Fabio Capello's record as a club manager is superb. The England national team, for around four decades, has seemed unmanageable. The derision with which Capello has been treated feels absurd; if there is a problem in the relationship, past record suggests it almost certainly lies on the side of England rather than Capello. And yet, as embarrassing and puerile as much of the criticism he has received has been, for all that he is -- like every manager before him -- being treated as a scapegoat for the squad's problems, it is becoming increasingly difficult not to raise doubts.
To an extent, of course, this is subjective. Having spent most of the World Cup qualifying campaign following Croatia and Ukraine rather than England, I remained pro-Capello far longer than most, seeing only the performances and not the environment in which they were played out. His use of the pre-tournament friendlies, in which he gave fringe players only 45 minutes to prove themselves, seemed odd. His handling of various crises that arose during the tournament in South Africa was troubling. But still, it was his first exposure to the rhythm of an international tournament, and his history suggested a supremely intelligent manager who would adapt.
Since then, though, perhaps in part because of the abuse he has received, he seems to have become increasingly distant. That is his right, of course, but his attitude has done nothing to counter suggestions that he is disillusioned, marking time until his contract expires after Euro 2012. His comments about Darren Bent were so misguided you began to wonder if he'd ever seen him play; a quick check of his schedule revealed that he barely had.
The affair of John Terry's return to the England captaincy has only heightened the doubts. Not traveling to Sunderland to watch Bent smacked of a physical laziness; Capello's handling of Terry's restoration suggests a lassitude of management, a failure to think through the consequences of a decision.
Terry was stripped of the captaincy last February in a meeting with Capello that famously lasted only 10 minutes -- evidence, it was said, of the Italian's ruthlessness -- following an alleged affair with Vanessa Peroncell, the ex-girlfriend of former Chelsea teammate Wayne Bridge and the mother of Bridge's child. The specifics never made much sense: It was, after all, only ever an alleged affair, and Peroncell continues vigorously to deny it. And while a proven fling with a teammate's partner would be a betrayal that could severely undermine dressing-room morale, a relationship with a former partner of a former teammate seems far less outrageous.
The reaction to such things differs from country to country. While England isn't as laissez-faire about them as, say, France, the tendency is -- unless the public figure in question has made a point of projecting a wholesome family image -- after a couple of days of prurient furor, to allow the individuals involved to resolve the issue as they see fit. David Beckham stayed on as England captain after his alleged affair with Rebecca Loos; Sven-Goran Eriksson stayed on as England manager after multiple dalliances. That Terry had been named Daddy of the Year in 2009 -- albeit it as a result of a vacuous PR campaign by a condiment company -- perhaps complicated things, but, in that particular case, his situation didn't differ dramatically from that of other captains who had held the armband before. Besides, if you start eliminating from the ranks of potential captains any player who has been accused of having an extramarital affair, the candidates who remain would barely constitute a list.
Perhaps Capello took a sterner view to (alleged) infidelity than previous regimes, but more likely it was the cumulative effect of a string of offenses to which he was reacting. The most significant of them was less anything Terry may have done outside his marriage than the attempts of his PR company to exploit Terry's position as England captain; the box at Wembley to which he is entitled at a reduced rate, for instance, was offered for sale at a higher price.
Capello has decided that after a year, Terry has served his time and can return to the captaincy, hoping against hope that he keeps his nose clean in the future. Perhaps Terry does deserve a second chance, but the manager seems not to have considered the impact the decision would have on Rio Ferdinand and Steve Gerrard, the two players who have taken on the armband during Terry's period of exile.
Last Monday, Capello held an off-the-record lunch for various sports writers at which he confirmed he was about to reinstate Terry. He had recognized that the scenes at the end of last month's friendly against Denmark were farcical; as players were substituted, the armband was passed around to seemingly everybody but Terry. In that he was surely correct. To lift the ban on Terry's being captain makes a whole lot of sense.
That, though, is not the same as reinstating him on a permanent basis. Ferdinand has done nothing wrong as captain, other than to be injured a lot. One of his injuries left Gerrard to take over for the World Cup. There are those who believe the Liverpool midfielder isn't sufficiently vocal to be the leader England needs, but that is a matter of personal taste; to say that in very difficult circumstances in South Africa he was adequate sounds like faint praise, but that's not reason to dismiss him.
Would anybody else have done better? Terry, it's true, was the one who led the minor rebellion that fell between England's abject draw against Algeria and the slightly improved performance in the win over Slovenia, but nobody seems quite sure whether that was disruptive or inspirational. Certainly Capello's insistence that, if polled, his squad would almost unanimously elect Terry as captain, does not seem to square with comments various players have made.
In a sense, though, Terry's suitability for the role is not the point. Even if Terry is acknowledged as the best candidate for the captaincy and Capello has decided that Ferdinand's injuries mean he is no longer a viable long-term leader, even if he has started to doubt whether Gerrard is guaranteed his place in the side, the manner in which the transfer of the armband has been conducted has been worryingly hamfisted.
At that lunch, Capello said he would meet Ferdinand at last Tuesday's Champions League game between Manchester United and Marseille to explain his decision. Perhaps it would have been better to have had that discussion before telling the press, but at least it seemed Capello recognized the need to have it.
It later turned out, though, that Capello had made no special plan to meet Ferdinand. He hadn't reserved a room at the stadium or arranged to see him before going to the game; he just seems to have assumed he would bump into him. Ferdinand, not wanting to have the discussion in a corner of a crowded directors' box, declined to see him. Capello seemed surprised, hurt even, but really, what did he expect? Even worse, there have been reports that Capello's assistant Franco Baldini, who effectively acts as liaison between manager and players, had told Ferdinand that he would remain as captain and that the rumors of Terry's return were simply misinterpretations of the lifting of the ban on his being captain.
The decision in itself seems odd, but its implementation has been farcical. Capello's record says he is a great manager; his conduct now, though, feels like one who has given up caring. None of this should matter: England should beat Wales on Saturday and should go on to qualify for Euro 2012. But Capello's carelessness has given his critics ammunition, and England knows well enough that once a manager is on the spiral of descent, it is very hard to change course.