Fabio Capello; the ‘game’s ultimate pragmatist’ according to a recent piece by Greg Lea for These Football Times.

As Lea wrote, Capello took Sacchi’s Milan team and turned them into multiple league champions, at first playing similar attacking football, but then changing after the career ending injury to Marco van Basten. This new, defensive style of football brought the same, trophy winning results. He masterminded the destruction of Johan Cryuff’s Barcelona in 1994, the most complete European final performance since Real Madrid’s victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960.


After winning the league but leaving Real Madrid after one season, and then a difficult year back at Milan, Capello arrived at Roma. Within two years, they too were league champions. Capello had used a 4-4-2 at Milan, but with Roma he created a 3-4-1-2 formation. This allowed Francesco Totti to play in the hole behind forwards Vincenzo Montella and Gabriel Batistuta, and allowed the likes of Cafu to lope forwards. Capello adapted his ideas based on the players he had, to great success.

In fifteen seasons as a coach in Europe, Capello won nine (later reduced to seven) league titles in two countries and reached three successive Champions League finals, winning one of them. In late 2007, Capello would begin his career as an international manager with England; would his success cross over to international football?

We were given the answer last week, as the relationship between the Italian and the Russian national team came to a bitter end. Like the marriage between Pierre Bezukhov and Princess Elena Kuragina in War and Peace, Capello – like Princess Kuragina – perhaps undertook the relationship purely for financial gain. Unlike the very wealthy Count Bezukhov, the Russian Football Union could not afford their expensive coach, relying on loans from Alisher Usmanov to pay his salary. The bitter divorce may cost the RFU around €15million, which may also have to be paid for by the prominent Arsenal shareholder.

Capello actually leaves the job with a decent record. He won 17 games out of 33 giving him a respectable win percentage of 52%, a good showing for a mid-ranking football nation like Russia. Then again, Capello left England after guiding them to 28 wins in 42 games, a 67% win rate.

This reveals the problem with looking at things on the face of it, it does not show the true nature of what really happened. When it came to tournament games that mattered, Capello’s teams flopped. After a brilliant qualifying campaign with England, which saw them destroy Croatia 5-1, hopes were high for the 2010 World Cup. England finally had a strong willed coach, one who could control the big egos within the dressing room and get them playing as a team. It was, as with most England campaigns, not to be.


Capello’s misadventure with England during the 2010 World Cup was epic. Having done well with a 4-2-3-1 formation, Capello instead reverted to a typical 4-4-2, with Steven Gerrard out on the left. Despite an ‘easy’ group, England had to settle for second place. Underwhelming against the United States, abysmal against Algeria and sloppy against Slovenia, England stumbled into the last 16 with 1 win and 2 draws. Capello’s famed authority was also on the wane, as John Terry openly criticised the coach in a press conference, frustrated at not having his opinion heard.

Despite the problems, England would meet old friends Germany in the last 16. This would surely be the game where they would banish their slow start and announce themselves in the tournament. Alan Hansen of all people told us that England ‘have got the better players’ and Germany ‘were an average side, eminently beatable’. This was good news; when has Alan Hansen ever been wrong?

It’s difficult to choose the most iconic moment of the match. The obvious one is Frank Lampard’s ghost goal, but there are plenty of others to choose from; Germany scoring a stereotypically English goal by punting the ball straight to Miroslav Klose, Gareth Barry versus Mesut Ozil in a sprint race for goal number four, or Capello deciding that what England really needed at three goals down was Emile Heskey. England deservedly lost 4-1 to a much superior German side. Having perfected the art of being knocked out bravely, England now exited a tournament in embarrassing fashion, devoid of creativity, intelligence and fight.

Capello’s reputation sank like a stone. He had built his career on his authority and his tactical flexibility, but he displayed neither of these gifts in South Africa. He would never regain the respect he had before 2010. Capello became a joke, his level of English became a target, though I think it is harsh to criticise a man who began learning the language at the age of 61. Under Capello, England qualified for Euro 2012, but he would not be there to manage them. He resigned over John Terry being stripped of his captaincy, backing a player who openly challenged his authority two years before.


He would, however, get a second chance at international management with Russia in the summer of 2012. He guided them to top of their World Cup qualification group, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, as Russia qualified for their first World Cup since 2002. They were rewarded with a group of Algeria, South Korea and Belgium. Belgium were obvious favourites, but ‘on the face of it’, Russia should have been too much for Algeria and South Korea

Yet again, it was not to be for Capello in an international tournament, as his side caved in when it mattered. Against South Korea, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev flapped at a relatively innocuous shot from Lee Keun-ho to give Korea a 1-1 draw. They were also undone by a late Divock Origi goal to give Belgium the victory in a dull encounter. In a must win game against Algeria, Russia took an early lead through Aleksandr Kokorin but were denied by an Algerian equaliser in controversial circumstances. As Algeria prepared to take a free kick, a green laser was flashed in Akinfeev’s eyes. Seconds later, Akinfeev missed the cross that was headed in by Islam Slimani. Russia were unfortunate in all three games, but did not do enough to win any of them by playing stodgy, unattractive football. Despite talented players like Kokorin and the experienced Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Russia did not win a single game, scoring just twice. Russia have not improved since, currently lying third in qualification for Euro 2016 with 2 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats.

Capello’s international management career has been, for the standards he set himself; a disaster. His World Cup career stands at 7 games, 1 win, 4 draws and 2 defeats, not one of a distinguished European coach. He has left two countries – England and Russia – as a deeply unpopular, but a much wealthier man. Like his countryman Giovanni Trappatoni, Capello found that year after year of success in European football does not necessarily translate into success at international level.

Those below par international exploits will affect his legacy deeply. His failures with England and Russia will provoke questions about his club management record. It did not take a genius, perhaps, to make a team with Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten, Dejan Savićević et al league champions. His Roma side never added to their 2001 Scudetto, coming second, eighth and second again in the next three seasons. They also underachieved in Europe, being outthought and eliminated in successive seasons by Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool for example.


Questions may also be raised about his character. Whilst at Roma, Capello accused Juventus and their director Luciano Moggi of making illegal payments to players and agents. Moggi countered that Roma were favoured by referees, one way of many in which he would try to control the referees in Italy. Despite this public spat, Capello joined Juventus and Moggi in 2004, making himself deeply unpopular in Rome. Juventus ‘won’ the league in 2005 and 2006 (revoked of course), but they played what Adam Digby called in his recent history of Juventus ‘dull, functional football’. This football did not work in Europe, as his Juventus side were dispatched quite easily by Liverpool in 2005 and Arsenal in 2006. Capello’s biggest crime at Juventus, though, was his treatment of Alessandro Del Piero. Under Capello, Del Piero became a mere substitute at the expense of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Capello quickly jumped ship during the Calciopoli scandal, re-joining Real Madrid and taking Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson with him.

Capello may have won the league for Madrid, but he did so in tempestuous circumstances. In opposition to the trophy free Galatico era, Capello’s Madrid played defensive football. He fell out with Antonio Cassano (which he had also done at Roma) and David Beckham. His job was saved, and the title was won, by his decision to recall Beckham to the team in February 2007. Beckham’s performances revived Madrid, but even so, it was a title lost by Barcelona rather than won by Real. Capello was again dismissed by Real soon after. A lot of the points raised may be harsh, but they will have to be faced by Capello and his supporters.

It is likely that, at 69 years old, Fabio Capello will not manage again, though he may find a job as a Director of Football if he wants to. He will retire from football with a host of trophies, but a massive sense of regret. When it came to international football, he and his teams were simply not good enough.