Once insular, stagnant and fearful of change, England now has its football fate—some would say its national birthright—in the hands of a suave Italian art collector who has the Three Lions looking like world-beaters
This is an article from the June 7, 2010 issue
The man who would bring England World Cup glory—the only sporting glory that's truly global—is not English. In fact, Fabio Capello, late of San Canzian d'Isonzo, Italy, is not much like any of England's St. George's Cross--waving, pint-swilling traveling fans or, for that matter, the millionaire players he manages on the national team. For one thing, Capello is wealthier than most of them, his $6.8 million salary paying him twice as much as any other World Cup coach. For another, Capello may be the only coach in the world with an art collection that includes works by Chagall and Kandinsky, the only one who spends the off-season hiking the Himalayas or scouring pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico.
Plenty of soccer players and coaches travel the globe as part of the job, but few can be called citizens of the world. "I started taking an interest in art when I was 23 years old," says Don Fabio, 63, his dark eyes shining behind designer glasses in his Wembley Stadium office. "I was always interested in paintings, but not only modern art. Also the antiques. I traveled a lot in the world to know all the generations—Mayan, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek—and I visited the most important archaeological cities." His private art collection is thought to be among the most extensive and valuable in northern Italy.
Capello's cosmopolitan expertise extends from art and travel to wine, opera and, of course, soccer, with a coaching career that spans three of Europe's most refined and diverse soccer cultures. Like Picasso's work, Capello's can be divided into distinct phases and styles. There are his Italian periods (seven league titles and a European crown in 13 seasons with AC Milan, Roma and Juventus); his Spanish periods (La Liga trophies in both of his one-season stays at Real Madrid); and now his English period, which presents his greatest challenge of all: to become the first foreign coach to lead a team to a World Cup title.
Capello, who played 17 seasons in Italy and made 32 appearances for the national team, never wanted to manage his home country at a World Cup. The Azzurri has already won four times with an Italian coach, including the '06 Cup under Marcello Lippi. No, Capello's after something unprecedented. "It's time," he says, his craggy face tightening, his hands chopping at the table. "It's time, it's time, it's time. A foreign manager has never won the World Cup. It's time to win."
The new Wembley Stadium outside London, a spectacular $1.1 billion monument to soccer, has almost every amenity imaginable in a modern sports palace. Yet you can't visit there without being reminded of England's soccer history: that it originated the sport, codified the rules and spread the gospel like a benevolent virus around the world. "We have 2,000 books on football behind you there, and some of them go back to the 1870s," says David Barber, the historian for the Football Association, England's soccer governing body. Since 1960, he has seen 5,852 games in person. "I go about five times a week," he explains, "so I'm really into football."
England is fiercely proud of its soccer tradition, to say nothing of the national values the game embodies. You don't dive on the field to draw fouls. You don't fake injuries. You win with honor. "English players fight," says Barber. "I've heard it said that's why English people love football, because they love anything that looks like a fight. That's what we've been brought up in over the centuries, given all the wars we've been in. There's a great pride in being English and in playing for England. It's what every player wants to do from an early age, more than winning a cup or the league or playing in Europe. And to be captain of England is the ultimate ambition."
England's ultimate sporting achievement remains its lone World Cup title, won at the old Wembley in 1966 on home soil, a triumph that catapulted the players (captain Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst) and their coach (Sir Alf Ramsey) into the national sports pantheon. That it came at the expense of West Germany just two decades after the Blitz only added to the legend. "Winning the World Cup was part of a very exciting time in England, particularly in London in the '60s," says Barber. "There were so many changes, and we were breaking out from the postwar restrictions and just having fun, really—people were into pop music and the Beatles. Winning the World Cup fit in with a really positive era."
Now 59, Barber has been at the FA long enough to remember bringing tea each day to Sir Alf, who always took the tube to work from his home in Ipswich. Pop a video of the 1966 final into the DVD player, though, and it's clearly a period piece. For starters, the game itself is utterly different—absent the crunching tackles and pressure defense that define so much of modern soccer. Even more noticeable: Every England player in '66 was white. They all came from a domestic league that had only a handful of players from outside Britain (which includes Scotland and Wales) and not a single foreign coach.
That's hardly the case these days. More than a century after England gave the world its most popular sport, the world is returning the favor. Decades of immigration, much of it from the Caribbean, have produced a generation of black players who are fixtures in English soccer. Over the past 15 years, moreover, the forces of globalization have turned the Premiership into the world's richest and most cosmopolitan sports league. Supported by $1.2 billion in annual television revenue, lucrative multinational sponsorships and gazillionaire owners from the U.S., Russia and Asia, the Premiership is unmatched when it comes to attracting the world's best players and coaches. In the 2009--10 season, less than half of the league's players and six of its 20 coaches were English.
The foreign influx has had a double-edged impact on England's national team. On the one hand there are fewer spots in the Premiership for developing homegrown players—good luck finding a reliable English goalkeeper, for example. On the other, the English players who've risen to the top have done so against elite competition, adding layers of sophistication and confidence from playing with and against top foreign players and managers. Two of England's starters, midfielder Steven Gerrard of Liverpool and left back Ashley Cole of Chelsea, have had British managers only for the briefest of spells at the senior club level. Likewise, national team stalwart Frank Lampard was a middling, stereotypically English box-to-box midfielder for West Ham United until he moved to Chelsea at 23 and became a world-class player under a succession of coaches from Italy, Portugal, Brazil and the Netherlands.
But while it was one thing for foreign coaches to take over Premier League teams, it was another entirely when Sven-G√∂ran Eriksson, a Swede, was chosen in 2000 as the first foreign manager of England. Not only has no country led by a foreign coach won the World Cup, but most successful soccer nations—Brazil, Germany, Argentina—have never even hired an outsider. Yet England was desperate, its underachievement with a succession of homegrown managers revealing an insular mentality that was distrustful of innovation. Besides, the few serious English candidates were retreads who'd had the job before. Still, for many in England the hiring of a foreign coach sparked a crisis of self-image. "This football-crazy population of 58 million is no longer possessed, apparently, of one person who has the faintest idea how to manage our own national team," wrote Jeff Powell, a columnist for the Daily Mail, in one remarkable diatribe. "We sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer-throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness."
Eriksson spent six years on the job, leading England to the quarterfinals at two World Cups (2002 and '06) and at Euro 2004—decent results that made nobody draw comparisons with 1966. Eriksson's successor, his former assistant Steve McClaren, was English, but his 18-month tenure ended in disaster, his team failing even to qualify for Euro 2008. And so the FA chose to dip back into the foreign pool. This time it hired Capello.
And Powell responded, "So we move on from the hammer-throwing Swedish lotharios who live half their year in darkness to the spaghetti-twirling Latin lovers of football's black arts.... Our national game is surrendering its soul once again, this time to an Italian job lot."
No one has spent more time at the highest levels of Europe's three ruling soccer cultures—Italy, England and Spain—than Capello. His experience, as you might expect, has left him with several preferences. Jamón Ibérico is one; as a party trick, Capello can lift a slice of ham that came from an acorn-fed Spanish pig, take a whiff and tell you the brand. Perhaps just as surprising, Capello prefers English referees to those of Italy or Spain. "They whistle less," he says. "I like this."
Get Capello playing the compare-and-contrast game, and he can say a lot in a few words. Italy? "In Italy we study the strongest parts of the opponents. After, we go forward." Spain? "They like to play short passes. No long balls, no long-distance shots. You have to arrive at the box after many, many passes." And England? "In the last five years England changed a lot. Before, they always played long balls, their two forwards were very tall, and scoring a headed goal was very important. Now the forward is not only tall but is good technically. He has to try to play more. Because the foreign managers arrived here, the best foreign players play here. And the English players improve a lot because they understand where you can improve by training on other things."
Capello is still a club manager at heart, which is why he places so much importance on evaluating players during practice (and less than you'd expect on games, in particular friendlies). During his first camp as the England coach, in February 2008, Capello's goals were twofold. One, he restored respect for authority, instituting his own Ten Commandments, which included no flip-flops or cellphones at the training table. Two, Capello and his staff began to repair the team's confidence, which had been bruised by the Euro 2008 qualifying fiasco. Too many of the English players were like soldiers, they thought, waiting for orders on the field. At Capello's first practice he simply instructed them to take their favorite positions on the field. When they looked at him quizzically (What do we do now?), the response was simple. "Play! Please play!"
In building his roster, Capello kept things equally simple. He identified his three difference-makers—Gerrard, superstar forward Wayne Rooney and rangy, athletic defender Rio Ferdinand—and surrounded them with complementary players. He made sure that even his best players knew no spot on the team was guaranteed, as some had been under Eriksson and McClaren. And, in perhaps his biggest feat, Capello found a way to deploy Gerrard and Lampard effectively at the same time, a previously intractable problem since both are attacking central midfielders with their clubs. (Lampard now plays centrally alongside a holding midfielder, while Gerrard and Rooney alternate through the middle and wide left in a more attacking position.)
The results have been exhilarating. During World Cup qualifying Rooney outperformed his rivals for world's best player—Argentina's Lionel Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo—scoring nine goals in nine games. In Capello's second qualifier, England romped to a 4--1 win at Croatia, the same team that had eliminated it from Euro 2008, kick-starting a campaign that saw the Three Lions win their first eight games and seal a World Cup bid with two matches to spare. "We improved a lot," says Capello. "We recovered the confidence we had lost."
Two years after Capello's arrival, you rarely hear talk of spaghetti twirlers or the black arts. In fact, as England's June 12 World Cup opener against the U.S. approaches, Capello is drawing comparison with the greatest England manager of all. "I'm old enough to tell you, he's the nearest thing I've come across to Alf Ramsey," says Martin Tyler, the longtime British TV commentator who will be ESPN's lead play-by-play man in South Africa. "He has these players exactly where he wants them. They respect him totally. He doesn't let them get too close, so there's no familiarity breeding contempt, and he's an outstanding football person. There's no law saying you have to have someone from your own country to run the team."
Capello is writing his own rules at this point, anyway, and no matter what happens in South Africa, you can't help but admire the audacity of his vision. Here is a man who could have played it safe, who could have simply replaced his rival, Lippi, as Italy's manager four years ago. "Capello and Lippi are the two great Italian managers of their generation, and objectively there wasn't much separating them until Lippi won the World Cup with Italy in 2006," says Gabriele Marcotti, author of the biography Capello: Portrait of a Winner. "Capello could probably have pursued the Italy job and been appointed, but winning a World Cup with Italy would simply mean equaling Lippi. If he can do it with England, he'll surpass him."
Can it be done? Can England win the World Cup under a foreign coach? Capello chews on the question as if it's a slice of his beloved jamón Ibérico. "I hope to play in the final," he says. "This is my target."
Once in the final, as he knows, anything can happen. And if Don Fabio does wins it all, the people of England might hail him as Sir Fabio, forever.