A touchline philosopher: the real Fabio Capello
The Italian poised to become the new England manager is an admirer of the Pope and Silvio Berlusconi and praised the 'order' left by General Franco. The FA may be hoping he learns to keep his opinions to himself. By Cahal Milmo
The blazerati of the Football Association are well known for their dislike of controversy. In the past, rampant publicity over the personal affairs of England managers has done little to endear them to the sport's mandarins.
So a disciplined, conservative Italian who attempts to shun the limelight, avoids late nights and socialises outside football circles would appear to be their man. Yesterday, Fabio Capello sat down for talks with FA bosses that are expected to result in him being awarded a multi-million pound contract before Christmas.
A perfect match? Well, possibly. There's just one thing. The conservatism that makes the61-year-old so appealing to some has for others, on occasion, gone just a little bit too far. Capello you see has a habit of spouting forth with opinions on public life. And those figures he admires most play their politics wide on the right.
Described variously as "uncompromising", "disciplinarian" and "impatient", Capello has recently expressed his support for those such as Pope Benedict XVI and Silvio Berlusconi. He has praised the organisational "skills" of General Franco.
In a sport derided for its navel-gazing insularity and fondness for talking in clichés, the would-be successor to Steve McClaren deliberately seeks his friends outside football, has an impressive modern art collection, travels to obscure locations and prefers to spend his evenings listening to classical music.
When asked recently about his testy attitude towards the media circus that surrounds the game, he said: "People say I'm impatient when it comes to football and they're right. I can't stand the crap that gets talked by everyone: players, fans, the media, club officials. Why should I waste my time listening to people who are clearly less intelligent than me?"
Arguably such iron-clad self-confidence is a minimal requirement if Capello, every bit as elegantly turned out as his compatriots, is to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as only the second ever non-Englishman to lead the national side and face the unrelenting pressure for success and glory from fans and the media alike.
But while there can be little doubt about the footballing credentials and steely will of a man who has won nine national league titles in 15 seasons with four teams in Spain and Italy as well as the European Champions League, his penchant for dropping clangers and expressing robust political views have already generated headlines.
His most high-profile scrape came last year when he told the Rome-based La Repubblica newspaper that he admired the "legacy of order" left by General Franco, whose regime presided over the execution or murder of 200,000 people.
Speaking after he returned to Italy from managing Real Madrid, Capello said: "In Madrid, I breathed a sparkling atmosphere, the air of a country in Europe making the greatest progress. When I returned to Italy it seemed I had taken two steps back. Spain in two words? Latin warmth and creativity regulated by a rigorous order. The order which comes from Franco."
When it was pointed out to him that the general was a Fascist dictator, the manager, who has confirmed he has voted for Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the Northern League, a party considered to be on the far right by its critics, added: "But he left a legacy of order. In Spain, everything works well, there is education, cleanliness, respect. We should follow their example."
After his remarks caused an outcry in Spain, the Italian sought to distance himself from his comments, explaining that he was not praising totalitarianism. He said: "I just wanted to say that Spain is better that Italy in some respects and provide a political context. I would never dream of praising dictatorships. My father conceived me after having been imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps." Born in 1946 in a village in the northern Italian province of Gorizia, near the border with the then Yugoslavia, Capello insists a hardworking upbringing and the encouragement of his father to pursue his footballing dreams are the roots of his success.
His father played for an Italian third division side and an uncle was so good that he played for the national side. Not only was football in the genes but it also provided an escape from the Cold War pressures in a part of Italy where there was constant fear that the borders could be redrawn and his family forced from their home. Citing the role of his father and uncle in forming his legendary work ethic, Capello said: "They taught me dedication, to always work hard with absolute stubbornness. Only hard work allows an athlete to make the most of his talents."
The result is a Stakhanovite philosophy under which Capello rewards the players he judges to have given their all under his instructions to win at all costs – and ruthlessly freezes out those he believes do not fit his gameplan. As his fellow Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi put it: "For Capello, football is all about wining. He does not see beauty in the game." The list of stars who have fallen foul of Capello's steely will is suitably impressive – Alessandro Del Piero, David Beckham, Paolo Di Canio, Edgar Davids and Ronaldo have all found themselves kicking sand on the sidelines.
In a famous confrontation with Di Canio, the maverick Italian striker who played for Milan, Juventus, Celtic and West Ham, Capello took exception to his player's questioning of why he was trying so hard to win a friendly match during a tour of China. The two men squared up to each other, with Capello reportedly shouting at Di Canio: "You are an ugly c*** and your face looks like a penis." Di Canio, at the time employed by Milan, never played for the team again.
Such unabashed low regard for some of the biggest reputations – and salaries – in football has been a defining feature of Capello's lengthy career, which ended as a player in 1979 after respectable spells with Roma, Juventus and the national side.
Despite immersing himself in management – he spent 15 years running the youth sides of Milan before being plucked from relative obscurity in 1991 to run the first team by the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi – the Armani-clad coach has deliberately eschewed its social scene and has virtually no friends in football.
He once explained: "I made it a rule early in my career. I like my job but not all the things that go on around it." The bespectacled manager did little to dull his image as an accomplished but largely detached technocrat by refusing to follow the example of his predecessors as coach at Juventus by giving his mobile phone number to Turin's sports writers.
Instead, the urbane Capello spends his free time in more rarefied circles with a circle of friends recruited from the ranks of his passions for art, literature and travel. The Capello art collection, reputed to be one of the best in private hands in northern Italy, features works by Mark Chagall, the Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky and leading Italian artist Piero Pizzi Cannella, who is also a close friend.
Capello also has a wanderlust for exotic and remote destinations. Among his recent visits are the pre-Colombian ruins in Mexico, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and hiking in Tibet. He has plans to travel more extensively in China and the Far East when he retires.
Critics of Capello suggest that his high-mindedness is the flip-side of his unsentimental approach to his professional life. He spent five years as manager of Roma, steering the club to the Italian league title while engaged in frequent clashes with the management of its Turin-based rivals, Juventus.
It was to general astonishment, therefore, that Capello walked out on Roma overnight in 2004 – to join Juventus. In response, Roma fans issued a sort of footballing fatwa against their former manager and hero, meaning that, for several years, he could only return to the Italian capital to visit his dentist while accompanied by bodyguards.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Capello put his ability to weather such crises down to his faith. A devout Catholic, his liking for strong doctrine was revealed earlier this year when he disclosed his support of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and his opposition to Italy's laws allowing abortion.
He told an Italian magazine: "I'm very Catholic and I am not all in favour of the current law on abortion. I like the Pope – for me now the Church needs a traditionalist turn. I am someone who prays twice a day, in the morning and evening, wherever I find myself."
Capello's habit of seeking divine inspiration will doubtless be a comfort to the millions of England fans who got into a similar routine every time the national side took to the field during the dismal qualification campaign for next year's European Championships which resulted in an ignominious failure that it will probably be the Italian's job to erase from collective memory.
But anyone hoping that Fabio Capello will bring emotional attachment to his considerable managerial and motivational talents should maybe consider what he said when asked for the single greatest achievement of his career: "The best moment of my career? Scoring against England at Wembley in 1973."
That, combined with the complete absence of any attempts to make friends in the media, should make for an interesting start if Capello is indeed chosen as the man to lead the England team in the next World Cup campaign.
If results go their way, his brusque, disciplinarian manner would be hailed as a strength. The merest hint of failure, however, could see some of his more forthright views of the world recast in tabloid headlines.
Should Fabio Capello be confirmed as the England manager, there will be no shortage of advice on how he should turn the national team into winners. He'll probably ignore much of it. However, other people will probably gently remind him that in England sport and politics and religion don't mix too well. And that's advice he would do well to heed.