Capello: The right choice
In selecting Fabio Capello as the new England manager, the FA has finally picked a grown-up for the toughest job in English football, writes James Lawton
Searching for the real Fabio Capello is suddenly the obsession of all who care about the future of England's derelict football team and already the quest has taken us into the art galleries of his native Italy, the cultural cockpit of La Scala – and even the gilded cafes where right-wing opinion is fomented.
However, one knowledgeable witness insists that the place where you can best conjure the meaning of Capello the grown-up football man – and the significance of his appointment by the Football Association – is in Milanello, the training ground of Milan, for whom the new coach of England won the fabled scudetto four times and the Champions League with one of the most brilliant examples of attacking football ever seen in the competition.
There, says Joe Jordan, who knew Capello as a young coach when he played for Milan and then returned 10 years later to watch him as he succeeded the revolutionary Arigo Sacchi, was the essence of the man who sees running England as a "beautiful challenge". "I shall never forget watching Capello work with some of the greatest players the game has ever seen, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, and the Dutchmen Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard."
They hung on his every word. They could sense what those England players who truly want to get the best from themselves will now have to accept: that this is a strong man who has learnt every aspect of his trade, who thinks only of winning in the best way that is available to his team.
"As a young coach at Milan, Capello did everything. He assessed the opposition, he worked with young players, he worked one-on-one. He had an aura about him; he was not a shouter, but when he spoke everyone had a tendency to listen. Baresi, who in my opinion was one of the greatest defenders the game has ever seen, rated him very highly and I have to say that when you come with those credentials everyone is bound to listen to what you say."
Jordan, who as first-team coach is a key factor in the march of Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth to the edge of the Premier League elite, played under some of the game's legendary coaches, including Don Revie, Jock Stein and Dave Sexton. He dismisses the suggestion that Capello will produce a robotic England – and ridicules those critics who said that he offended Real Madrid's aficionados of attacking football when he led the Spanish team, for the second time in his career, to the La Liga title last season.
"In Madrid Capello did what all the great coaches do – he made a quick assessment and saw that the team had become something of a celebrity rabble ... so he made the club serious again, and delivered their first title in years. Who knows how a new team would have developed under him? One thing is certain – when he won the Champions League in Athens in 1994 he produced one of the greatest attacking performances anyone has ever seen. Johan Cruyff, the coach of Barcelona, just didn't know what hit him – and that was when Capello was missing some key players."
Above all, Jordan is making music in the ears of all those who have despaired of ever seeing an England team of substance led by a man who knew both what he wanted and how to get it.
After Sir Alf Ramsey's triumph of 1966, Don Revie couldn't get over the fact that he had a stronger team at Leeds United; Sir Bobby Robson had moments of inspiration but was often swayed by prevailing opinion, some of it from the dressing room; and Terry Venables showed knowledge and tactical flair, but his face and his business activities did not fit. It meant that most of the years after Ramsey have been wasted, devoid of strength or patterns or any coherent feel for the nature of the challenge.
Sven Goran Eriksson made a celebrity club of the team, good at qualifying for major tournaments but abysmal at the business of playing when it truly mattered. Steve McClaren was an embarrassing aberration, a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Capello? He is substance, he is toughness, he is an example of a man who knows how to make a team, who knows how to respect those players who warrant such treatment – and how to deal with those who fail to meet his demands. One climactic moment in his last season in Madrid showed the decisiveness which Eriksson failed to produce in three attempts to get the better of Luiz Felipe Scolari in the quarter-finals of three major tournaments. Having restored David Beckham to the Real team, for the pragmatic reason that he had regained fitness and had a clear value to the team, Capello thought nothing of yanking him off the field as Real trailed by a goal in the championship decider. So Capello acted out of conviction and his reward was to see Beckham's replacement, Jose Antonio Reyes, score the decisive goals.
One moment of success, perhaps, along the fine line of win and loss but the accumulation of Capello's triumphs surely suggests that the FA has, in its desperation, finally settled on one of the game's oldest truths. It is that there is no substitute for the right kind of experience and knowledge; that running a football team, year in, year out with the right values, is not about public relations, about spinning positive headlines, of living from one match to another, scrambling results, but laying down a pattern of work, a set of principles that are so hard, so immutable they might be hacked out of some rockface of the Abruzzi mountains, the spine of Italy.
It is not so hard to understand why Capello, tough, aloof and something of an aesthete, would say that managing England is a beautiful challenge because the Italians know their football not just as a game but a reflection of life and for so long the squandering of England's historic role in the game, and the potential of great players with the ability to shape the world of football as men like Pele and Baresi have done down the years, is a source of unrelenting mystery.
When Revie floundered in the qualifying campaign for the World Cup of 1978, and England lost in Rome on a day of wintery sunshine, an elderly Italian approached an English journalist on a tram returning from the Stadio Olimpico and, with a look of bewilderment on his face, asked, "What has happened to English football? I was in Turin in 1948 when England had players like Matthews and Finney and they thrashed Italy in a wonderful exhibition of the game. Today I did not recognise those men wearing white shirts."
The question is 30 years old and you wonder how many times it has been asked in the cafes of Rome and Milan and Turin since then?
More times than it is comfortable to imagine – and why? Because the brilliant logic of Alf Ramsey, like Capello a football thinker, an aloof, somewhat arrogant man, was allowed to blow in the wind. Ramsey came to the job in the same way as Capello has done now – on the back of remarkable achievement.
Ramsey's success did not come in some cathedral of the game like San Siro but at a ramshackle Portman Road in Ipswich, but the foundation was the same. He won the English title with players who were useful enough no doubt, but would never have dreamt of playing for such giants as Manchester United, Spurs or Wolves. They won the title because Ramsey made them a team, gave them a pattern, a method, and there was an echo of that when, famously, Jack Charlton, abashed to be sharing the same dressing room as Bobby Moore and his brother Bobby, asked the manager how it was that he had earned such distinction. "You must understand, Jack, that I do not necessarily pick the best players – I pick the best team."
No doubt Capello, who has known some of the greatest playing riches ever placed in the service of a coach, will follow the same principle and it is something for the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen and perhaps even the superannuated David Beckham to weigh heavily in the next few months. Beckham, we are told, will get his 100th cap, for all that means, but the best he can hope for is one such gratuity under as stern a taskmaster as Capello.
The FA, battered and bent by past follies, has turned to a man who, as Joe Jordan says, "has done it all, seen it all, and still has an appetite for more of the same".
He also has a vision as beautiful as any of the expensive pictures that hang on his wall. He wants to bring the real game back to its home. It is an offer which we, of all football nations, simply could not refuse.