Off the dusty R565 road, the England team bus finally swung through the gates of the Royal Bafokeng sports campus yesterday and into the site that they will call home for as long as they last in the World Cup finals. For one member of the party – squad member No 24 – it will have been a bittersweet moment as the bus pulled up and the staff came out to meet the players.
David Beckham is at his fourth World Cup finals although not in the playing capacity that he would have hoped for when, almost four years ago, he tearfully resigned the England captaincy in a marquee somewhere in the Black Forest. He was, nevertheless, on the flight to Johannesburg yesterday morning and there are a few in the squad who are curious as to how this experiment works out.
When Capello took over the England team in January 2008 and left Beckham out of his first squad to play Switzerland the following month it would have been hard to imagine that he would be generous enough to take him as a mascot to the tournament more than two years later. England have four masseurs, a video technician, a chef and two kitmen, but it is Beckham's role that will stir the most interest.
According to the Capello camp yesterday, they intend to use him as an "assistant" to the general manager, Franco Baldini. He will be asked to observe the players in training and identify problems – or potential qualities – that Capello and his three other Italian staff might have missed. What is clear is that Beckham has crossed the line from player to coaching staff and that his opinion will have some effect on how his erstwhile team-mates are viewed by Capello.
By any stretch of the imagination that is a major leap to make, especially for a player who has designs on returning to the squad once his Achilles tendon injury has healed. He is regarded as a liaison between players and the management, traditionally the role of the captain and another sign that Capello is determined to get his 115-cap veteran involved in any way possible with the rest of the squad. One source described Beckham as "part of the team without playing".
England will hold events for the local community from the small town of Phokeng in their brand new Bafokeng training ground, but for most of the time they will be locked away behind high fences and security gates. Judging from the outside – and this morning will be the first time Bafokeng throws opens its doors to the press – the place has been finished just in time from its state of unreadiness in February.
England's last visit to play a friendly in Durban seven years ago was a major glad-handing event when Beckham showed up with a corn-row style hair plait and the biggest controversy was certain members of the squad turning down the chance to meet Nelson Mandela. The former president of South Africa met his national team yesterday but his age and frailty mean that it is by no means a certainty he will be at the opening ceremony or the final.
The Football Association always strives to do its bit when on tour and it is are keen to make a good impression on behalf of the 2018 World Cup bid but, Beckham aside, the players are here to prepare for the tournament. As the sun set on Bafokeng last night with the platinum mines and their rigs dotting the horizon, the players will surely have noticed that Capello has picked for them a spot of splendid isolation. They train for the first time today on the Bafokeng pitches that were such a source of concern to Capello when he visited for the World Cup draw in Cape Town in December.
"The good thing is that I feel as if we are improving and it has been quite intense in training," Frank Lampard said. "We have been training very hard. The manager, with the attention to detail that he shows, will go through everything. You can rest assured he won't leave any stone unturned. We will be fully prepared. With a little bit of luck, and with everyone fit, we will have as good a chance as anybody. We need to improve on the last few games but, when everyone is fit, we will go for it."
Yesterday the local authority in North West Province was still finishing surfacing the roads and kitting out the Rustenburg World Cup stadium – where England will play the United States in their first game on 12 June. This has always threatened to be a last-minute World Cup, although Capello will be hoping that, starting today, nothing has been left to chance.
Capello's coaching team
Franco Baldini; General manager
Former Italy under-21 international. He is Capello's fixer and handles the pastoral issues.
Italo Galbiati; Coach
Energetic 72-year-old who worked with the manager at Milan, Roma and Real.
Franco Tancredi; Goalkeeping coach
Former Italy international goalkeeper who played for Roma.
Ray Clemence; Goalkeeping coach
Will help Tancredi on the training pitch.
Stuart Pearce; Assistant coach
Led warm-ups at Austrian camp.
David Beckham; Assistant to Baldini
Will be bridge between team and coaches.Reuse content