Conte expected to make Chelsea win

Italy coach Antonio Conte will be tasked with whipping an underachieving Chelsea into shape when he takes over in the summer, in a manner not too dissimilar from what he accomplished at Juventus
Italy coach Antonio Conte will be tasked with whipping an underachieving Chelsea into shape when he takes over in the summer, in a manner not too dissimilar from what he accomplished at Juventus. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LONDON • On his first day as coach of Juventus, the football club he captained to glory at home and abroad, Antonio Conte did not waste time on niceties.

Italy's most decorated side, still not fully recovered from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal, had finished seventh in their two previous seasons. Conte did not ask for explanations nor did he want to listen to excuses. His only words, once he had the attention of the dressing room, were succinct. "Lads," he said. "It's time we stopped being s***."

The 46-year-old may be tempted to use roughly the same approach when he arrives for his first day at work at Chelsea this summer. The task that awaits him at Stamford Bridge, after all, is not too dissimilar to the one he encountered upon taking charge in Turin in May 2011.

Chelsea are now, as Juventus were then, a shadow of their former selves, reeling from a year of chaos and undermined by a sense of chronic complacency.

Listening to the testimonies of those who have played with and worked for Conte, it is easy to see why Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich decided that the Italy coach is the man to arrest the decline.

A serial champion, he has the pedigree to command the respect of a fractious dressing room. An exacting perfectionist, he works with a relentless, almost religious zeal.

STRONG CHARACTER

When he speaks, his words assault you. They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within you.

ANDREA PIRLO, former Juventus playmaker, on his former coach Antonio Conte's way with words.

More than anything, though, he is angry. As Italian veteran player Andrea Pirlo says, he is possessed by an "inner torment, without a start or an end".

"When he speaks, his words assault you," the playmaker wrote in his autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play. "They crash through the doors of your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within you."

Parma manager Luigi Apolloni, however, sees Conte differently.

"It is not quite the right word to say he has an inner rage," says the man who faced Conte as a player when Juventus and Parma ranked among Italy's great clubs of the 1990s and played alongside him as part of the Italy squad who made the 1994 World Cup final.

"It is more a desire, a will to win. It is something that became part of his character while he was at Juventus. Winning is part of Juve. That is what defines them as a club.

"He was their captain and symbol. What they stood for became what he stood for. It made him a very tough opponent, one who never gave up, but a fair one, too."

Conte was never the most gifted of players: it is telling that he titled his autobiography Testa, cuore e gambe - Head, Heart and Legs - the three traits he felt enabled him to carve out a career as an astute, hard-running midfielder. He always felt his success was "founded on sacrifice and on sweat".

One of three brothers, he grew up in Lecce in Italy's sun-burnt deep south. He learnt to play on "clay and concrete"; he did not set foot on a grass pitch until the age of 13, when he was given a trial.

He had enough talent to convince Pantaleo Corvino, Lecce's sporting director, to buy him from Juventina, his youth side, for the princely sum of eight leather footballs.

It would prove an astute piece of business. Conte, a boyhood Inter Milan fan, spent almost a decade with his local club before moving to Juventus in 1991. He would remain there until the end of his playing career, making nearly 300 appearances in winning five Italian titles and, in 1996, the Champions League, as well as picking up 20 caps for Italy.

But many feel that all the accolades Conte and his Juventus team-mates accumulated over that period were tarnished not just by the Calciopoli scandal exposed in 2006, but also by the allegations, two years previously, of widespread doping at the club during the 1990s.

One medical adviser to the prosecutor who brought the charges described Juventus as being "equipped like a small hospital". The club's doctor was initially sentenced to 22 months in jail for supplying players with performance-enhancing drugs.

Few, though, allow those controversies to cast doubt over his abilities as a coach. He spent a season at Siena alongside Luigi de Canio as an assistant in 2005, before taking his first job at Arezzo the next season. That job ended in failure - Arezzo were relegated - but it would prove a rare setback.

He took Bari to promotion and, after a tumultuous spell at Atalanta, repeated the trick with Siena. That was enough to convince Juventus to appoint their former captain.

He made it his job, in his words, to make sure they were "less s***". Three titles in three years suggest he managed it.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Conte expected to make Chelsea win'. Print Edition | Subscribe