Fabio Capello’s Greatest Hits

From this morning’s Guardian:

“We coaches cannot understand how England, with the players they have, could fail to qualify for the European Championships,” said Capello, who has long been proud of the psychological work he does with his players. “How could players of such a high level perform so differently with their national team to the way they perform with their clubs? It is clear that they suffer a mental block. How else can you explain England getting knocked out? Wearing the England shirt clearly weighs heavily on their shoulders, even though they are champions [with their clubs]. In situations like this, the coach has a fundamental role to play, one that is more psychological than technical or tactical.”

He’s not ruling out technical or tactical issues, but stressing where the heart of the problem lies. I agree. Sport psychology boils down to one principle: externalizing failure. You learn to accept that you are a good, even great, player, but will always make mistakes and fail. These mistakes and failures don’t add up on some internal receipt roll to produce a bottom line of internal, personal, failure. They are what they are, no more, and no reason to doubt yourself or to play without freedom.

I don’t think many of the England side understand that. They care too much. If I make a mistake, it’s not just my team that I’m letting down – it’s my country. I’ll have to wear the white feather.. So do we. Who, in Britain, doesn’t respond to Stuart Pearce here at gut level? “Look at this for character. Time to cleanse his soul..”

The problem is deeper than just that of geeing up the players, or somehow “giving them confidence.” What happens to Pearce there is too personal, too much about him, too self-conscious, to work on a consistent basis. Shearer’s cool, or Owen’s today, is what works. But we don’t love it as much, and don’t recognize its value. Until we do, our players will play with fear and tension. Booing will make it more and make it worse.

If Capello succeeds, he’ll have to convince British fans, not only that it isn’t necessary for players to feel they way they feel in order to succeed, but that players feeling the way they do is actively counterproductive. That’s not likely to happen. Shearer is a front runner purely because men at the FA believe that feeling and passion is key, not skill, tactics, intelligence, coolness under pressure and quick thinking – what Sir Clive Woodward called “TCUP” – “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.”

Club football success is not the same thing as international success. There’s a language barrier, and the deeper cultural problems to overcome. And Capello is a defensive manager, which isn’t necessarily what we need right now. Perhaps he sees defence in a positive light, as a craft and skill, to be performed with its own aplomb, not as a shameful retreat. Should Capello take the job, there are reasons for optimism:

AC Milan, in the 1994 Champions League Final:

Roma’s first Scudetto in a decade:

A Juventus Scudetto:

Capello makes better of his Beckham mistake than McClaren:

If he does it with England, though, he’ll have done it with English players. He seems to rate them. Perhaps he can.

I guarantee one thing. If he isn’t appointed, we’ll always be wondering what might have been.

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2 responses to “Fabio Capello’s Greatest Hits

  1. Naturally enough I agree with you and Capello in this psychological diagnosis. Amongst other things, football is a game where the scoring system tends to level the game. We’ve all seen great teams dominate and be held to 0-0 by brave defending and an inspired goalkeeper. In such situations it becomes very clear that TCUP and the clinical taking (or preventing) of chances is the difference between success and failure.

    Can the right man at the right time change the footballing philosophy of a nation? I think your blog has some examples that it can be that way.

    Is Capello the right man at the right time? I have no idea. I do think it’s not a bad option to try. A lot depends on who else is available, but taking various denial statements at face value Capello seems to be the best candidate interested.

    Of course, public denials are all part of the negotiation process, so who knows who else is really available? Jose drops hints both ways as does Lippi (who seems to me to be as good as Capello but with more attacking instincts…

  2. Two comments 1) England haven’t defended well for a very long time. That’s the managers’ fault. The conditions were atrocious and McLaren should have started off by packing the midfield with two midfieldes sitting in fron of the England B defence. 2) On what basis would Shearer be offered the job? He has no experience. Repeat no experience.