Flamboyant Conte roars out of garage and burns up grass
By Brian Homewood
PARIS (Reuters) - After months holed up in his “garage”, Italy coach Antonio Conte has been finally able to smell the grass and he is relishing every minute of it.
Conte, who spends matches ranting incessantly at his players and the referee from the touchline, is one of the most passionate coaches at Euro 2016 and has led an ageing, technically-limited side further than many felt possible.
His inspirational leadership of Italy, who face Germany in the quarter-finals on Saturday, is all the more impressive considering that only recently his attitude to the job was being questioned.
Three months ago, Conte announced that he would join Chelsea following Euro 2016, making it perfectly clear why he wanted to leave.
The former Italy midfielder was fed up with what he said was a lack of co-operation from the clubs over the release of players for mid-season training camps and was bored with the long waits between international games.
"I spent four months without any matches and it's been really tough. I didn't want another two years like that," he said.
"I'm very tired of spending so much time in the garage. In the garage, I felt the smell of the machine, of rubber and motor oil. The car inside the garage is far from the grass.
"There are situations in which you are the hammer and in which you are the anvil. We have to understand that the role of the technical staff is of the anvil."
The comments shocked Italians and some felt that Conte had belittled his post as head of the four-times world champions.
But that has all been forgiven following comprehensive 2-0 wins over Belgium and Spain, who were not only beaten but outplayed despite boasting more gifted individuals.
Conte's motivational powers are there for all to see thanks to his behaviour on the touchline.
The 46-year-old celebrated the first goal against Belgium with such enthusiasm that he banged his head against substitute forward Simone Zaza and suffered a nosebleed.
Against Spain, he kicked the ball away in fury after his team lost possession, then leapt onto the roof of the substitutes' bench when Italy scored their second goal.
The players admit he is a tough taskmaster.
“Our football is draining, but the statistics show that we’re the team which has run the most," said defender Giorgio Chiellini. "A team like ours needs high intensity and pressing. That’s the secret to not giving away many chances."
Conte, however, is not just about motivation and hard running.
His meticulous preparations, drilling tactics into his players in secret training sessions where screens are placed around the field to protect against prying eyes, are also part of Italian football folklore.
When Conte was hired, there was immediate controversy after the Italian football federation (FIGC) said that part of his wages would be paid by team sponsors Puma. But FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio said the decision had been proved right.
"Conte wanted to show that this team could win over the hearts of the Italians and he has done it. The national team is an emblem of unity and has the same will to win as its coach," he said.
"Conte is a great coach, a great man, who keeps his word and makes sacrifices. We solved the problem of how to hire him with help from the sponsors. Unfortunately, he is leaving but this is an investment that has paying off in every sense."
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne)