That Antonio Conte should prove as canny and unbending an operator away from the dugout as he is in it should not come as a surprise. That applies especially to those who recall the time he felt shortchanged in “a €100 restaurant”.
Reports suggest the Chelsea manager is at loggerheads with the club’s hierarchy over transfer dealings, less than a month after he lifted the Premier League trophy. These accounts carry echoes of Conte’s final months as manager of Juventus.
As at Stamford Bridge, Conte was a hugely successful manager in Turin, securing a record Serie A points total in his third consecutive title-winning season of 2013-14. But on the day he won the title Conte was asked on TV about his plans for the next season. His reply was as unexpected as it was colourful: “Well, you cannot go to eat at a €100 restaurant with just €10 in your pocket, can you?”
With this metaphor, Conte was referring to his team’s prospects of winning the Champions League, a trophy Juve’s owners, the Agnelli family, wanted but Conte had proved unable to provide. That season Italy’s Old Lady had dropped out of Europe’s premier competition at the group stage.
For Conte the issue was simple: he was not able to compete at the same financial level as other giants of European football. It was a theme he had aired before, more than once. When Juventus were knocked out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich at the quarter-final stage in 2013, Conte told the media: “You do not build skyscrapers with a pail and shovel.” And before they faced Real Madrid in the group stage in his final season Conte said: “They are in a tank, we are a car.”
Conte wanted the money to strengthen the side with players such as Alexis Sánchez, then at Barcelona, and Juan Cuadrado. Instead the club told him they had struck a deal for Patrice Evra, a Champions League-winning full-back, but by then 33 years of age.
The manager was also reported to have become frustrated with other elements of the club’s operations, from proposed summer tours to the players’ win bonuses. On 15 July 2014 Juventus announced that Conte was to leave by “mutual consent”.
In the statement published by the club on their website, Conte announced he wanted to give “an enormous thank you” to the club but that “it might be more difficult to keep winning with Juventus”. The chairman, Andrea Agnelli, was effusive in his praise, describing Conte as a “great leader” who “led us to write history”.
Asked about his relationship with Conte a year later Agnelli gave a slightly different response. Describing what he saw as the manager’s weakness, Agnelli said: “He is perhaps a bit touchy, especially when you tell him that something isn’t going the way he wants it to. As for a quality, that is tenacity, for sure.”
Chelsea would have known this about Conte when they signed him. They might also have known that Conte walked out of another managerial job at Bari, just a month after getting them promoted to Serie A and signing a new contract. But now, as the hierarchy and manager dispute the best way for the club to build on a league title with European dominance, they are feeling the force of Conte’s tenacity for themselves.
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