The many faces of Fabio Capello

Thirteen ways of looking at the England manager as he prepares his team for the World Cup –– from bi

As a bibliophile

A couple of years ago, during one of the stranger hours of my life, I sat in a hotel room in the Kingdom of Lesotho and, in the course of an interview, asked Fabio Capello what book he had by his bedside. He started to answer my question, through an interpreter. "A political one," he suggested - but, ever careful, he took the precaution, before he named the volume in question, of whispering the title to one of the pair of nervy Football Association press officers who were in attendance. No sooner had the book's title left his lips than a shadow passed over the face of Adrian Bevington, then head of media relations for the FA. After a brief discussion, it was decided that under no circumstances should the England manager disclose the name of the book to which he turned for comfort in the small hours. Ever since, every time I have studied Capello's adamantine countenance on the touchline, I have found myself speculating about the book that dared not speak its name. If England are winning,
I charitably assume it to be Machiavelli's Prince, or Sun Tzu's Art of War. If they are losing, I take it to have been The Da Vinci Code.

As a linguist

“Unfortunately," as Capello's Milanese mentor Silvio Berlusconi once observed, "Fabio has one small fault. It is that dialogue forms no part of his approach." The smartest tactic Capello has employed since he arrived in England has been to exaggerate that quality by extending it to
selective difficulty with monologue. Capello promised that he would brush up his English conversation in the month before he took control of his first match. As it was - though he apparently spoke reasonably fluently in private - he did not address the press without an interpreter for six months.
Since then, one of the more postmodern spectacles of our time has been the sight of grown men on Sky Sports News attempting earnest textual analysis of the pidgin post-match clichés of foreign managers - as if somewhere within them were contained subtle nuance. Capello established this triumphant, quietly mocking trend ("Is good that we play to win the ball, this I like"), one that has been happily picked up by his countrymen Roberto Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti. The trickier the question, the more their grasp of syntax seems to desert them. Capello's first choice for South Africa was the canny decision not to take a translator with him.

As a loser

The simple understanding of Capello is that he is a born winner. Just look at the CV: seven league titles in Spain and Italy, conqueror of Johan Cruyff's dream team, Barcelona, in the heroic European Cup final of 1994. But all winners were losers once.

Capello is a child of postwar Europe. He was born in 1946, not long after his father had returned from internment in Nazi concentration camps (where he had been a prisoner after Mus­solini was deposed and where he nearly starved to death). Childhood was frugal and spartan. As a player, Capello was a late developer; in the 1974 World Cup, the only one in which he participated, Italy did not advance out of the group stages. Despite a glittering domestic career, he never won a European medal - in 1969, his Roma were humiliated 4-0 by Swindon Town in the Anglo-Italian Cup. In common with nearly all the great managers, he suffered an injury that forced him into premature retirement.

So, he well understands the price of experience. For holidays, he chooses to visit ancient ruins: Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu. As Adrian Chiles might say: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

As an art critic

Capello claims to do a lot of his football thinking while contemplating masterpieces in the National Gallery and the Tate. His friend Dino Zoff, the great goalkeeper, used to call him "the surveyor", because "he understood all the angles and diagonals". Capello cites Kandinsky as an artistic inspiration, no doubt sensing the deeper possibilities of the 4-4-2 in the Russian painter's biomorphic forms, with their supple, non-geometric linear flow (think David Pleat's chalkboard in technicolour). He is - usefully when it comes to, say, Leighton Baines - an aficionado of Arte Povera, which attempts to craft beauty from unlikely found objects. The World Cup will no doubt allow Capello to draw on other visual references at regular intervals - notably, as penalties ensue in the quarter-finals, Edvard Munch's masterpiece The Scream.

As a saint

Of all the qualities that the FA was looking for in a manager when it appointed Capello, monogamy was surely high on the list. Ulrika Jonsson had cast a long shadow. At the FA headquarters in Soho Square, there were still fresh memories of Faria Alam's revelations about the range of secretarial services she provided to the England manager and various blazers - headlines that prompted Nuts magazine to deliver a waterbed to the FA offices.

Capello met his wife, Laura, on the bus when he was 17; he courted her for six years and thought it improper for them to live together before they were married. He phones his mother every day; he has helped to pay, over the years, for the upkeep of the bell-tower of his family church, Sant'Andrea Apostolo. He is no admirer of Wags or groupies. "They are all the same,"

he once noted. "Adjusted here, puffed up there. They are interchangeable and false. I like classy women: Virna Lisi, Catherine Deneuve."

As a younger man, he tried to be in bed by 9.30pm, next to his wife. If there is one quality guaranteed to engender respect among tabloid football journalists, it is sexual continence, just because it seems so far-fetched. Unlike Sven, say, or Steve McClaren (who was forced to make a public confession of adultery before he accepted the England job), Capello could strip John Terry of the captain's armband for his extramarital failings with a straight face.

As a CEO

In his interview for the England job, Capello offered Brian Barwick and the rest of the FA board a PowerPoint presentation of the management structure he would employ if he were to be given the job. It is hard to imagine Harry Redknapp labouring over a deck of slides in quite the same way. It is no coincidence that the years in which football managers have become figures of intense cultural speculation have also been the years in which the economy has been in thrall to the cult of the chief executive officer, with his strategies and his share options and his bonuses. We have, just as Maggie Thatcher wanted, come to imagine that the fortunes of an organisation rest more on intuition - or, better, bullying - from the individual at the top than the collective effort and skill of the team below.

Capello, who was groomed by the ultimate dictatorial CEO, Berlusconi (before he became Milan manager, he had various directorial jobs in the Italian premier's media empire), is exemplary of this trend. Despite seeming to muddle along with the same group of players and the same problems as his predecessors - what is it with Steven Gerrard? - he is praised for his decisive strategy, his delivery objectives and his principled leadership.

As an existentialist

When he occasionally seems to speak from the heart, Capello appears to betray a sense of the howling loneliness in the universe. "Hotels make me sad," he says. "I need a home." Or: "Memories do not exist for me." All the great football managers, whether they know it or not, are followers of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; they are individuals who heroically invest meaning into 90 often aimless minutes of boredom, angst, absurdity and alienation.

Although Capello's life suggests that he can see around the edges of the game to which he devotes himself, in classic Übermensch style, he continues to place his faith in the arcane rules by which he can excel. The quality he once suggested he looks for in a player is rage against defeat, which, for the true sportsman, is always a kind of premonition of the greater oblivion, the dying of the light. With this in mind, Stewart Downing and David Bentley were never likely to make the final 23.

As a fat cat

In the two and a half years in which Capello has been employed by the Football Association, he has been paid in salary, before bonuses, approximately £17.5m. Or £1.75m for every competitive match. Or £19,178 per day. In the final year of his managerial career, Sir Alf Ramsey, England's only World Cup-winning coach, was paid a salary of £7,200 (an average teacher at the time earned £2,300). The philosophy of paying Capello four times the salary of Marcello Lippi, manager of the current world champions, derives from a Premier League "competition" in which it is routinely understood that the only way to achieve success is to buy it.

There is a powerful argument which says that, over the past 20 years, football has been instrumental in loosening, fatally, our grasp of big numbers and indebtedness: our sense of the link between effort and reward. It used to be said of Don "Readies" Revie, who was disowned as a mercenary for leaving the England job to go to coach in the Middle East, that he knew the price of everything and the value of nothing; now that is taken as read. Capello can quite happily stay in the job and be a mercenary, and the FA can justify to itself that its remit for investing in the grass roots of the game is best served by enhancing the Italian's bank balance. Victory, it is argued, does not come cheap.

As a northerner

Marco Tardelli, the Italian World Cup hero of 1982, and the only man alive who looks more Italian than Fabio Capello, once offered this assessment of his former team-mate: "Capello had a closed personality. He was a bit like Dino Zoff, and perhaps this is characteristic of men from north-east Italy. I'm not saying you couldn't talk to him at all. Perhaps if you had a very important question to ask, you could ask it, and he would answer. But mostly he was closed." In this respect, Capello is compelling because he defies our understanding of the Italian male. He is Italian, but he is not Italian. He is not expansive, not open or easily demonstrative, or voluble or operatic. He gives the impression of passion, but it is passion
under extreme repressive control, prone to the occasional, spectacular outburst. He is a lover of order, of precision, and he gains authority - like Roy Keane, say - perhaps because he fears chaos in himself: that way madness lies. Capello played football, according to one observer, "like a policeman directing the traffic".

As a man, he exudes much of the same sense. When he worked at Real Madrid - and won them a championship before being sacked - he praised General Franco for his "legacy of order. In Spain everything works well, there is education, cleanliness, respect. We should," he suggested to the Italian public back home, "follow their example."

As a stare

Football commentators find Capello's stare a source of great comfort. They dwell on it at any opportunity. Unlike Sven, who is in many ways Capello's antithesis, the Italian favours not the consensus-building glance through rimless lenses, but the glower from beneath heavy brows and the thick, black line of his designer specs. This is the stare, we are invited to believe, that tamed Totti at Roma, that twice forced Ruud Gullit off the team bus at Milan. England fans tacitly understand that it would be unwise to ask Fabio to "give us a wave"; they half fear being turned to stone. Berlusconi once asked Capello if he could smile a little more, as a gesture to the paying public. Capello thought about his boss's suggestion for a moment, before replying: "When I am at work, there is no need for me to deliver anything but results."

Previous England managers, intentionally or not, have sought to bring a certain amount of levity to the job: to make "Stevie G" and the rest of their mates (or, in Graham Taylor's most surreal rant, to have the press corps) look on the bright side a bit more often. Capello is not a funster. The former Italian winger Roberto Donadoni once remarked: "I think he would have made a good prison guard." The average fan, I imagine, likes that in our manager. Fear, it is widely believed, despite evidence to the contrary, is always the best motivator.

As a dresser

One of the first acts of Capello's reign was to ban the wearing of flip-flops when players got together at the team hotel. At the time, this was seized on by the media as another example of the Italian's dislike of English slovenliness. There is another explanation, however. Capello once confessed to an unusual phobia involving ankle socks. "I can't stand them," he confided. "When a man crosses his legs and the trouser leg rides up to show the hairy shins, it offends my eyes." Capello has long mastered the Italian gift for smart casual, a style that continues to elude the British football follower, and is therefore a source of secret infatuation. We trust José Mourinho for his stubble and his coats, Mancini for his idiotic scarf, Capello for his cashmere sweaters. His hair may be tinted, but there is never a strand of it out of place.

As a salesman

The launch of the Capello Index - by which the England manager would publicly rate his players on the internet - the day before the provisional World Cup squad was announced was such a curious stunt that it was tempting to assume it was calculated as a distraction. Why would the man we had made as rich as Robbie Fowler - a man so incorruptible - be looking for earners on the side?

This sounded more like Glenn Hoddle betraying the secrets of the dressing room for his memoirs, or Sven being tapped up by the fake sheikh, than Saint Fabio. Confronted with this reality, Capello looked bemused and employed his best incomprehensible English. Surely there had been a misunderstanding? Even the tabloids let Fabio off with a retraction: let's not let it get in the way of our path to victory. It is not, in this sense, the despair that does for us, it is always the hope that, in the immortal words of clever Trevor Brooking, this time, more than any other time, we'll get it right.

As an England fan

One of Capello's more likeable delusions is that he has always believed England to be better than they are. This belief appears to stem from the heady night in 1973 which, up to now, he has seen as the defining moment of his career: the scuffed shot that did for Peter Shilton and allowed Italy their first defeat of "the mother of football" at Wembley. Capello was the saviour of his nation. "In the 1970s," he later recalled, "Italy wasn't a world force but a poor country. Italians abroad did not have respect or great importance. There was an inferiority complex, and then some. We had a complex that we ran less than England." When Capello's winning goal bobbled in, all that changed, he believes.

In a complicated way, I imagine, he believes that for an Italian to win the World Cup for England would underline that destiny, that patriotism. Yet, for even the most jingoistic of England's St George-emblazoned travelling army, none of that matters. Deep down, we know other nations are much better at this stuff - composure, passing, tactics - than we are. Capello may be an Italian, but he is our Italian. Until we lose in the quarter-finals and he contemplates his future, or goes home.

Tim Adams is the New Statesman's art critic.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela