Though he showed no visible appreciation of it yesterday, the irony is probably not lost on Sven Goran Eriksson that the man who now seems destined to take on the England job arrived at his door in search of some tips when embarking on a career in management, 17 years ago.
Fabio Capello was pondering his own move into the dugout, 12 years after calling it a day as a player, and was travelling around the world for ideas about the trade when in 1991 he alighted in Lisbon, where Eriksson was managing the Benfica side who won the Portuguese championship and cup and were Uefa Cup finalists.
It was the beginning of an association which, even though the two men have not had a telephone conversation since Capello's courtship by the FA began, eventually grew into a friendship. Their sides frequently encountered each other in Italy – first when Eriksson's five years at Sampdoria coincided with Capello's legendary reign at Milan and then for the two years in Rome, between 1999 and 2001, when they were managing the city's staunch rivals, AS Roma and Lazio. "I know Capello as a friend," Eriksson said. "There were also many meetings we've been on [with] Uefa [and] Fifa."
Their managerial demeanours certainly do not suggest that the Swede and Italian have terribly much in common – and yet the experiences which bound them together in Italy over the years include a particularly surreal day in October 2000, when the two of them sat side-by-side in a dugout at Rome's Stadio Olimpico where they were co-managing a team of Italian Serie A international stars against the Italian national side. The game that day was watched by 80,000 people, including the Pope, John Paul II. "We were sitting on the bench together and [it was] a very strange game," Eriksson recalled.
The former incumbent of the national manager's chair could not recall whether he often got the better man who seems destined to take a seat in it next. But there was an inference from his talk about those 1990s days suggesting that he never got much change out of Capello's Milan "Invincibles", who collected four titles in the space of five years. "With [Marco] van Basten, [Ruud] Gullit and [Frank] Rijkaard [in his side] it was not easy against the team," said Eriksson, who bought Gullit from Capello's Milan side in 1993. In fact, Eriksson faced Capello's sides 14 times across the course of a decade on the Italian club scene, with his opponent coming out on top in eight of those meetings.
Though Eriksson and Capello's conversations are always in Italian, the Swede insists that his old adversary's grasp of English is good enough. "He does speak English. English won't be a problem [and] he doesn't need any advice from me. Absolutely not," he said.
Yet Rafael Benitez, also discussing Capello's attributes yesterday, had a different perspective on the quality of English needed to operate at the top level in this country. Benitez says it took him perhaps 18 months to find the fluency in English that he needed and believes Capello will need to attend to it as he has done. "[Capello] has very clear ideas. He wants to do things which can be successful," Benitez said. "But I think it will be a different culture [for him]. It's best if you can control the language [and] he will need to improve his English. I have some problems with some words – like win and wine – and it's difficult sometimes." The "small details" matter, the Liverpool manager believes. "The dressing room humour can be hard to pick up without a grasp of the language," he said – though Capello's interest in that is reputedly minimal.
The prospect of half-time team talks without adequate English is even worse. "[That's] a crucial time for a manager," Benitez said. The Spaniard's first encounter with Capello was diametrically opposite to Eriksson's. Benitez arrived at Milan to observe three training sessions there as part of his own, particularly fastidious, coaching education when they met. "More than the training sessions, which I knew [about] more or less, it was the structure of the club [which] impressed," Benitez said. "Their organisation was impressive."
Since Eriksson obviously knows more than most about England's on-off affections for its national football managers, his confidence in what the new guard can achieve was eye-catching.
"If you are talking about that level of manager – [Arsène] Wenger, [Marcello] Lippi, Capello, [Jose] Mourinho, [Alex] Ferguson – they have all been spoken about with England [and] you know you can't go wrong because they are all good," he said. "It is impossible to go wrong if you want to keep it at that level of manager."