A subplot to Italy's journey through the knockout rounds of the 2016 UEFA European Championship concerned the Nazionale's future manager.
In April, it was announced that manager Antonio Conte would leave the Azzurri when his two-year contract was up and take the vacant job at Chelsea in the English Premier League. As the knockout rounds commenced, broadcasters pointed out continually that he was perhaps in his last moments in the job.
There was some backlash around the announcement. Conte was criticized for walking out on the team in the lead-up to the Euros, and some suggested that his impending departure would cause the team to lose focus.
Such concerns were patently absurd. National teams play tournaments with the knowledge that their coach is moving on to a new adventure almost every year. Just two years ago, the Netherlands took third place at the World Cup knowing full well that Louis van Gaal was headed to Manchester United. A decade ago, the Azzurri themselves won the World Cup knowing that Marcello Lippi would be replaced after the tournament was over.
The tournament's results certainly show that such concerns were baseless—Conte took a roster devastated by pre-tournament injuries and turned it into the most cohesive unit at Euro 2016. He's left the Azzurri with a solid foundation —one that his successor, Giampiero Ventura, can develop as the next generation arrives in Savoy blue.
After shattering expectations at the Euros, it will be difficult to see Conte leave without developing this team any further. But the former Juventus boss was always likely to go. He is the kind of coach that thrives on the everyday contact with players that coaching a club provides.
But the ultimate trigger for his departure was certainly his running battle with Italy's clubs, who consistently blocked his attempts to organize more training camps for the national team outside of FIFA's designated international calendar. He was forced to cancel plans for such a camp after the Lega Serie A insisted that players from teams involved in European competition be exempt.
He also lost a battle to have the final of the Coppa Italia played earlier than planned so he could have more time with his charges. After the quarterfinal loss to Germany, Conte referred to his battles with both the clubs and the media, telling reporters (h/t ESPN FC), "If I'm honest, I never felt supported by anyone."
Even during official international periods he had issues with some teams—last fall's spat with Napoli over Lorenzo Insigne, whom the club held back from the national team due to injury claims, may have been a factor in the talented forward's reduced role in France.
It was clear that he was tired of it. Rather than be criticized for making his departure so public, he should be praised for giving FIGC president Carlo Tavecchio ample time to search for his replacement.
The FIGC didn't have such a luxury when Conte took over two years ago—the resignations of team manager Cesare Prandelli and federation president Giancarlo Abete after the team's World Cup failure left Italian football scrambling. Once Conte reached his decision, Tavecchio was able to take the time to ensure that he would pick the right man to take the Azzurri forward.
Ventura certainly fits the bill. While not a flashy pick like coaching stars like Fabio Capello or Carlo Ancelotti would have been, the 68-year-old Genoa native is the perfect man to mold the new generation of Italian internationals and could provide some much-needed continuity as well.
Ventura's playing career was about as nondescript as could be. He grew up in Sampdoria's youth system but only ever played one year above Serie D.
He returned to Samp to start his coaching career, working in their youth sector until moving on to the amateur ranks as a head coach. In 1985 he brought Entella up to the professional leagues and spent the rest of the 1980s and early '90s with several teams in Serie C1 and C2, the precursors to today's Lega Pro.
He got his first taste of Serie B in 1993, when he was hired by Venezia, then owned by Maurizio Zamparini. He finished sixth that first year but couldn't improve on that finish and was fired after the 1994-95 season—an impressive run, considering Zamparini's borderline madness when it comes to sacking his coaches.
In the wake of his departure from Venezia, he dropped back down to Serie C1 and coached Lecce to successive promotions. But he didn't helm the southern outfit in Serie A—instead he dropped back down to the second division with Cagliari and quickly led them to the top flight.
This time he was kept on, and he made his Serie A coaching debut with the Isolani in 1997, leading them to an impressive 12th-place finish.
He wouldn't stay long. In two years he was back in Serie B with his old club Sampdoria, trying in vain to get them back into the top flight.
For the next 10 years he would bounce around the lower divisions, from Udinese back to Cagliari to a reformed Napoli still picking themselves up from bankruptcy. He returned to Serie A at Messina in 2005 but couldn't keep the team out of the relegation zone.
By 2007 he was back in Serie B again, this time with Pisa. This is where his belated rise to prominence began.
He was impressive in that first season and began to show the first real signs of being able to take talented players and work magic. He turned an on-loan Alessio Cerci into a rising star and unexpectedly made the promotion playoff. He was sacked the next year after failing to replicate those results, but his hand in developing the future of the national team was about to begin.
He moved from Pisa to Bari, where he ironically replaced Conte. He was entrusted with two loanee center-backs from Genoa. You may know their names: Andrea Ranocchia and Leonardo Bonucci. They formed an excellent partnership and led the team to a 10th-place finish., and the next summer they had moved on to Inter Milan and Juventus, respectively. Ranocchia hasn't quite met the potential he showed under Ventura, but Bonucci has catapulted to superstardom and is quite possibly the best center-back in the world today.
Ventura didn't last through the entirety of his second season in Bari and was back in the second division by the beginning of the 2011-12 season, when he took over at Torino. The once-proud Granata had been in Serie B for several years, and Ventura immediately initiated a climb back to the top flight, achieving promotion in his first year.
He was again entrusted with several talented youngsters, many of whom have since evolved into international-level players. Two Italian players from these Euros, Matteo Darmian and Angelo Ogbonna, came of age with his Granata, as did Poland's Kamil Glik.
Sought-after left-back Bruno Peres also garnered attention on his watch, and when he got his hands back on Cerci he paired him with Ciro Immobile and turned them into one of the best forward tandems the club had ever seen.
Even after selling the pair off in the summer of 2014, he brought Torino through the group stage of the '14-15 Europa League and made the round of 16 with a historic victory over Athletic Bilbao at the San Mames—the first of its kind for an Italian team.
What's important in all of this is the way he has developed younger players. Italy is in the midst of a generational shift. The last vestiges of the last wave of great forwards like Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti are gone, and the likes of Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Andrea Belotti (another Ventura disciple from Torino) and Domenico Berardi are going to have to take the reigns.
The defensive line is about to enter a similar phase. Andrea Barzagli said early last season that the Euros would be his last tournament, and Giorgio Chiellini is 31 years old and has lost important chunks of the last two seasons to injury. Italy's center-backs of the future are in place, but Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are going to have to be shepherded through the early days of their international careers as well.
Ventura's proven track record with bringing players through the ranks makes him perfect to oversee such a fluid moment for the Azzurri.
It also won't hurt that the tactics Conte instilled over his two years may not change much. Ventura is very much a disciple of the 3-5-2—according to WhoScored.com, Torino lined up exclusively in that formation last season. That continuity, plus Ventura's familiarity with many of the key contributors in the roster, will cushion the blow of the coaching change, allowing Italy to more easily pick up where they left off and continue to improve.
In getting to the quarterfinals of the Euros—and to do it through the opposition he faced to get there—was a huge accomplishment for Conte. It's a shame that he isn't going to stay to see the seeds he planted bear fruit, but in Ventura he will leave the Azzurri in capable hands that can help shape the team for the future.