Sitting in the celestial coaches' dugout, listening to the cognoscenti down below saying that Fabio Capello from the Bisiacheria region of north-eastern Italy looks more and more like the man to restore the England team to the top table of international football, the ghost of Sir Alf Ramsey is doubtless wondering which way to turn.
Ramsey, who 43 years ago masterminded the England football team's solitary World Cup-winning campaign, was a xenophobic Englishman whose mistrust of foreigners started at Hadrian's Wall. In May 1972, towards the end of an emotionally charged win for England over Scotland at a packed Hampden Park in Glasgow, Ramsey's midfield maestro Alan Ball showed his own disdain for the Scots by wiping his nose on the corner flag, which bore the St Andrew's Cross. It was an outrageous act of provocation by the scorer of the game's only goal. When, moments later, the England players found sanctuary in the dressing room from 100,000 Scottish fans baying for blood, they fully expected Ramsey, the sternest of disciplinarians, to issue a memorable bollocking. Instead, he came in wearing a broad grin. "Alan, Alan," he said. "You really are a very naughty boy."
There was a further exhibition of English jingoism the following November when Italy came to Wembley to play a friendly. The visiting players were outraged by an English newspaper's dismissal of their fans as "20,000 Italian waiters" and, turning the insult into a rallying cry, beat Ramsey's team 1-0. This time, the game's only goal was scored by the 27-year-old Juventus midfielder, Fabio Capello. It was the first time Italy had beaten England on English soil, and only the second time, following a 2-0 win in Turin a few months earlier, that Italy had beaten England anywhere. Capello's goal was another nail in Ramsey's coffin; within six months, England's World Cup-winning manager had been brutally sacked.
And so to March 2009, and Ramsey's discombobulated ghost. Tomorrow evening at Wembley, Capello's in-form England are widely expected to beat Ukraine and take an emphatic step towards next year's World Cup finals in South Africa. Every four years since 1970, when England were entered automatically for the World Cup as reigning champions, supporters have had to get used, more often than not, to nail-biting white-knuckle rides through the qualification process. In 1974, 1978 and 1994, the nail-biting was in vain; with the team's failure to qualify, the country that gave football to the world could not even claim to belong to the world's football elite. Even when they did get to the knockout stages of the World Cup finals, England never threatened to win the thing. A semi-final defeat in 1990 is the closest they have come to emulating Ramsey's lions of 1966.
But, under Capello, it seems as if England will qualify for next year's tournament with uncharacteristic, nail-friendly ease, suggesting to some impressionable folk that he stands a good chance of propelling his players all the way to Johannesburg on 11 July 2010 and delivering the ultimate prize. Of course, England fans are constitutionally inclined to get overexcited about the team's potential, and there have been false dawns before, not least early in the tenure of Capello's predecessor-but-one, the phlegmatic Swede Sven Goran Eriksson, when England hammered Germany, their footballing nemesis, 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier in Munich. But even the cynics are now echoing the romantics: with Capello at the helm, World Cup glory seems, if not exactly probable, then certainly more possible than it has seemed for some time. A few months ago, no less an authority than Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the heroes of '66, told me that Capello reminded him, like no other England manager had since 1974, of Ramsey. "He's strong, single-minded, and he's only interested in winning, not making friends," Charlton said.
So who is this man considered able enough to lead England to the promised (and promised, and promised) land, and why isn't he interested in making friends? The answer is not straightforward, because Capello is not a straightforward man. In some ways, he is the footballing embodiment of what the great West Indian philosopher and essayist CLR James was getting at when he wrote: "What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?" Capello is a worldly fellow, remarkably well-travelled, with a modern-art collection worth millions, and strong opinions about art, politics and even food, all of which inform his coaching and management methods. The key to understanding him, therefore, lies not in his football background, but elsewhere.
First, chronologically but perhaps also in terms of significance, comes his upbringing in the village of Pieris, part of the Bisiacheria, a region close to Italy's borders with Austria and Slovenia. It is historically an area of huge strategic importance, and consequently the scene of tremendous conflict through the centuries. The journalist Gabriele Marcotti, in his meticulously researched biography, Capello, Portrait of a Winner, offers an evocative description of this region just after the Second World War, with tensions rising between Slovenians and Italians, to the point at which, on 30 June 1946, Slovenian nationalists halted the Giro d'Italia cycle race by pelting the riders with stones.
Less than a fortnight earlier, Guerrino and Evelina Capello had celebrated the birth of a son, Fabio, and doubtless wondered what kind of world they had brought him into when the stone-throwing violence escalated into something much more sinister: over the next few months in the Bisiacheria, hundreds of people disappeared only to turn up with bullets in their heads, executed by followers of the Communist leader of the new Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito. Their crime, in many cases, was simply that, like the Capellos, they wanted the region to remain Italian.
Guerrino must have despaired at this, having only a year earlier returned home from a German prisoner-of-war camp weighing less than seven and a half stone. He had been an officer in the Italian army, fighting side by side with the Germans in an artillery division on the Eastern Front, but after Mussolini was overthrown in the summer of 1943, the Italian Prime Minister, General Pietro Badoglio, signed an armistice with the Allies, leaving soldiers such as Guerrino Capello at the mercy of their former comrades in the Wehrmacht.
The impact on Guerrino of his wartime experiences – he starved almost to death in the PoW camp – cannot be overstated, and it duly made a enduring impression on his only son. Similarly, the post-war chaos that overwhelmed the Bisiacheria encouraged in Guerrino a yearning and respect for authority that, again, was passed on to young Fabio. It is not fanciful to connect the rigorous discipline Capello has introduced to the England training camp – mealtimes together, no mobile phones, no flip-flops, the use of surnames as the mode of address – both with the era and place of his childhood, and with his father, who became a maths teacher and football coach after the war, and to whom Capello remained extremely close until Guerrino died in 1982. Even 27 years on, the PoW turned maths teacher remains by a distance the biggest influence on Capello's life, and authoritarianism remains Capello's creed.
That said, the England manager is sometimes described as avowedly right-wing. Yet there is no particular evidence for this. When I talked to a man who knows Capello as well as anyone in English football circles – which, admittedly, is to say not terribly well – he suggested rather gnomically that the Italian's political philosophy was closer to that of Joseph Stalin than George W Bush. "But I don't think he swings either to the left or the right," my informant added. "What he admires is a strong man, in complete control."
That is certainly the image of himself he presents to the world, with the inevitable result that the English media wasted no time, after his appointment in December 2007, in comparing him with a Mafia godfather. To some, he was Don Fabio. To others, seizing on his convenient surname, he was Il Capo, as in "il capo di tutti capi", the boss of all bosses. Either way, the implication was that the England team, after the Football Association's myopic promotion of Eriksson's assistant Steve McClaren, the scorned "wally with a brolly", could do with a dose of Latin ruthlessness.
Yet, in his book, Capello's compatriot Gabriele Marcotti takes great exception to the Mob-inspired nicknames, pointing out that Italians find no entertainment value in light-hearted references to the Cosa Nostra. "Had Martin O'Neill, who is Catholic and from Northern Ireland, been appointed manager, would the media have greeted him with jokes about the IRA, balaclavas and hunger strikes? I think not. And note that this type of thing was not just tabloid fodder, it was surfacing everywhere, from broadsheets to the BBC."
Marcotti has a point, although one wonders whether Capello himself perhaps secretly enjoys the Mafia references. At the risk of further offending Marcotti, when Capello last week delivered an affectionate rebuke to his star striker Wayne Rooney, describing the Manchester United player as a "crazy, crazy man" after Rooney had been sent off in a Premier League match against Fulham, it was not impossible to imagine Tony Soprano dealing with one of his favourite goons in the same way, outwardly laughing but leaving no doubt that on his watch there would be zero tolerance of such indisciplined behaviour.
Whether Capello's own behaviour has always been beyond reproach, however, remains a matter of debate. Last January, within a month of the FA appointing him, on a salary of about £6m, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported that in Italy he was being investigated for tax fraud dating back to 1999. The gleeful rubbing of hands in most sections of the English media when Eriksson's serial romantic indiscretions had come to light had been almost audible. But this time there was a palpable sense that nobody wanted Capello to be exposed as a tax cheat. Most papers showed a distinct lack of appetite for getting on the back of the new England manager quite so soon, and so far, no evidence of wrongdoing has emerged. The verdict of Marcotti, who has investigated Capello's life more thoroughly than most, is that the manager's "approach to savings and tax planning is no different from that of bankers, entrepreneurs and other wealthy individuals. In short, he employs very clever and very expensive tax lawyers to minimise his tax liability."
He can afford them. Even before he accepted the fabulous offer from FA mandarins desperate to put the failures of the Eriksson/McClaren years behind them, Capello's earnings as manager of AC Milan, Real Madrid, Roma and Juventus (all of whom he led to glittering prizes) had made him a rich man and given him a lifestyle far removed from the shabby apartment block in which he was raised in Pieris.
One of the most striking trappings of this wealth is his extensive art collection, which he began to build up in his playing days with Juventus. In the mid-1970s, he became fascinated by the Arte Povera movement, broadly defined as the creation of works of art from other people's rubbish. It might be stretching a point to suggest that he applies a similar philosophy to the building of football teams, or that his keen connoisseur's eye (he later started buying the widely coveted works of the Russian artists Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky) was honed on the touchline, but plainly his passion for art reflects his personality which, paradoxically for a 62-year-old man who has made his living from football since the age of 17, is not really at home amid the brawn and banter of professional sport. He is a cultured but aloof man who has cultivated remarkably few close friendships in his 45 years in the game, and raised plenty of hackles.
"Capello is a prick," one acquaintance told me. "He thinks he knows everything about everything, and when you find a subject he knows nothing about, he quickly starts correcting you about that as well."
Still, he has made his sense of intellectual superiority work for him as a football manager. "He's not there to be your friend, he's there to be your boss," says the former West Ham firebrand Paolo di Canio, who played for Capello at AC Milan, and once came to blows with him.
Moreover, the intellectual grandeur is not without foundation. There can't be many more widely travelled men in any walk of life, let alone football. Capello, engaged on a relentless quest to broaden his mind, has holidayed among remote Aztec ruins in Mexico and in the foothills of the Himalayas, among many far-flung parts of the world. Not for him the clichéd holiday destinations of footballers with bank accounts as deep as their horizons are narrow.
In all these pursuits, he is supported by his wife of 45 years and mother of his two children, Laura, whom he met on a bus in the town of Ferrara, where his playing career began. They are said to be a devoted couple, spelling disappointment for anyone looking for Eriksson-style dalliances. It's also a fair assumption – although nobody I talked to has ever been invited to cross the Capello threshold – that Laura makes a cracking ragu. Capello certainly likes his food, although his tastes when he is eating out, unlike those of many Italian men, characteristically veer towards the fussier end of the spectrum.
To his credit both as a man and a manager, however, he has gone through life willing to embrace new ideas, new enthusiasms. Seven years ago, living in Rome, managing Roma, he even reined in his know-all tendencies. "Prior to moving to Rome," an acquaintance recalled, "he was almost competitive in his approach to art. He decided what he liked, studied up on a particular movement or artist or whatever, and then proceeded to tell you everything he knew. It was the same with food or wine. In Rome, it all changed. It became more about dialogue, more about discovery. You could say he became a little more humble. Of course, he still tried to explain why he was right and you were wrong. But at least he heard you out."
Similarly, in 2006 when Capello arrived for the second time to manage Real Madrid, he initially made it clear that the English superstar David Beckham was not his cup of Earl Grey and would not play. But Beckham trained like a dervish and impressed Capello, who duly recanted. And now Beckham is back in the England fold, daring to dream that he might yet crown his extraordinary career with a World Cup winner's medal. If anyone can make that dream become reality, and join Dagenham-born Alf Ramsey in the pantheon of English football heroes, it is the PoW's son from Pieris in the Bisiacheria.
Men of the match: England's managers
Steve McClaren: 2006-2007 (18 games)
Not a foreigner as such, though his recent attempts to speak English in a Dutch accent have been a YouTube hit. McClaren, Eriksson's former assistant, was allowed to step up to the top job but failed emphatically, with England not even qualifying for the Euro 2008 tournament.
Sven-Goran Eriksson: 2001-2006 (67 games)
Eriksson could never quite deliver, reaching the quarter-final stages of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and the 2004 Euros. He apparently had no such complaints from the ladies, judging by much-publicised dalliances with Ulrika Jonsson and Faria Alam.
Terry Venables: 1994-1996 (23 games)
'El Tel' established his managerial reputation at Barcelona's Nou Camp. He didn't even need to qualify for the England-hosted Euro 96, but after a famous 4-1 drubbing of Holland and the fleeting hope that football was finally 'coming home', England lost on penalties to Germany in the semi-final. Venners quit while ahead, going off to manage the Aussies.
Glenn Hoddle: 1996-1999 (28 games)
Was it because Hoddle deserved more caps as one of the finest players of his generation that he was given the manager's job despite not having won a major club trophy? Dumped out of the 1998 World Cup by Argentina on penalties, Hoddle managed to lose his job with some ill-advised comments about disabled people and karmic retribution.
Kevin Keegan: 1999-2000 (18 games)
Out of his depth as boss of the national side – his greatest managerial achievement had arguably been taking Fulham into the top flight – the highly strung Keegan resigned with, statistically, the worst record of the lot.
Don Revie: 1974-1977 (29 games)
The decision made by "The Don" to leave Leeds United and take the England job is at the core of the film 'The Damned United'. But in contrast to his success in club football, his tenure at England was a shambles. The side sensationally failed to qualify for the 1976 Euros before Revie walked out to take a job in that hotbed of football the United Arab Emirates.
Sir Alf Ramsey: 1963-1974 (113 games)
England's only manager to have delivered the big one, of course. The years of hurt have reached 43 without replication of Ramsey's 1966 achievement, and his team also performed well in Mexico in 1970. Whether this quiet man would have enjoyed such success in the modern media-driven era is open to question.
Sir Walter Winterbottom:1946-1962 (139 games in charge)
They don't sack 'em like they used to – Sir Walter was at the helm for 16 years. He didn't win the World Cup, even though he had four cracks at it.
Ron Greenwood: 1977-1982 (55 games)
His biggest England achievement may have been managing the West Ham United side that contained the core of the national team that Sir Alf managed in 1966. As England boss, Greenwood was largely unremarkable. He reached the 1982 World Cup but went out without having lost a game.
Sir Bobby Robson: 1982-1990 (95 games)
Though once ridiculed by satirical show 'Spitting Image', Sir Bobby's England legacy is a fine one, and he is revered in the game. He lost a few, but is the only England boss – other than Sir Alf – to have reached a World Cup semi-final (Italia 90). Sir Bobby may have been equally successful in Mexico in 1986, without Maradona's infamous "Hand of God".
Graham Taylor: 1990-1993 (38 games)
Taylor was a disaster. His England team limped into Euro 92, where they flopped, and then failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup altogether. He will be best remembered for being caricatured as a root vegetable – "The Turnip" – in 'The Sun' and becoming the first England boss to have a reality- television show, the painful documentary 'Do I Not Like That'.