Doing an Italian job on English footie

If the appointment of Fabio Capello as England manager means our team of bottlers and underachievers learns to 'win ugly', so be it.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What’s the burning question in British sport? Should Ricky Hatton retire or fight on? Does Joe Calzaghe winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year signify that boxing has become the new football?

Don’t be daft. Most of us would struggle to name the weight that Calzaghe fights at or the version of the world title that Hatton holds. No, the next England manager has been the big watercooler topic (er, we’re talking football in case you haven’t been thirsty lately). And now we know. It’s Fabio Capello – but more on that story later.

Actually, to tell the truth, the question on people’s lips hasn’t so much been ‘Who is the best man for the job?’ but ‘Does anyone actually want the job?’ Fabio Capello apart, there has been a conspicuous absence of managerial wannabes issuing ‘come and get me pleas’, as they are known in the trade, to the FA. First Martin O’Neill, the outstanding British contender, announced that he was committed to Aston Villa (a sentiment most people would struggle to comprehend). Newcastle’s Sam Allardyce and West Ham’s Alan Curbishley also ruled themselves out. And then, this week, José Mourinho has snubbed the FA’s advances. There’s a joke doing the rounds at the moment. FA chief Brian Barwick sees an old lady in the street struggling with heavy shopping. ‘Can you manage, love?’ he asks. ‘It’s okay’, she says, ‘I don’t want the job’.

The nation’s Mourinhistas were devastated when the Special One withdrew earlier this week. ‘José: the Dream is over’, wailed the Sun on its front page on Tuesday. The charismatic former Chelsea manager was touted in the tabloids as the ‘people’s choice’. Whether the people actually wanted Mourinho is a different matter. Admittedly, 78 per cent of Guardian Unlimited readers said that Mourinho should get the job. So, José was the metrosexual, in-touch-with-his-feminine-side, ethical shopping man’s choice.

Mourinho was also the media’s choice. The Sun, in particular, had been banging the drum for Britain’s favourite Portugeezer in recent weeks. Comedian Russell Brand, in his Guardian column, also issued a heartfelt plea to Brian Barwick to appoint Mourinho and thereby atone for the sins of his fathers – the sins in question being the FA’s failure to take a punt on another charismatic maverick, Brian Clough, in the 1970s (1).

Actually, I’m with Russell Brand and the Sun on this. I’d love to have seen whether Mourinho could weave his managerial magic with the England team. Some doubters questioned whether Mourinho was the right man for the England job. Was his ego too big to manage a team in which he wasn’t the star attraction? Could he perform his motivational magic without having the day-to-day contact with the players that club managers enjoy? Was he prepared to suffer FA fools gladly? Could he cope with the British media prying into his private life?

We will never know the answers to these questions. I think the more pertinent questions are these: Would Mourinho have waited 45 minutes to change the system against Croatia, when it was clear after 10 minutes that it wasn’t working? Would a Mourinho team have been so disjointed and clueless that fateful night at Wembley? Would Mourinho have kept Owen Hargreaves sitting on the bench when the score was 2-2? The answer to all these questions is no. His teams are always well prepared, the players all know what they should be doing, and he is willing to make bold tactical switches during the game which, more often than not, pay off.

Forget all the off-the-pitch stuff: the comedy press conferences, the dog smuggling, the slightly unhinged rants against authority, or the allegations that Sting is his seduction music of choice. None of that matters. It’s what he can do when put in charge of a football team that counts. And when it comes to management, Mourinho is a genius and a winner. And that’s why it was gamble worth taking.

But all of this is now academic. It is Fabio Capello who will take charge of England’s stellar cast of underachievers, toe-breakers and penalty chokers. The FA have reportedly agreed a £4million per year deal with the 61-year-old Italian (though others are suggesting £6million – any advances on that?). It’s got to be said that his CV is pretty damn impressive. Seven Italian league titles, two Spanish titles, and one Champions League victory. Capello’s problem is that, unlike Mourinho, the British public knows very little about him. He has never managed in the Premiership and doesn’t give interviews in English. He does have a reputation as a disciplinarian who doesn’t tolerate prima donnas. There have been press reports that he is already planning to strip John Terry of the captaincy for his lack of discipline – though this could just be FA spin – as well as banning WAGs from contact with the players in the run up to big matches.

Some people, like Reading manager Steve Coppell and former England captain Tony Adams, have expressed disappointment that the FA haven’t gone for an English coach. However, given the dearth of eligible English candidates, I can’t see many fans being too bothered about Capello’s nationality. More problematic might be the fact that Capello’s teams aren’t exactly renowned for their attractive football. ‘For Capello, football is all about winning. He does not see beauty in the game’, his compatriot Arrigo Sacchi once complained. Although he won the Spanish league with Real Madrid last season he was sacked because of his team’s lack of flair. Some English football fans might not want an Italian catenaccio merchant in charge of the national team. But, in terms of the footballing style, what’s the difference between Capello and Mourinho? Both men are arch pragmatists for whom winning takes priority over entertainment.

As a long-standing admirer of Italian football, I have no reservations about winning ugly. In the final days of the McClaren era, England seem incapable of either winning or entertaining so I’d be happy if our players learned the art of closing down games and grinding out results. In fact, anything is preferable to the depressing spectacle of England’s finest punting hopeful long balls towards Peter Crouch when chasing the game against Croatia. An injection of Italian patience and tactical nous would mark a welcome change from the running-around-like-headless-chickens routine that England fans have come to expect.

Will Fabio Capello succeed where previous England managers have failed? I’ve no crystal ball, I’m afraid. However, amongst all the Capello anecdotes that I’ve read this week there’s one that perfectly sums up his win-at-all-costs mentality and ‘iron fist’ managerial style. During an AC Milan pre-season friendly in China in 1996, Capello withdrew striker Paolo Di Canio at half-time to protect a 1-0 lead. When Di Canio asked ‘Why are you so obsessed with the result of a friendly?’ Capello retorted: ‘You are an ugly cunt and your face looks like a penis.’ Capello Gold! That story alone tells me he’s the right man for the job.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked issue: Sport

(1) Barwick must atone for the sins of his fathers, Guardian, 8 December 2007

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