Antonio Conte talks to Paddy Agnew about his hopes for the Euros and how he is inspired by Leicester City.
World Soccer: So then, how is Italian football?
Antonio Conte: There was a time when we dominated European football, when three out of four Champions League semi-finalists were Italian. But that was then. Now club owners tell me that, for the best players, Italy is no longer the final destination but rather just a passing moment on the way [to Spain or England].
Then there is a shortage of good young players. At the moment, it would be difficult to name good young players. And we’re talking about Italy – a country which has always produced great talents.
How have the injuries to Marchisio and Verratti upset your plans?
The two weeks [of training camp] are fundamental because we are carrying out a whole series of physical and mental tests which will be crucial for my final selections. When I say that, I have a number of things to resolve. I am not talking just about injuries, like those to Verratti and Marchisio, I am also talking about mental well being. I am talking about guys like Pelle, Darmian and Eder who have been dropped by their clubs. I have got to pick them up. We’ve got to work on everything. I’ve got to do a reset on the minds of players who may be just a little down.
How do you see your group?
As far as I am concerned, this is the hardest first round group of all. We start with Belgium, the world’s number one team. They have a very strong squad. They have players on their subs bench who would be automatic first choices in a lot of other national teams.
Are Sweden too dependent on one player, namely Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Sweden are lucky to have a class player like him. He is a guy who, wherever he goes, wins a title. And over the years he has got better and become inspirational for his team-mates. Sweden are a solid team, very solid in defence, perhaps a bit less passionate than Ireland but still a very solid team, very tactically organised – and with a player who can make a difference.
And what do you expect from Ireland?
Ireland took points from Germany, they are a tough team. I saw their play-off games against Bosnia. They are a much improved team, they are obviously very physical and they like to use the long ball, looking for the lay-off. The Irish players are maybe not well known [in Italy] but there are some very useful ones.
Do you know your opposite number, Martin O’Neill?
He has obviously done a great job with Ireland because it is never easy to qualify for a tournament like this. Then they beat Bosnia in the play-offs, a team that has players of the quality of Pjanic, Dzeko
Is your forthcoming job, as manager of Chelsea, likely to prove a distraction before and during the tournament?
This is the final act in a journey which started out two years ago. Euro 2016 is the crowning moment of these last two years, so it is very important. Anybody who knows me, knows that I take things one at a time so I won’t be thinking about Chelsea until mid-July at least.
Who are your favourites for Euro 2016?
Germany, Spain, France, England, Portugal and, above all, Belgium. But, mind you, even if Belgium are favourites, that doesn’t mean that they will win, there is always room for a surprise. Look at Leicester this year, they were able to bridge the gap with hard work and commitment.
And they did it with a little Italian know-how from their coach Claudio Ranieri…
Absolutely, absolutely. For all of us it is a matter of great pride what he has accomplished. Italy should follow on from him. In a tournament like this, where, on paper at least, you will be playing against stronger teams, you have got to compensate with your intensity and your tactical organisation and make the most of those.
And how do you think Italy will perform at Euro 2016?
We’ll start with our headlights turned off, because this is maybe not a good moment for Italian football but, as the tournament goes on, maybe we will light up and shine into other teams’ faces.
Interview by Paddy Agnew