Man in the News: Fabio Capello
By Simon Kuper
Published: June 4 2010 22:27 | Last updated: June 4 2010 22:27
In 1987, the former footballer Fabio Capello sat some psychological aptitude tests normally given to recent MBAs. Mr Capello was working as an executive in the sporting wing of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire, and everyone could see he was bright. However, nobody expected him to score as highly as he did. An impressed Mr Berlusconi sent him for a year’s executive training. In 1991 Mr Capello became coach of the empire’s football team, AC Milan, and performed brilliantly.
He leads England into this month’s World Cup as, match for match, the country’s most successful manager ever. He is unlikely to win the tournament, but has set a new template for the job. He has sealed the transformation of what was once a chiefly ambassadorial role into a meritocratic one, best filled by a top-class coach from continental Europe who descends on backward England as a sort of development consultant.
Mr Capello was born in 1946 in the cold northern Italian town of Pieris, 20km from the then Yugoslav border. His father, a schoolteacher and the local football coach, had recently returned from a German prisoner of war camp weighing just 48kg. Mr Capello’s upbringing was tough. Swimming, for example, consisted of his father taking him to the nearby cliffs and throwing him from the rocks into the sea.
Mr Capello became a top-notch footballer, who played 32 times for Italy and scored at Wembley in the country’s first ever victory in England in 1973. However, he was never a monomaniac about football. According to his biographer Gabriele Marcotti, he became fascinated in the 1970s by the new “arte povera” movement, which made art out of rubbish and other discarded materials. He preferred the company of art dealers to footballers. He became a notable collector of modern art.
Yet there was nothing artistic about his coaching. A pragmatist, he tailored his style to the players he had. All he cared about was winning. He was as tough with his players as his father had been with him, taking on even the biggest stars. “Aren’t you ashamed of being so fat?” he roared when the Brazilian striker Ronaldo emerged from the shower. “He’s a shouter,” confirms his former player Clarence Seedorf.
Yet Mr Capello holds no grudges, writes Mr Marcotti. He judges people only on whether they can help him win. In a rage at Real Madrid, he once said that David Beckham would never play for him again. But Mr Beckham did, helped Real win the league, and later served Mr Capello’s England team.
The craggy Italian won nine league titles in 16 seasons as a club coach. Stefan Szymanski, sports economist at Cass Business School in London, has calculated that only about 10 per cent of managers consistently perform better than their clubs’ wage bill would predict. Most managers simply do not have much effect on results. Mr Capello heads the small elite.
Oddly, until 2000 England had never recruited from that pool. In a country that happily recruits chief executives and even sometimes monarchs from abroad, England manager was one of the last jobs reserved by convention for an Englishman. Unfortunately, few Englishmen were elite managers. The country, long isolated from the European mainstream, had developed its own dysfunctional “kick and rush” style of football. This favoured warrior virtues over thought. Accordingly, England produced few great football thinkers.
Worse, convention required that the England manager must have diplomatic gifts. That ruled out the best English manager of recent decades, the provocateur Brian Clough. Every Englishman who got the post ended up disappointing a demanding public. Before Mr Capello, managing England was often called “the impossible job”. Rather, it was a difficult job made impossible by a misguided recruitment policy.
Mr Capello had long wanted his last coaching job to be with England. He saw the nation’s unrealised potential. When he got the job with its salary of about £6m – his appointment a symptom of the Europeanisation of Britain since the 1990s – he scarcely even pretended to respect English traditions.
Previous England managers had done the bidding of British tabloid newspapers. The best-known players were celebrities, and so had to play at whatever cost. Mr Capello, who does not care what the media say about him, broke this Hollywood-style star system. He banished Michael Owen from the squad, banished Steven Gerrard from central midfield and used Mr Beckham only as a humble substitute until the player disappeared from contention through injury. Mr Capello also banished the players’ free-spending wives and girlfriends, or “Wags”, from the team’s camp: Rustenburg at this World Cup will not be the media circus that Baden-Baden was at the last one.
Above all, he has largely banished the old frenzied, blind English game – what the football historian Jonathan Wilson calls England’s “headless-chickenness” – even if it sometimes reappears like a genetic defect. Mr Capello’s England play intelligent continental football. They value possession of the ball over speed. The results are telling: Mr Capello’s team has won 75 per cent of its 24 matches. No previous England manager won more than 60 per cent.
Crucially, too, Mr Capello has given the tabloids nothing to work with off the field. He is a conservative, traditional Catholic, who in 2006 praised the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. What he liked about Spain, he said, was “the order Franco left behind”.
In the UK he has wisely kept quiet about politics. He also lacks the free-range libido of another predecessor, Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose various relationships kept the tabloids busy. Mr Capello lives a quiet, golfing life in London. He has made “the impossible job” seem almost a soothing leisure pursuit, like doing the sudoku.
His England will probably fly home in tears: they have generally lost against first-rank teams in friendly matches. However, Mr Capello has redefined the job. His next few successors will surely be drawn from the elite of winning, monogamous, continental European coaches.
The writer’s latest book is Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained