Italy coach Antonio Conte insisted his battling players left their mark on Euro 2016 but after a quarter-final penalty shootout defeat to Germany he is already looking towards his “new adventure” with Chelsea.
“I think the lads really left their mark on this tournament,” an emotional Conte said on Saturday after seeing his side suffer their first loss to the World Cup holders in nine outings at major finals.
“We battled all the way, but football can bring you joy and pain.”
Instead of spending the next seven days battling to reach the July 10 final, Conte will now, reluctantly, have a seven-day holiday before making London, and Stamford Bridge, his home for the foreseeable future.
The 46-year-old former Juventus coach caused some confusion when he appeared to suggest he had reconsidered whether to continue with Italy instead of taking up his post with Chelsea.
He was then at pains to insist that was not the case: “The decision to leave the national team after two years in charge was made before the tournament.”
“I won’t deny that there did come a time when I would have liked to continue... but because of certain developments I wasn’t able to go back on that.”
Conte later clarified, adding: “In November, I thought I was continuing with the national side. Then I told the president of the Italian football federation of the great opportunity to join Chelsea football club.
“I wanted to return to the cut and thrust of club football. Now, I have the opportunity to start this exciting adventure.”
If fans thought Conte might one day return to coach the Azzurri, they were quickly disappointed.
“I think it’s impossible,” he said. “My future lies in working at club level. My future’s with Chelsea.”
“Now I’ll take seven days off to charge my batteries and shift a bit of this disappointment before taking over at Chelsea.”
“I know it will be a difficult challenge but it’s one I will cherish.”
Chelsea finished the last Premier League season in 10th place so Blues fans should welcome their new coach with open arms.
Through a combination of grit, personality, and a lot of dramatic gesticulating on the touchlines -- all of which rubbed off on Italy’s squad over his two years in charge -- Conte transformed a team that suffered their second successive first-round exit from the World Cup in Brazil into bone fide title contenders at Euro 2016.
Italy’s dream of securing a place in the last four match-up with France or Iceland, who face off on Sunday, was kept on track by Leonardo Bonucci’s late penalty that levelled a 65th minute opener by Mesut Ozil.
Although Germany had the lion’s share of opportunities, Italy took the game to penalties, where the Azzurri spurned a great chance to cause another upset a week after sending holders Spain home with a 2-0 last-16 victory.
It took several misses in the 18-kick epic before Germany clinched a 6-5 shootout victory when Manuel Neuer saved a tame shot from Manchester United defender Matteo Darmian.
Italy ‘keeper Gianluigi Buffon admitted: “It’s difficult to look ahead after seeing that our opponents missed three of (their first) five penalties.”
“I don’t know how often that has happened before.”
Conte, however, refused to lay the blame on anyone.
“Ultimately, the disappointment was huge in the dressing room,” said Conte.
“We were leading before the fourth penalty... but football can bring you joy and disappointment.”
“However, a top side go through in Germany. They’re the world’s best side and we were able to match them.”
“They even changed their formation to play us and I think that shows the respect that we’ve commanded from opponents at this tournament.”
“The players really give it everything, and I don’t think there’s anyone who can say a harsh word against them.”
“Now, I’ll leave this little war machine behind. It’s been a memorable stay for me and I will forever thank them for the atmosphere we created in this time.”
“I think the biggest victory for me was to have worked with this squad of players, with the staff -- from the kit men to the chefs.”
“It’s been a wonderful experience. That’s given me the biggest satisfaction.”