Monday, 16 October 2017

Full exclusive interview: Antonio Conte talks about Football, Football and Football

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Alastair Campbell: So you are a GQ Man Of The Year. Congratulations.



Antonio Conte: Thank you.

Would you say you are a fashionable kind of guy?

I try to dress well. Not just now at Chelsea, but all my career, at my clubs and the national team in Italy, I like to wear a nice suit on the touchline.

You and Pep Guardiola have set a trend with those buttoned sleeveless cardigans. It’s quite a thing to make a cardigan look fashionable.

Ah, yes. It is not the most important thing, but I think the manager must be smart.

On the touchline, I don’t notice the suit so much as the fact you’re always moving, running, pointing, shouting.

This is me; this is my character.

Have you ever worn a heart-rate monitor just to see how high it goes?

No, I have never done this, but, for sure, my heart rate during a game is high intensity throughout.

Is all this emotional release for you or for the players?

It is for them. I am always trying to keep the tension high for the players.

But can the players even hear you?

[Laughs.] When a new coach comes to a new club with new ways, new ideas, the players have to adapt. It is not simple for them or for me. But my coaching has always been about giving as much advice as possible, so they know what to do at any moment. All my coaching life, I am the same, always on the touchline, the same way. I am in the game all the time. I am focused. I live my football intensely and I want them to.

But are they even aware of what you are saying?

At first maybe not, because maybe they are not used to having their ears open in this way when they are playing, but slowly, slowly they adapt.

I hear you are the same in training, always talking, telling, pointing?

Yes, this is me. It is all about the preparation. When things happen in a game, I want them to know how to deal with this because we did it so many times in training.

How much has football changed since you were a player?

Oh, a lot. A lot, a lot.

Harder?

Yes, because now to be a top team player, to have a talent, it is not just about skill: you must be fast, strong and have real stamina. Before, it was not so; the pressures were not the same. You must match the quality with speed and to have velocity and quality together is not easy. In the game today you have no time to control the ball, to look where your opponent is coming from. They are already there, so you must think quickly and know what you are going to do. That is why training sessions are so important and why I keep them so intense.

My son works for West Ham. He says you have a reputation as a great tactician. What does that mean exactly?

It is not easy to explain this concept, but to me it is about study. I like to study everything: the way to be dangerous when you are attacking; what the players should do when you don’t have the ball, where they should be. The tactics you tell the players to follow come from all this study. The situations change a lot during a game: you change to defend; you change when you are trying to win the ball back quickly. It is not always the same. You have a plan and you try to prepare the team and before the players start to play in the game they know the situation that I want to happen and they understand if we need to change.

So if you seem angry with a player it is probably because he has gone against something you planned in training?

I am not angry. I am focused. I am really concentrating on the game. But if you see me like that it means there is something wrong and I am trying to fix it.

Andrea Pirlo said that you were “allergic to error”. I like that.

[Laughs.] I try to avoid all mistakes. I try to prepare my players and to put them in the best condition to play the game. If you discover a problem during the game it is too late. You must anticipate and prepare.

What has been your strongest impression of the game in England?

The atmosphere. In England, you can breathe it in every moment.

More than in Italy? Is that because there are more away fans?

Here it is always like a festival and the home and away fans are usually right next to each other. In Italy it is very difficult to find supporters together; there are a lot more police. When we beat Middlesbrough, we were close to winning the league and Middlesbrough were relegated in that game. But I saw the Middlesbrough fans applauding their players over in their part of the ground and for me that was great. In our last game against Sunderland they had already been relegated weeks earlier, but the fans were there and being amazing.

Is this really the toughest of all the leagues or are we just a bit up ourselves?

This is the toughest, the most intense, the most difficult, no doubt. In Spain, you have two teams who might win, Real Madrid and Barcelona, every now and then Atletico Madrid. In Italy, there is only Juventus. In Germany, there is Bayern Munich. OK, Borussia Dortmund won it with Klopp, but it is [mostly] Bayern. In France, there is Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco for a season. But here, there are at least six clubs who think they can win the title. Manchester City and United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham…

And Chelsea?

And Chelsea, for sure.

So having won the League once, how hard will it be to win again?

Winning in England, winning in this league is so hard and only one team can win, so it is important that we put all of ourselves into doing the best job we can do.

Are the teams at the bottom of our league a lot better than the teams at the bottom of those other leagues?

Yes. Look at the size of the wins you see in Spain, big wins, six, seven goals. You do not see that so much in England. There is no easy game, not one. That means it is easier for the teams in Spain and Italy to manage their rotation between the leagues and the Champions League. There are games where you can relax a little. Here, you cannot do that, impossible. Easy games just do not exist. It is so important the players understand this. If they don’t, you end up losing points you should not be losing.

Do you think it is a problem for the England national team that there are so many foreign players here?

No, absolutely not.

It is the same with managers. Last time I checked there were more Italian managers in the top five leagues than any other nationality: 21 Italian, 20 Spanish, 13 German, four English. Why is that?

I don’t know why this is the case, but we Italians must surely be proud if it is true.

Is the media more intense here in the UK or in Italy?

In Italy we have three newspapers just about football, nothing else. It is life for many people. So there is a lot of pressure. Also a lot of them think they know your job better than you do so they are trying to tell you who and how to play.

Do you feel you can go out more here without being bothered by people?

Oh, people stop you and ask for photos or autographs, but it is a pleasure.

Do you like hearing the crowd sing your name, with the “An-ton-i-o” chant?

Yeah. It’s nice. The first time, it was at home against Everton. I was so really focused on the game I didn’t even hear it and my fitness coach told me, “Hey, coach, the fans are chanting your name” and I put up my hands to try to give a clap. “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio!” [Laughs.]

When you’re shaving in the morning, do you ever look in the mirror and sing your own name to yourself?

No, no. [Laughs.] You know, in this type of situation I am actually a bit shy.

When they sing your name?

Yes. I am quite private. Until I get to know someone, I am shy. When I know them I open up. But at the start I don’t speak a lot. I like also to listen.

But on the training ground, you never stop talking.

Yes. This is my character on the training ground.

But can the players take it all in? Do they absorb it?

This is my coaching style and during the training session I try to give advice in every moment. I explain a tactical situation, the right movement at the right time, to help the player understand the right moment to press, to look around, to seek out space, and I like to speak a lot because I want to keep the intensity high. Not shouting. I speak. I talk.

Are you the same outside football, always talking, always high energy? Or a different person?

No, not a different person, I am always the same, a strong character in my job and also in my private life. But, for sure, there is one person in my life who can make me calm. That is my daughter [Vittoria], only her. She is the only one.

Not your wife, [Elisabetta]?

Sometimes she can make me more angry. [Laughs.]

As an English lesson, I think you should say passionate not angry.

No, I am joking. I love being with my family. This year will be better because they are moving to England from Italy. But it is not easy because this job is so intense. My mind is always on football.

When you say your mind is always on football, do you mean that literally?

[Nods.] I think so.

Do you dream about football?

I don’t dream so much because I sleep very little. I sleep four or five hours maybe. When I go to sleep I am thinking football. Then I sleep and it is difficult for me to dream, but when I wake up it is 5am or 6am, I start straight away. I am thinking about football as soon as my eyes open – a lot of my best ideas come to me at this time, even before I am out of bed.

So obsessed, yes? Obsessive?

Yes. I think you must be.

What do you do outside football?

I might watch a film with my wife and my daughter. A lot of the time I like to eat at home, because my wife is a good cook, nothing too sophisticated, simple Italian food. I love her cooking. Or we go to restaurants and when I have a day off I visit different parts of London.

I am surprised you have days off.

Sometimes I give myself a day off because I need it.

But you’re still thinking football?

It is not easy to not think football. To be without football for a whole day is impossible. The mind is always working.

Were you like that as a player?

No. When I was a player it was different. My job finished when training finished. Totally different. When we all came back from the summer break, people said, “Did you enjoy your holiday?” But for a coach, holidays without work are very difficult. As soon as the season ends, the coach must prepare the new season, sell this player, buy this player, another one goes out on loan, the phone is always hot, then another one wants to leave, so it never stops. It is a pity because sometimes you need a break from it.

But could you live without it?

No. Football is my life. I was born with a ball in the belly of my mother. My father was a football man. He was my first coach, my first owner, my first kit man.

Does your wife like football?

No.

But she comes to the games?

Yes. My wife and her family, they didn’t really like football. They did different things at the weekend, but now they have changed their habits. Now her father is the first to watch the game and sometimes he tries to give me advice. He tries to tell me what I should be doing. [Laughs.]

What does your wife think when you’re running around on the touchline?

[Laughs.] My wife knows me very well. I didn’t go out with her till after I stopped playing so she only knows me really as a coach. At the start of the season at Chelsea, my wife watched the early games and at the end she said, “Look, Antonio, I saw the previous games with the previous team. They listened to you. These players are not listening to you.”

Was she right?

Kind of. This was the start of the season. It is not easy when you arrive and you are changing the style of coaching and you are present in every moment of the game, determined to advise throughout.

Were you an easy player to manage?

Yes, because in all the circumstances I find myself in, I look at myself and I ask myself, “Am I doing my best?” As a player I did it and now as a coach I do it.

You’re not just saying that because some of your players might read this?

No, I have always done this. I look inside myself all the time and I did the same as a player.

Who were the best players you played with?

Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero.

Who are your heroes in the game?

Always my players.

Heroes outside the game?

My parents and my family.

Did you always want to be a coach?

Yes. I coached my first team when I was 14! I trained a team of elementary school kids. I always loved it. I always felt I would do this, that this would be my life. But sometimes I hate it, you know. Sometimes I hate this job, because sometimes you lose your life. If you want to do this job, to be a good coach, a great coach, you must sacrifice your life and sometimes I hate this.

What do you hate specifically?

I have to think football 18 hours a day.

[Laughs.] But that is what you love.

[Laughs.] True, I love it and I hate it. It is everything.

Is money making the game too divorced, too distant, from the fans?

I think it has always been a bit like this. When I was a player, we earned more than most people with a normal salary.

But now it is a whole different level. Your players are multimillionaires.

That is why we must have a lot of respect for the fans who spend their money to watch the game, to follow the team, home and away. Yes, the money today is much higher for managers and players. I think when you reach the top level it is less about the money itself, it is important only because the level of earning shows the importance of the player or the manager. I don’t think people want to have the money just to spend it. It is a reflection of your importance in football.

Are you religious?

Yes. Very. I like to go to Mass.

Are you political?

No, I don’t follow politics so much.

OK, last question. If you had to rank the 20 Premier League managers as players, from their playing days, what order would you put them in?

[Winces.] No, no, I don’t want to do this. I have to see them, week in, week out.

I’ve got Ronald Koeman top, then Mark Hughes and a toss-up between you, Frank de Boer and Mauricio Pochettino. Oh, and Sean Dyche. He’d kill me if I didn’t have him there somewhere.

I am not doing this one. [Laughs.]

At this point, an assistant comes to tell Conte he is late for training and risks a fine. He shakes hands, says goodbye and runs out. A few minutes later I watch him gesticulating wildly to the players gathered in a semicircle in the pouring rain. He looks focused, and happy.

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