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How Antonio Conte restored Italy's pride

Antonio Conte "has brought Italy back into fashion," said Leonardo Bonucci, as the outgoing Azzurri coach reflected on his legacy after a transformative two years.

Antonio Conte rallies Italy before extra time of what proved his final game in charge
Antonio Conte rallies Italy before extra time of what proved his final game in charge ©Getty Images

When Antonio Conte became national coach two years ago, Italian football was in pieces.

Now, despite exiting UEFA EURO 2016 on penalties against Germany, the Squadra Azzurra are "back in fashion" thanks to the man now heading for Chelsea.

Elimination from the 2014 FIFA World Cup group stage left Italy in turmoil. They needed a new commander, and after three successive Scudettos with Juventus, Conte became that chief. He gradually pieced together a squad established on fresh values of unity, camaraderie and self-sacrifice.

The culmination was a EURO campaign which few, if anybody, had expected.

"I am proud of our journey and what we achieved," Conte told EURO2016.com. "I am proud of the legacy we are leaving for the future.

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"I think this team's legacy is represented by the motto 'Where there's a will there's a way'. We wanted to achieve great results in this tournament, in spite of all the difficulties we had to face. And in some ways we managed to achieve our goal."

Those difficulties were not negligible. Conte was left to guide an unfancied troupe amid widespread disenchantment with all things Azzurri.

He amalgamated a group of strong though not necessarily star individuals. The mantra maintained throughout was one of unity and working magnanimously for the common good.

"I had the honour of working with people who gave me everything," Conte, 46, said.

"These lads demonstrated that you can obtain unthinkable results through hard work. Germany are an extremely strong side – the strongest in the world – and to be able to hold our own against them should give us satisfaction.

"But we believed we could do it and the disappointment in the dressing room was huge. We believed in this dream and we tried to cling on to it with our nails, our teeth – everything.

Conte: I'm proud of my legacy

"The fact the world champions changed their style to face us shows they respected us a great deal.

"These lads can go home content, aware of what they have achieved. They will stay in my heart. These two years have been fantastic and I will never stop thinking of these 23 lads, the staff, the kit men – everybody. It was a magic family and we're sorry it has been broken up."

The underlying image of Italy will be a positive one, nevertheless. The 2-0 triumphs over Belgium and Spain, in Group E and the round of 16 respectively, were among the best displays by any side in France.

They not only muted the critics, but gained new admirers with their infectious team spirit. The usual Italian values of defensive discipline and organisation were married with determination and hunger.

"I'm proud to have been part of a great group and to have restored the national shirt to a highly respected place, receiving the support of all Italians," said centre-back Leonardo Bonucci, the embodiment of all that was good.

"Conte, over two years and especially at this European Championship, brought Italy back into fashion."