Conte Fans the Flames


Last Sunday was certainly a dies irae (day of wrath) in England and it was all self-inflicted, which made for compelling viewing: The spectacle of disaster can be terrifically attractive and in this case, nobody really got hurt, so it was OK to enjoy. As George Orwell wrote, sport is "mimic warfare".

Fulham imploded against Manchester United in the F.A. Cup at Old Trafford in a minute of madness that saw two of their players and their manager sent off without a tackle being made. Wonderful stuff.

Willian saw red for a deliberate handball to stop a goal before Aleksandr Mitrovic and Marco Silva were handed their marching orders for dissent against a perfectly correct refereeing decision, reinforced by VAR. United looked on nonchalantly as the Cottagers self-combusted and against nine men, the Red Devils duly scored twice to advance. The end of Act One.

At St Mary's in the Premier League, Tottenham then let slip a two-goal lead against cellar-dwellers Southampton, which prompted manager Antonio Conte to explode in the post-match press conference, effectively announcing his resignation by slating his club and players in public, committing a footballing taboo.

"I see selfish players," he railed, "players who don't want to help each other, don't put their heart (sic). The players receive money, not to find excuses or don't have spirit or play without belonging or responsibility. For me this is unacceptable...until now I try to hide the situation but now no."

Jose Mourinho, Conte's predecessor at White Hart Lane, has long breached this unwritten rule, employing it as a motivational method with mixed results, delivered with his usual moody persona, which may well be an act. 

Antonio Conte has had it up to here.
Antonio Conte has had it up to here

Conte on the other hand went full Latin in Hampshire on Sunday, betraying an exasperation that he felt he needed to exorcise. Cultural sensitivity is important here; Italians are famously more expressive with both word and hand than Englishmen are. What may only be a release of frustration can come across as aggressive and histrionic to another culture.

It may have been a Mourinho-esque tactic to kick his players up the backside, but Conte's additional criticism of the club as a whole, coupled with his previous moans and apparent desire to leave London as well as his failure to sign a new contract, point strongly towards an imminent exit.

Spurs owners Daniel Levy and Joe Lewis cannot have enjoyed hearing their chosen man telling the media,

"20 years there is the owner and they never won something."

To be fair, Conte dropped his own name in the list of shame of White Hart Lane. Only the fans got off scot-free. He also mentioned that 7th or 8th spot would not be good enough for a club of Spurs' stature, a fair comment which has echoed in the supporters' reaction to his outburst.

It was hard to disagree with the Italian's overall point: Tottenham are consistently firing on less than all cylinders, despite plenty of investment, a big-name coach, star players and the league's best stadium. Conte, an elite-level manager, cannot fathom why and nor can anyone else be sure.

Spurs are still in the Champions League positions, which is no disgrace, although exiting the same competition without much fight against Milan and failing to seal the win at the team bottom of the Premier League were indeed black marks. They have not won a trophy since Juande Ramos bagged the League Cup back in 2008, and they have not built on their second-place finish in the 2019 Champions League.

In a hierarchy like a football club, the one at the top has to take the credit or blame in what we are always reminded is 'a results-based business'. In practice though, the owner is above the manager and rarely walks the plank, while the players keep their jobs and high salaries according to their contracts.

It is therefore the first-team coach who is handed the P45 when things go awry, as most of the clubs in the bottom half of this season's Premier League have confirmed once again. So Conte had good reason to gripe. He is first in the firing line.

But was he correct to go public with his righteous anger and gnawing angst? It did not matter and we should not care if feelings were hurt. Premier League players are being grossly remunerated at a time when there is a cost of living crisis in the rest of the country, conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere. That is real hurt.

In any case the whole crazy show called football is a wonderful and vainglorious act of theatre, incredibly meaningless and meaningful at the same time. Conte's outburst was an entertaining soliloquy amid the ongoing drama.

So bravo Antonio - let us hear the rants from directors, fans, players and managers alike, the more exasperated the better. 

Let them entertain us.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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