Antonio Conte mourns another friend with the death of Gianluca Vialli

Terrible three months for Spurs manager after losing Ventrone and Mihajlovic – and now his former Juventus teammate

For the third time in three months, Antonio Conte felt a numbness, an emptiness and there were plenty of other emotions swirling, too. First Gian Piero Ventrone in early October, then Sinisa Mihajlovic in the middle of December, now Gianluca Vialli – three men that Conte has called colleagues but moreover holds dear as friends; each one taken far too soon.

The Tottenham manager heard the news about Vialli as he travelled into work on Friday morning, how his former Juventus teammate had died at 58 after living with pancreatic cancer. Conte’s thoughts about the FA Cup tie at home to Portsmouth on Saturday and the club’s broader situation were suddenly overtaken and he knew one thing.

As he had done after the death of Ventrone, Spurs’s greatly respected fitness coach whom he had known for years, Conte would stand down from his usual pre-match media conference. On this occasion, he delegated the duty to his longstanding assistant Cristian Stellini, who previously worked with him at Sienna, Juventus and Internazionale. Before that, Conte had coached him as a player at Bari.

“Antonio is upset and sad,” Stellini said. “Every one of us is. We are close to Vialli’s family and all the people that loved Vialli. He is an important person in Italy and also in England. For us he was a great player but first of all he was a great man. He taught us a lot of things.”

For Conte, it has been a terrible few months, the feelings intensified, perhaps, by his being a long way from his wife and daughter, who have continued to live in Italy. Ventrone, 61, and Mihajlovic, 53 – the Yugoslavia and Lazio legend – had leukaemia. Conte is also 53.

“It’s hard to talk about this,” Stellini said. “Gian Piero was a really tough moment and then came the moment of Mihajlovic. Antonio and Mihajlovic were friends. Now is the moment of Vialli. It’s difficult. Antonio is a tough man. Maybe in this moment he is more closed to show his feelings. We have to stay close to him. This is family behaviour. We are, we feel, like a family. After this type of loss, you have to stay so close, to show love.”

Conte’s old-school image is not only for public consumption. He will talk all day with Stellini and the rest of his staff about football but he closes the door when it comes to his personal feelings. He is not the kind of guy who likes to show weakness.

Gian Piero Ventrone (left) and Antonio Conte during a Spurs training session in South Korea in July 2022.
Gian Piero Ventrone (left) and Antonio Conte during a Spurs training session in South Korea in July 2022. Photograph: Tottenham Hotspur FC/Getty Images

“About football and work? Absolutely, we speak a lot,” Stellini said. “To speak about other things is more difficult. In the tough moments, maybe you don’t show … or the silence is more than words. We are in that moment.”

Vialli was a trailblazer in so many ways, the first Italian manager, for example, to work in the Premier League, showing the way for Conte and others. Vialli was appointed as the Chelsea player-manager in February 1998, immediately leading the club to a League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup double. In 1999-2000, having hung up his boots, he would win the FA Cup.

“Vialli opened the door for Italian managers,” Stellini said. “In that moment, maybe the Premier League was far away for Italian managers but now we have to say thanks to Vialli because he let us understand. Also, because an Italian manager came to the Premier League and improved the league, it was a great thing.”

Vialli’s death has surely encouraged Conte to reflect, offering a measure of perspective on Spurs’s position. So much appears to be on edge – from Conte’s future to the feelings of the fans, who are never too far from calling for the head of the chairman, Daniel Levy, which they did during last Sunday’s 2-0 home loss to Aston Villa. Things picked up with Wednesday’s 4-0 win at Crystal Palace.

The next two Premier League games are huge – Arsenal home, Manchester City away – but first for Portsmouth against whom Conte intends to start Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

Vialli loved the FA Cup, having first won it as a Chelsea player in 1997 and Conte, too, is a previous winner, having managed Chelsea to victory in 2018. Vialli will be uppermost in his thoughts. “Antonio doesn’t drop the intensity and he can find new energy [from this situation],” Stellini said. “This is the type of man he is. This is Antonio.”


David Hytner

The GuardianTramp

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