Antonio Conte was offering a lesson in life, not just in football. “Nothing is impossible,” he said, before pausing to add: “It would be a pity if it was: it would take away the very essence of life, the uncertainty that makes it.”
It would also mean, if he is to be believed – and Cesc Fàbregas was quick to insist that he is not – that his team have no chance of beating Spain in Paris on Monday night. The Italy manager claimed they would have to produce an “extraordinary” performance if they are to knock the current holders out of the European Championship but believes that they can do just that, insisting that they are not just here to be “sacrificial lambs”.
“Nothing is impossible, otherwise everything would be too easy, too predictable: you’d always know what was going to happen,” Conte said. “Any time that the odds were against you, you would know and you wouldn’t [rebel]. And that would be a shame, it would take the very essence of life away. It would mean not having that feeling, that knowledge, that if you work you can beat a strong side and defy the odds. And that is what I think is great about football and about life: overcoming difficulties.
“I don’t want to go home, the boys don’t want to go home. We are not just the sacrificial lamb. Spain will have to beat us. We must not leave here with any regrets. We need to know that we have given everything at all times, in all matches. I tell the players: ‘If the oppositions are better than us we will applaud them, but if that does not happen I want us to win the match’.”
Conte has said before that Italy has a worrying lack of talent, with few players coming through the country’s youth systems and the last World Cup ending with them getting knocked out in the group phase, but he said he had no doubts about taking over as national team manager.
“When I was appointed I knew the pros and cons in this journey,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy situation but these situations bring out the best in me, they intrigue me. That’s where I produce my best work, so I was happy to accept the offer straight away. I knew I could count on a group of players who have always done everything and I would like to thank them: they have shown willingness, desire, passion and they want to overcome hurdles.
“We are well aware of the fact that they are a good team: we’re not just here to show up, that’s for sure. If we give everything we have a chance, but if we don’t we will lose. We need to bring out something in us. We need to do something extraordinary because the ordinary will not be enough. And I believe that the players are capable of that.”
Conte’s goalkeeper, Gigi Buffon, who said he would like to play at the World Cup in Russia in two years, said that only Italy have been able to compete with the only international team to ever win three major tournaments in a row. He was in goal for each of the last four tournament meetings between the two countries, all of them resulting in a Spanish victory, including a 4-0 win in the final four years ago.
“That happened because we came into the game absolutely emotionally and physically exhausted and Spain won by outclassing us that night,” he said. “But of the other three fixtures, in two we were level after 120 minutes, in the other after 90. That shows what we can do, that we have been able to cause problems for the best team in the world. Spain won and won again on every continent over a four-year period and Italy are the only team that have made them sweat for the victory.”
Buffon said he has no intention of announcing his international retirement at the end of Euro 2016. “When you play at this level it is no longer you that decides if you continue to play or not; it is your performances on the pitch and the decisions made now and in the future by the head coach [for Italy] and your club managers,” he said. “The idea in my mind is to continue for a further two years and I would like to continue playing at this level as I am doing now. If my level makes the new head coach happy then I would be delighted to continue to be a part of the Italian national team. I have greater awareness of how to emotionally manage these games than I did [when I was younger] but I still live these moments intensely. What is great about sport and playing at the age of 38 is experiencing and living for these games.”
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