Beautiful people get away with things. Rich people get away with things. And absurdly talented people get away with things. These are apparently immutable laws of nature. We’ve all seen it happen, and in the world of sports we see that last one most of all. Star players are rare commodities and they get to bend the rules.
Except when the rules are made by Antonio Conte. The Italian is a throwback to the old school, when gaffers ruled with an iron fist. To use an Americanism, it’s his way or the highway.
And that’s (partly) why, in January, Diego Costa found himself on the highway back to Madrid. It was something that Costa had desired for some time — rather than any big-money move to China as other rumors claimed and Chelsea possibly had hoped — but that wasn’t a huge issue. The biggest issue, as told by Adam Crafton in The Daily Mail, was the real conflict between Costa and Conte, a clash of iron wills and fiery personalities. Conte refused to obey one of nature’s immutable laws, that the super-talented get to break the rules.
(NB.: We may remember Crafton as the reporter who supposedly just turned up out of the blue at Costa’s house for an interview on the opening day of the Premier League to watch Chelsea lose to Burnley. This time he’s writing about how Costa got back into shape for Atlético and the Spanish national team, which is how the Conte anecdote comes up.)
We all know that Costa is a man-child. All his teammates said so in all their interviews and it was caught on camera many times as well, most famously at Conte’s press conference after Chelsea clinched the title against West Brom two Mays ago. Costa and David Luiz were impatient to get Conte off the podium and into the champagne. A fire extinguisher was involved.
There were other hijinks that we didn’t get to see. And at some point, according to Crafton, Conte had his fill of it.
“This is where Conte went wrong. He refused to forgive and forget. When Costa clashed with Conte’s fitness coach Julio Tous, he was dropped from the Chelsea squad for the visit to Leicester and relations did not recover between the player and manager.
“Conte aside, most who have worked with Costa indulge the child in a man’s body. On one European away trip, he ransacked a Chelsea physio’s hotel room along with Ramires and Willian. At Cobham, he took up a habit of stealing the keys to the club’s medical buggies and dumping the vehicles in a ditch.”
Team chemistry is a tricky thing. Get it right and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Get it wrong — say, by creating a two-class system in which only one class has to obey the rules — and resentment festers and the team fails to produce.
It’s hard to say that Conte got it completely wrong. Sometime this week he’ll be packing his bags to head back to Italy and they’ll bulge with the brace of trophies he won in his two seasons here. On the other hand, Chelsea have yet to replace Costa’s rare genius and it cost them dearly in the Premier League last season.
As theories go, Crafton’s is as believable as any. Maybe someday, when Conte writes his book, we’ll even find out if it’s true.