BORDEAUX, France (Reuters) - Antonio Conte bowed out as Italy coach on Saturday after a Euro 2016 shootout defeat by Germany sounding almost broken-hearted that he was leaving behind a “fantastic” group of players.
He heaped praise on them for their performance against the Germans which ended in a 6-5 quarter-final loss on penalties after the game finished 1-1 following extra time.
“It was a tough match from every perspective. We showed heart to overcome the obstacles,” Conte told a news conference.
“It is a shame to go out in this fashion because it is a lottery. However a top side go through and I think they are the best side in the world from every angle.
“We believed we could do it, obviously afterwards in the dressing room we were hugely disappointed.”
Conte now takes the reins at Premier League side Chelsea after two years at the helm of the Italian national side.
While his Azzurri squad was not filled with the array of talent available in previous campaigns, they surpassed expectations by beating fancied Belgium, knocking out holders Spain and on Saturday taking their old rivals down to the wire.
After a Germany win seemed inevitable when Mesut Ozil fired them into the lead in the 65th minute, the Italians stepped up the pressure and equalised 13 minutes later with a penalty and they could even have snatched a winner.
“Football can bring you joy and can leave a bad taste in your mouth. These players will always have a place in my heart,” Conte added.
“The players have left a significant mark on this tournament and shown that with desire and hard work, you can achieve something.”
The dapper Conte was in reflective mood as he contemplated the end of his tenure with the national team.
He said he believed his greatest victory was to have worked with this squad and staff.
“These have been fantastic years for me. We really created a magical family atmosphere and it’s a shame it all ends tonight.”
He believed this Italy side could go on to greater things.
“In this process we have really come together, it will leave a lasting mark, a number of these players can only progress.
“I hope we can leave a love for the national team, love for the shirt, and I hope this message can be conveyed despite our elimination from the tournament.”
He will be succeeded by Giampiero Ventura, lately of Torino.
“My future is now Chelsea. To be honest I would have liked not to have a holiday because that would have meant going forward in this tournament then going forward to this big adventure,” bemoaned Conte.
He said he would take several days’ vacation before reporting for duty at Stamford Bridge.
“It will be a challenge at Chelsea but one that I will relish,” Conte added.
Reporting by Angus MacSwan, editing by Ken Ferris