Sweat and tears is what Italy coach Antonio Conte demanded from his players, and sweat and tears is what he got during a two-year reign that ended in the quarterfinals of the European Championship.
Conte, who is leaving the Azzurri to join Chelsea in the English Premier League, transmits passion and the desire to succeed to his players. And both those qualities were on show during Italy’s defeat on penalties to world champion Germany on Saturday.
Captain Gianluigi Buffon was crying as he left the pitch, while another experienced player Andrea Barzagli also broke down while giving an interview.
“It’s a huge disappointment, because we really gave everything,” Barzagli sobbed. “Unfortunately we lost and nothing will remain of everything good we have done because when you go out .... sorry .... only disappointment is left and that’s it.
“And in a few years’ time no one will remember anything about this Italy side which gave everything.”
That depends very much on how Italy does under incoming coach Giampiero Ventura.
The 68-year-old has won nothing, apart from a third division title during a 35-year managerial career. But he has earned plenty of plaudits for the work he did with Torino, where he forged a team which was worth more than the sum of its parts — much like Conte did with Italy.
And Ventura will have more to work with than Conte, who took over after the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup. The Azzurri were eliminated at the group stage in Brazil — prompting the immediate resignation of coach Cesare Prandelli and the president of the Italian football federation.
Conte has indeed laid good foundations, having molded Italy into the image of himself.
“I am proud of the legacy we are leaving,” Conte said. “We wanted to transmit to the fans our passion, enthusiasm and a love for this shirt and this team.”
The Azzurri may lack star quality, but they more than make up for in their strength as a group.
So strong is their team spirit that defender Leonardo Bonucci said after the Germany defeat: “Even though we have only been together about a month and a half, it feels like they have been my teammates for years and years in the dressing room.”
“We have to be intelligent in continuing on this path,” Bonucci said. “We’ll leave Ventura in peace to create his group, the one that was here at the European Championship and to take Italy forward, because we deserved this. We grew game after game and now we have to continue.”
Ventura’s work will start in earnest when the players meet up again for Italy’s first World Cup qualifier, against Israel on Sept. 5.
Italy also faces Spain, Albania, Macedonia and Liechtenstein in Group G.
The future looks bright for the Azzurri, who have grown in confidence. But if Italy does go backwards, Conte — who is leaving mainly because he misses the day-to-day life of club management — has hinted that he could return to the national side in the future.
“I hope that all goes well for the national team and Ventura,” Conte said. “I am convinced in the value of the work we have done and that the federation is going down the right road and that can help the Italy colors fly high. We achieved an objective at this European Championship where we were respected by all and we matched the world champions.
“I hope that this is not a goodbye, but an “Arrivederci.”