Fabio Capello - England’s mistake?

2007-12-15 00:00

IT is November 2009, half-time at Wembley and, needing a draw to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, England are trailing 1-0 to Croatia. A desperate nation holds its breath.

Following their failure to qualify for the European Championships in 2008, inconceivably, impossibly, the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of English footballers are 45 minutes away from missing out on a second successive showpiece tournament. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen and their stunned teammates troop into the home changing room and, in this moment of crisis, they look towards the England manager for stirring words of motivation and inspiration.

“Eh, ragazzi! Che il disastro,” declares il ‘Gaffer’, wearing three lions on his blazer but not his heart. “Lei gioca terrible! Il Nazionale vincono 2-0. Potro prenderla i biglietti per Joburg, no problemi.”

Gianfranco Zola, assistant coach and translator, explains: “Eh, the Boss, eee says it’s a disaster and you’re having a shocker. But eee says Italy are winning 2-0, so is no problem for him to get you tickets in Joburg, if you still want to go to the World Cup.”

The news that the (English) Football Association have appointed Fabio Capello, a 61-year-old Italian, as their national team manager beggars belief. As night follows day, the eye-watering four-year, R350-million contract will end in more tears trickling down pasty faces.


The core functions of a national team manager, in any sport, are to select and to motivate. ‘Fab’, as the London tabloid newspapers have already christened him, is eminently capable of picking the team: an iron disciplinarian by repute, he has coached three of Europe’s leading clubs — AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid — and won no fewer than nine league titles in the past 15 seasons.

However, it is impossible to envisage how an Italian who cannot speak coherent English will be able either to inspire or motivate a group of footballers (even if it is true that speaking coherent English doesn’t come naturally to many of them either).

Could an Italian become prime minister? Could an Italian become Archbishop of Canterbury? Could an Italian become Chief of the Defence Staff. No, no, no. Likewise, the England football team should be coached by an Englishman. A foreigner can thrive as the manager of a cosmopolitan club side and a foreigner may also help a developing national team where local candidates lack experience but, as the football authorities in Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Holland all continue to recognise, the national team must be coached by a local man because it must play for the nation.

That the Football Association have overlooked this basic reality is especially staggering since they have already experienced the limitations of a technically brilliant foreign manager with poor English.

Drawing 1-1 with Brazil at half-time of the 2002 World Cup quarter-final, the England players arrived in the changing room to find manager Sven-Goran Erikson strangely lost for words. The Swede stood among them, silent. “We were expecting Winston Churchill,” wrote defender Gareth Southgate later, “and we got Iain Duncan-Smith.” Brazil won 2-1.

It was Churchill who, in the words of J.F. Kennedy, “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. Capello, it must be said, will not be following suit.

One man who does understand this basic reality is Jake White. After guiding his Springboks to Rugby World Cup victory, he was widely touted as the next England coach but, after serious reflection, he has quietly ruled himself out of contention.

“The technical challenge is not the issue,” White says. “In that respect, it is a wonderful opportunity to work with talented players in a country with so many resources. The problem would come when I am standing in the changing room at Twickenham, telling those guys to go out there and put their bodies on the line for England. At the end of the day, I would be a foreigner with a foreign accent. Would they really be able to take me seriously?”

It is a shame for English football that Capello has not had the common sense to ask himself the same question. The players, their supporters and their pounds will be missed in 2010.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SABC sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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