When Italy coach Antonio Conte walked out of the team hotel in central Turin on Sunday afternoon to go round the corner to the “One Apple Concept Bar”, run by his brother Daniele, he was in for a pleasant surprise. On stepping outside, he was warmly greeted by Juventus fans who bombarded him with requests for autographs and the ritual “selfies”.
You might argue that there is nothing strange about this. Is Puglia-born Conte not one of Turin’s favourite adopted sons? In three all conquering seasons in charge of the “Old Lady”, Juventus football club based in Turin, did he not win three successive Serie A titles? How could his return to Turin with the national team for a prestige friendly against England be anything other than a total triumph, a love-fest with the Juve (and other) fans?
Not quite so fast, however. The point is that Conte has just completed a difficult week in charge of the national team which ended up with him receiving a shower of abuse and even death threats (of questionable credibility) via the web. You would have to conclude that his week with Italy was nothing if not a perfect little storm.
It began with a surprise objection from Internazionale coach Roberto Mancini to the fact that in his squad he had included two “oriundi” (non-Italy born players of Italian bloodlines), namely Sampdoria’s Brazilian Eder and Palermo’s Argentine Franco Vazquez. Only Italians born in Italy should play for the Azzurri, suggested Mancini.
That polemic, however, was chickenfeed by comparison with the row which broke last Friday when it was announced that Italy and Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio had suffered a serious knee injury in training with the national team. Media, indeed social media, hype soon was speculating that Marchisio would need an operation and could be out of football for six months.
The idea that one of the club’s most in form players should be ruled out by an injury picked up with the national team right on the eve of Juve’s all-important Champions League quarter final tie with Monaco enraged the Juventus fans. VIP Juventus fan, John Elkann, president of FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), publicly asked: “You would have to ask yourself why they make them train so hard in the national team…”
Fortunately, this polemic was also quickly redimensioned. When Marchisio returned to Turin from the national team training centre of Coverciano, Florence, he was immediately subjected to a series of knee scans which showed that the injury was not as serious as some had feared. For a start, there would be no need for a surgical operation. For a second, Marchisio is expected to be out for perhaps a week or ten days, nothing more. For a third, it transpired that Marchisio had hurt himself during a routine warm-up exercise.
Given Conte’s glorious Juventus past, both as coach and player, the polemics seemed hard to understand. Conte himself was reportedly most unhappy at the attempt to create a row between him, his alma mater Juventus and his adopted home town (Conte lives in Turin).
Perhaps, though, the polemics are simply a reflection of the strained relationship between the national team and some Serie A clubs, not always happy to be obliged to release players for European qualifiers. Furthermore, many of those same Serie A clubs blocked Conte when he asked for a February squad get-together, not related to a fixture. All of which prompted Conte to comment bitterly last November that many of his club colleagues perceive the national team as a “nuisance”.
Some of those same colleagues have pointed out that Conte, in his time at Juventus, was not himself very good at releasing players for the national team. However, that matters little now. What matters is that team “senators”, players like Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Simone Zaza and others have all dismissed criticism of the coach, with Barzagli saying that his squad training sessions are “absolutely normal”.
What matters now, too, is that Conte and his Italy team get a warm welcome when they take to the field on Tuesday night. A warm reception and all those polemics will be soon forgotten.