”
Before his recent troubles with officials and opposing managers, Conte had maintained that “there is absolutely no chance of me leaving Juventus at the end of the season.” As Juventus scramble to insert a buyout clause into his contract, it seems both club and coach want to extend what has so far amounted to a perfect football marriage. But, if Conte can keep Juventus challenging for honours both domestically and in Europe, then it could just be a matter of time before a club with real financial might make an aggressive power play for him. Regardless of what happens, Conte’s star as one of Europe’s up and coming managers continues to shine brightly.
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