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Updated: June 6, 2010 20:19 IST

English team on a precipice

Paul Hayward
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England national soccer team manager Fabio Capello, bottom, and goalkeeper David James pose for the media, prior to embarking on an aircraft for South Africa. File photo
AP England national soccer team manager Fabio Capello, bottom, and goalkeeper David James pose for the media, prior to embarking on an aircraft for South Africa. File photo

At the Liverpool training ground 18 months ago, Jamie Carragher was adamant there would be no international comeback. That bird had flown. He fell silent, then said: “I’d love to play for Capello, though. Everything about him says he's a winner. He just knows how to win.”

Footballers are hypnotically drawn to managers who can lead them across the river. A reign is dead when a decisive number of players decide the leader no longer possesses that capability, which is what happened to Rafael Benítez at Carragher's club. For these England players, in their Marks & Spencer suits (no David Beckham input there), Capello still wears the glow of the sage, the hard man, the conqueror. Their unspoken dream is that he can save them from perpetual disappointment — from glorious failures and near-misses; that he can save them from themselves.

Capello is not the first compulsive "winner" to manage an England side. Bobby Robson was one, too, but was stopped at the Rubicon, like every England manager bar Alf Ramsey, whose orchestration of the 1966 triumph was the exception that proves the rule. England are not one of football's international superpowers. They just think they are, by virtue of the mother country heritage and a single appearance in the final of an international tournament, which was achieved on home soil.

Since Bobby Moore raised the Jules Rimet trophy, the best England have managed is fourth place, at Italia 90. They were quarter-finalists in 1970, 1986, 2002 and 2006. They failed to qualify in 1974, 1978 and 1994, and fell at the second group stage in 1982 and the second round in 1998, when Glenn Hoddle's squad were arguably the best equipped of any England party since 1990 to put 1966 and all that into the museum where it belongs.

Hoddle's forwards were Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand: a vastly superior strike force to Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney. The 1998 team touched down in France with a settled playing style, unlike Capello's, who will probably end up being distorted by the absence of a top-class attacking foil for Rooney.

The pattern pre-1966 is true to the past 44 years: 1950 – first round; 1954 – quarter-finals; 1958 – first round; 1962 – quarter-finals. From this, and their dismal tournament record against the top five nations, one would conclude that England are a top-10 team who hit the buffers around the quarter-final stage when they run into opponents of the highest calibre. There has never been any scientific FA national inquiry into this tradition of failure. The preferred answer is to up the ante on the manager's fame and salary.

But most England fans and players will feel if anyone can, Don Fabio can, even without Rio Ferdinand. The converse, though, is that if Capello can't then nobody can. England's national team stand on a precipice.

In world football, perhaps 10 coaches could be hired in the knowledge that, if failure were to be the outcome, it would almost certainly not be the commander's fault. Top of that list are Capello himself, Guus Hiddink, Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho and Marcello Lippi, the Italy manager. By engaging Capello as a kind of corrective to the mistake they made with Sven-Goran Eriksson, then Steve McClaren, the Football Association has left the game on these shores with nowhere to hide. Unless Capello converts from Catholicism to hedonism and imports the Wags into the team hotel – or leaves Rooney on the bench, as Alf Ramsey did with Jimmy Greaves in '66 – reality's cold light would bleach the last claim to greatness held by an undoubtedly talented generation who are invariably less than the sum of their parts on a World Cup stage.

This is the terrifying subtext of Capello's presence at the helm, though potentially there is still the old get-out of blaming referees, devious foreigners for tricking our boys into kicking them (see Beckham and Argentina's Diego Simeone in 1998), slippery penalty spots or agents provocateurs who have the temerity to wink at their bench (Cristiano Ronaldo, Gelsenkirchen, 2006).

The age profile of this England squad says hopes are still invested in a crop of last-chance tourists who have not been properly challenged by the age group below, which includes Theo Walcott, Ashley Young and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Capello's long and conscientious trawl through these shores brought into squads, though not necessarily on to the field, the goalkeepers Scott Carson and Joe Lewis (from Peterborough), David Wheater, Jimmy Bullard and Dean Ashton. The sifting was meticulous. But, at the end, Capello fell back on a core that might pass for Eriksson's doomed raiding party of four years ago. Even Beckham is still in it, as World Cup bid ambassador, squad go-between and cheerleader.

Before England landed in South Africa to set up camp in a location that will severely stretch the boredom threshold of the average player (no offence to the hosts, but compounds in platinum mining areas are not designed for tedium-busting break-outs, unless it's to buy platinum rings), Capello opened up to World Soccer on what he had learned in his two and a half years in charge. "I have changed my opinion about English footballers. When I used to watch games on TV I thought English players were only strong, tough and quick, but not so good technically. However, when I started working with them, I understood their high quality – and the Italian members of my staff felt the same. That made it much easier to teach the players what I wanted from them. With players like this it should almost be possible to win everything.

“[Premier League] teams keep possession much more. Of course some don't have the players to do that, so maybe for them the long ball is still the best idea. Some of the evolution comes from the foreign players and some from the foreign managers, from their different schools of football. They have been intelligent enough to mix the best of what they have found with the best of what they want.”

You could read this two ways: as praise for the English game or condescension based on the claim that our Premier League required an influx of foreign wisdom to drag it from the cave. Capello's method for boosting a team's self-esteem is not to encourage a cult of the leader in the style of Mourinho, but to insist on group obedience to his instructions and authority. He calculates that exaggerated team spirit can conceal deficiencies, of which there are plenty in England's 23-man squad.

The reserve left-back, Stephen Warnock, has six minutes of international experience. Heskey has seven goals to go with his 58 caps. Gareth Barry may not be match-fit until after the group stage. Michael Carrick looks a broken man. Defoe is off the boil. The two chosen fliers, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon, are inconsistent cross deliverers. All this, Capello must try to nullify with the strengths he can be sure of: Rooney (assuming his body holds), Ashley Cole, three strong centre-halves (Terry, King and Carragher), Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, if he finally parades his class in England colours.

Via the chequebook, and as a reaction to the McClaren years, the FA have happened upon a manager who strives for functional, calculating football in which each player is given a specific brief and is expected to apply it zealously. Walcott's downfall is said to be a product of his inability to act on an instruction to attack the opposing full-back and cross rather than drift inside.

Capello's famous touchline fury is almost always aroused by disobedience. Playing for him is probably not fun, but winning most certainly is, which is why Rooney has gravitated to him and accepts his rebukes. A product of the David Moyes and Ferguson schools of management, England's best player was less than awed in the presence of Eriksson and McClaren.

Arrigo Sacchi, the former Milan manager, once said: “For Capello, football is all about wining. He does not see beauty in the game." Described by one wit as José Mourinho on steroids, Capello was run out of town by Real Madrid three years ago, despite winning La Liga. "I need a coach who respects the artistic heritage of this club,” sniffed Ramón Calderón, the Real president.

England began their last two World Cup campaigns employing a dismal long-ball game, against Sweden in 2002 and Paraguay in Germany. In tournaments, Eriksson gave up on the idea of England beating the world's best at keep-ball and resorted to the old directness. Capello aims higher, or rather lower, but you would pay a lot to hear his private thoughts on England's chances of beating Spain or Brazil in a possession-based contest, given that both countries beat his teams easily in friendlies.

Already his thoroughness is yielding benefits. Though this is his debut in World Cup management, he played at the fiesta and can bring Italian expertise to the art of plotting a course through tournaments (how to conserve energy, how to use each player, when to unleash surprises). He has studied ball trajectories and the different weather conditions in Rustenburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth.

“We are always looking for the right answers,” he says. “I have spoken to many people who have been in this environment, different managers, to better understand what really happens over 40 days of being together. But after all these conversations, it will be my decisions and my style that must take us forward. I am looking forward to having the team together for a long period, like a club environment.”

This empirical approach may yet make the tiny difference between England winning and losing a tight knockout match.

Through nine wins in 10 qualifying matches and the smashing of the old celebrity narcissism in favour of a more meritocratic ethos, Capello's senior players would fancy their chances against any opponent. But it remains hard to imagine one saying to another, as Ron Flowers did to Jimmy Armfield after England's pre-World Cup trip to Poland, 44 years ago: “Jim, I can't see anyone beating this team.”

To the Italian Alf now falls the task of bringing England from off the pace, in a helpful southern hemisphere winter, to shoot past Spain, Brazil and perhaps Argentina, if Diego Maradona can control his impulses. There is perhaps no greater contrast between Ramsey's era and the one Capello inhabits than the spectacle of the current manager appearing in an ad with Lou and Andy from Little Britain. Imagine being the FA official who had to explain that one to him. “The joke is that the guy in the wheelchair isn’t really disabled ... Oh, never mind, just do it.”

“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,” Capello has said. “Why should I waste my time listening to people who are clearly less intelligent than me?” This truculence has been toned down. He understands that English yearnings, English neuroses, are too vast to be controlled by verbal aggression. But he is still the son of a coach who, according to one contemporary, “wouldn't accept any mistakes”. This, surely, is the real stamp of Capello: the father's intolerance of frailty, of deviation from the plan, that, in the stress and chaos of a tournament, are English specialities.

© Guardian News and Media 2010

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