An emotional Antonio Conte admitted Italy’s exit to Germany at the quarter-final stages of Euro 2016 had left him facing his “most difficult” day, opening the door to a return as coach of the Azzurri one day.
Italy exited the tournament after an epic 18-kick penalty shootout that saw players from both sides hit and miss the target before Germany advanced to the last four 6-5 after a 1-1 draw in Bordeaux.
Conte will take over as Chelsea manager for the upcoming season and said after Saturday’s game that he would not return to coach Italy as he was made for the cut and thrust of club football.
But the 46-year-old choked back the tears as he appeared to have a slight change of heart.
“Today is the most difficult day for me,” Conte told media in Perols, just outside Montpellier where Italy were based for the tournament.
“I’m a lot more emotional than I was last night because now I realise it’s all over. I feel sorry for the team, but for me it was a huge honour to coach them.”
Whilst Germany now go onto meet France or Iceland in the semi-final, Italy go back to the drawing board after exceeding expectations two years after suffering their second consecutive first-round exit from the World Cup.
Former Torino coach Giampiero Ventura will take over from Conte after being appointed in the days leading up to Euro 2016.
But Conte appeared to leave the door open for an eventual return as national team coach when he said: “This is not farewell. I will see you again.”
Through a combination of grit, personality, and a lot of dramatic gesticulating on the touchlines — which rubbed off on Italy’s squad over his two years in charge — Conte transformed a team that sorely lacked confidence and ambition into bona fide title contenders at Euro 2016.
It remains to be seen if Ventura, a 68-year-old lacking in Conte’s energy, can squeeze the same amount of effort from a team that is lacking in big name stars.
Italian football federation (FIGC) president Carlo Tavecchio saluted Conte’s ability to restore credibility to Italian football had been key.
“Our national flag had lost some of its shine on the football field,” said Tavecchio.
“But Conte, as everyone has seen, made the difference for us. He helped to unite us again and helped lay the foundations of a house that we will continue to build.
“We were lucky to have on board someone (Conte) whom I like to call the director. It’s a huge loss for us.”
Conte offered the Italy team, and Ventura — who will be officially unveiled in Rome on July 19 — his best wishes for the future.
“I wish the national team all the very best, and to Ventura. I think we’ve laid some important foundations here,” he said.
Italy notably toppled two-time defending champions Spain from the last 16 before just missing out on stunning the world champions.
Conte added: “In the end we earned the respect of everyone, which was one of our objectives here.”