THURSDAY 30 MAR 2023 2:42 PM


A public outburst by Antonio Conte, until recently manager of Tottenham Hotspur football club, against his own players sent football fans into a frenzy this month. An internal culture crisis looms over Spurs' misfortunes on the field, and is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Antonio Conte’s outburst towards his own players at a press conference this month shocked the sporting world and was met with a chorus of snapping cameras, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the position of head coach of Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur.

At a press conference that followed a nail-biting 3-3 draw against Southampton in the Premier League on 18 March, Conte launched a scathing attack against his players with a vigour that suggests these feelings have been humming under the surface for some time. Conte said of his players: “They don’t play for something important. They don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress. Tottenham’s story is this: 20 years there is the owner and they never won something but why?

“Until now I try to hide the situation but now, no, because I repeat I don’t want to see what I’ve seen today because this is unacceptable and also unacceptable for the fans.”

Conte added: “I’m really upset. Everyone needs to take responsibility, not only the club, not only the managers, but the players need to be involved in the situation.”

The management of a professional sports team is not dissimilar to that of a company; when you invest in a club’s culture, you are in turn investing in its people. Managing a sports club may be slightly more fun, however: post-match, you get to high-five the players following a win or listen to sports show hosts compliment your team on the radio. It is likely not so fun, however, when your team is not a winning team, and has not been for fifteen years. The last time Spurs won a trophy was the League Cup in 2008.

During this time, a mood of discontent has been percolating within the club. Communications expert and marketing consultant – and Spurs fan of more than 40 years – Paul Sutton, believes Conte’s behaviour is a symptom of deep-rooted issues within the club: “Since a period of stability and relative success under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham has sacked four managers in less than four seasons, and they’ve all said similar things.

“The issue with Conte is not so much what he said, but the fact that he said it so publicly. A leader simply cannot do that. Conte’s character may have taken centre-stage, but he was correct with pretty much everything he said in that press conference.

“The culture at Tottenham Hotspur over the last twenty years under the current ownership has, broadly speaking, been one of investing heavily in the club’s infrastructure but not enough in the team. Manager after manager has bemoaned a lack of investment in players and, over time, the footballing side of the club has suffered.

“What Conte was alluding to is that Tottenham Hotspur has become a hugely successful business with a football team, rather than a hugely successful football team backed by a well-run business.”

Many modern sports club managers and owners meet the following criteria: they are rich, are sports fans and have also made their money building profitable businesses. This causes a tension between running a team like a business and running it for fun. Tottenham’s chairman, Daniel Levy, is an excellent businessman who has ruled the club since 2001 – the longest ever stint in the Premier League. Levy has masterminded a glittering new stadium that houses 62,850 fans and doubles up as an NFL stadium, boxing venue and concert arena. The club also sponsors the London Academy of Excellence at Tottenham, an academically selective 16-19 free school. Top management at the club is cosy, with Levy being close friends with owner Joe Lewis.

While Levy’s business feats are impressive – and he has acquired a reputation as a tough negotiator, especially in the club’s transfer dealings – the club has neglected one of the key components of a successful business: its internal culture.

“Conte’s behaviour was caused by a huge amount of frustration: towards his players, towards the way the club is run and, I would argue, towards his own inability to change things at Tottenham,” says Sutton. “For any leader to explode so publicly is a sure-fire indication that things have been building behind the scenes for some time.”

Business business leaders publicly erupting over internal issues is far from uncommon, and for figures who have drawn media attention for their idiosyncratic management style, just look to Archegos’ Bill Hwang, FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried or Elon Musk. What is striking is that Conte chose such a public domain to convey what would, presumably, more simply take place over email or WhatsApp voice message.

“It’s difficult to assess how this approach to communications affects people without knowing the characters of those involved,” says Sutton “It’s widely acknowledged in football circles that some players respond to the Alex Ferguson-style ‘hairdryer treatment’, while others need a Mauricio Pochettino-esque ‘arm around the shoulder’. But one thing is for sure: players, like employees, are all different.

“Speaking personally, if I was called out publicly by a boss for being selfish and lazy it would do absolutely nothing to motivate or inspire me. I would be more likely to down tools or hand my notice in than I would be to work harder to prove that person wrong.”

A sympathetic observer may consider Conte himself a further victim of the club’s apparently disorganised internal culture, as it is likely that Conte was appointed by Levy in November 2021 for the very character traits that have propelled him into the spotlight this week.

“Conte is a passionate, driven and single-minded individual with exceptionally high standards. His leadership style reflects that, and he expects everyone to follow his lead without deviation. Whether that is reasonable or not is another question,” says Sutton. “At the end of the day, Conte was hired to fix Spurs’ problems and he’s failed in doing so.

“Although on a professional level such a public outburst is difficult to forgive, on a personal level it is hard not to have sympathy for Conte. It is likely that he’d quite simply had enough, that the last six months on and off the pitch have caught up with him, and that he was in self-protection mode.”

The team returns to the pitch for the first time following Conte's outburst on Monday to play against Everton.