Former Juventus boss Antonio Conte has vowed to restore World Cup flops Italy to their traditional status as major powers in international football.
Conte, who quit Juve in July after leading them to three consecutive Italian titles, has inherited a squad that was left reeling from a shock first round exit in Brazil.
But the 45-year successor to Cesare Prandelli believes he can revive the fortunes of the Azzurri just as he did those of Juve.
“We are going through a difficult moment,” Conte told his first press conference since being appointed on a lucrative two-year contract that will keep him in charge up to Euro 2016.
“I have never been afraid of challenges,” he added. “I am convinced that we will succeed in picking ourselves up because Italy’s place is among the top teams in the world.”
Conte brushed aside questions over a possible conflict of interest arising from the fact that squad sponsors Puma are helping to finance one of the most lucrative pay deals for a coach of a national squad, worth a reported four million euros per year.
“I’m sorry that you come and ask me if the sponsors will be picking the team: anyone who knows Conte knows very well that nothing and no one will make any decisions for me, nothing and no one ever,” he said.
Conte would not be drawn on the international future of AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who was widely criticised in the Italian media for a perceived lack of commitment in Brazil.
But he stressed that a willingness to work for the team would be one of his key selection criteria.
“My experience, as a player and as a coach, has been that, in difficult times, human qualities count for more. I will always pick a great man over a great player.”
Conte was equivocal over whether he would attempt to persuade veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo to extend his international career.
Pirlo, 35, said after the World Cup that he was minded to make way for younger players coming through but suggested he could change his mind if the new coach wanted him to play on.
“He (Pirlo) is a champion and a great point of reference for me – he is also among the players I could call on,” Conte said.
“But obviously, given what he said after the World Cup, I will have to speak to him. I want him to tell me himself how he is feeling and to hear what I have to say to him.”
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