Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Don Fabio takes charge

Fabio Capello held his first press conference as the manager of the English national soccer team Monday, and there were some unexpected results. Capello declined to give any players assurances of a spot, which seems to be a good decision: they don't play a friendly until Feb. 6 and don't have a competitive game until World Cup qualifying starts in September, and the landscape of who's available and qualified could alter dramatically in that time. This is one of the advantages of bringing in an outsider, as he can evaluate the players and the program on their own merits without legacies and reputations clouding the picture.

Capello certainly has the credentials to make an impact. He won 14 titles with his previous four clubs (Milan, Roma, Juventus, and Real Madrid), and took Milan to an unexpected 4-0 Champions League triumph over Barcelona back in 1994. He won the Spanish league title with Madrid last season, but was then sacked after a fallout with management, likely over his favoured defensive mode of play. This may not win him many fans among the England ranks either, as one of his predecessors, Sven-Goran Eriksson (currently taking Manchester City to new heights) was routinely criticized for favouring defensive soccer tactics. Offense may draw fans, but defense wins titles: just look at Greece's run to the European Championship in 2004. Fortunately, Capello seems to also have the guts to stand up to the footballing establishment and the countless members of the media who are assured that they'd do a better job as the manager. His authoritarian style should suit him well in a job where a firm hand is desperately needed. As ESPN Soccernet's Norman Hubbard writes, "This is a manager unlikely to be distracted by critical articles, whingeing superstars or FA pressure to conform." Players who have served under Capello also speak highly of him, such as famed Dutch striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy who played for Capello in Madrid. As Van Nistelrooy said, Capello seems well-suited to the English game. "He is definitely the right manager for England," Van Nistelrooy said. "He fits the English game. He always talked about England It was his wish to be England manager one day. He likes the way the English players are, the way they play with their hearts, the way they give everything."

Some English papers, such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror, have come out in support of Capello's appointment. Others, such as the Daily Mail, have criticized it on rather xenophobic grounds. Des Kelly of the Mail called it "a hideous embarrassment, a farce that demonstrated how pathetic England and its Football Association have become." Martin Samuel of the Times wrote "The nature of the surrender was unequivocal. The appointment made by Brian Barwick, the FA chief executive, was not a victory after all, not the triumph it had been painted, but a terrible, hollow defeat. England lost, Italy won — again. Lost the way, lost the plot, lost all knowledge of what had been invented within these shores, with no clue how to get it back."

These sorts of comments are foolish: what makes England look more pathetic, hiring a man with proven success regardless of his cultural identity, or promoting another English manager like McClaren who has achieved little to nothing so far? Admitting that a candidate from your ideal background isn't the best man for the job may be tough to do, but it shows a broadmindedness that Samuel is clearly lacking. I'm against affirmative action in sports, as to me, it seems that it's ideal to get the best people for the job, regardless of race, colour, religion, or nationality. Soccer has progressed beyond its English beginnings, and is now truly a global game. As such, the best people for managerial jobs are not always English. Capello wasn't my first choice, but after Jose Mourinho withdrew from the race, he seemed to be one of the strongest remaining candidates. Some can complain now about Capello not being English, but they should consider if they'd rather achieve some success on the national level or throw that away in favour of maintaining an archaic hometown quota. As Chris Murphy of Soccernet wrote about a potential World Cup victory for England, success dispels all controversy. "Who cares that the manager is Italian?" he asked. "Who cares if his philosophy is built on a sturdy back-line? Who cares if England only managed to score more than one goal twice in the competition? A fanciful notion it all may be but if Fabio Capello can instil order, discipline and structure into an England side that unquestionably has talent who knows how far they can go?"

Links of the Day:
- Norman Hubbard's column on Capello's reputation
- Chris Murphy's take on Capello's style
- Richard Starnes on the clash between clubs and country Capello is likely to bring
- Cathal Breathnach at Football Corner offers his take on Capello

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