Capello fears Europe flop could ruin world dream

Defeat for English club in Champions' League final may lead to 'psychological and physical' damage
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The manager

Fabio Capello

The England manager is concerned that his World Cup players could be psychologically damaged if any of them lose this season's Champions' League final.

The climax of Europe's premier club competition takes place just three weeks before England take the field against the United States in Rustenburg on 11 June, and Capello will keep a close eye on whoever reaches the Madrid final.

English clubs have lost the past four Champions' League finals, and although, as an adopted Englishman, Capello would love Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea to go all the way, he is anxious about the timescale needed to recover. "I hope English teams will play in the final. If they win they'll be happy. But if they've lost it won't be easy to recover psychologically and physically."

Capello, attempting to emulate Sir Alf Ramsey as the first England manager to scoop the most coveted prize in world sport, says his players have every chance of going all the way provided they withstand the pressure.

The USA, England's main group opponents, have proven pedigree, having reached the final of the Confederations Cup in South Africa earlier this year, beating Spain on the way, a game Capello attended. The Americans may not be at the top echelons of the game but for all the ease with which England qualified, they have flattered to deceive when up against top-notch adversaries, even under Capello, as recent defeats against Brazil and Spain illustrated.

"I've always said that if we want to arrive at the final we have to beat all the teams," said Capello. "It will not be easy, because every game when you have to play at the World Cup is different – the pressure and psychology is different. The first game is the most important game, and that is against the USA."

Meanwhile, England's 2018 World Cup bid, whose campaign got back on course with the appearance of David Beckham in Cape Town, will get another important lobbying opportunity if the proposed friendly with Egypt goes ahead in March.

Capello wants to line up a friendly with the Egyptians in order to give the England players experience of a team with a similar style to their World Cup group opponents Algeria, controversial conquerors of Egypt in a rumbustious playoff.

The friendly would also give the England 2018 bid chiefs the perfect opportunity to impress Egypt's Hany Abou Rida, one of the most recently appointed members of Fifa's 24-strong executive committee who will vote on the World Cup hosts in December next year. Africa's voting bloc is considered vital to England's hopes, especially with four European nations all going head to head among the 10 bidders. The mooted March friendly rounds off a hugely successful week for the bid team, who were delighted by Beckham's impact.

"It feels like the starting gun has been fired," said England's bid chief executive, Andy Anson. "Everyone has seen that when we get our act together we are a formidable proposition."

The England 2018 promotional video was criticised but Anson defended it by saying he didn't want the international media to witness a "tourist video", and was spot-on when pointing out that the only people who really matter are the 24 Fifa voting members just over a year from now. Andrew Warshaw

The local hero

Lucas Radebe

Played 70 times for South Africa and more than 200 for Leeds, before being forced to retire in 2005 after 12 years at Elland Road. He had joined from Kaizer Chiefs, one of two big local clubs in Soweto, where he was brought up with 10 brothers and sisters. Nelson Mandela once called him "my hero". Here he reflects on the World Cup and his own background.

What does it mean as an African footballer for the continent to be staging the World Cup for the first time?

It's absolutely amazing. Especially in South Africa; it means that we're hosting it on behalf of the whole continent. It's a great achievement and I just hope that I'll be going and that Madiba (Nelson Mandela) will be there for the first kick, because his influence played a big role. This is going to trigger more opportunities for South Africa. I could never have imagined we would host such a great event when I was a boy and there's nothing bigger than the World Cup in terms of football and sport, so for us it is the one opportunity we have to make use of it, not only as football supporters but as a country. Make sure that people will come back again and invest in our country.

What was it like growing up as a football lover in the townships?

If you go through the townships and see the grounds with goals, that's where we started playing football, barefoot. That's the only life we knew. Stepping out of line and going into the city meant you had to carry a pass and you were risking arrest. So our life was confined to the township. We played and we had local teams and our role models were brothers who played for local teams. Then since we got a democracy it opened up, but I wish it could have happened earlier because we had such talented players who really didn't have that opportunity to play at international level. My brother, Abraham, was one of them who was absolutely fantastic. Most of them didn't play in the professional leagues but just in the local leagues in the township and played against each other.

Was a whole generation of players lost?

Yes, and South Africa could have been really competitive from a while ago and could have produced more players for clubs abroad. My brother could have played internationally, but he only finished up playing in the dusty grounds in Soweto with no proper resources. There was no physio, so once you get injured that's it, you're finished. And no proper grounds and no boots, but absolutely they played with heart and that's something we love. It's a God-given talent for us. It was the love of the game, whereas now it's big business, most of the players complaining with how much they get. For us, the disappointment is to not really see them using their talent to the utmost.

What was the reason you were once shot?

To be honest we never found out. I know there was one player who got shot for changing clubs. With me, I don't think it was the reason. Guns were in the wrong hands. I didn't have enemies. It was a few blocks from my mum's house. I really cherish the opportunities I got as a footballer as I could easily end up in a wheelchair or crippled. [The bullet] missed the hip bone. Just hit the top of my hip bone and out the back, as I was driving. If it had gone through it could have damaged vital organs.

Steve Tongue

The big picture

With 186 days to the finals, the suspicion is growing that Capello is in fact King Midas reincarnated. First England survive Fifa's change of plan on seedings and are placed ahead of France, who in 2006 were a penalty away from becoming world champions. Then Algeria and Slovenia, the weakest teams in two of the three pots, are pulled out at just the right moment. If it was nonsense for Alan Shearer to claim that adding the United States (ranked 22nd in the world) "could not have been better", when the alternatives included New Zealand (77th) and North Korea (84th), his optimism was not otherwise out of kilter with the rest of the country.

The one disappointment for the tens of thousands of England supporters who will go to South Africa is the amount of travelling that will be required of them; more than the team, in fact. Despite the perfectionist Capello's concerns about the quality of training pitches, England will still be based at the Royal Bafokeng complex and – on the reasonable assumption that they win Group C – will play two of their first four games at nearby Rustenburg. Fans will not want to stay in that dreary location, however, and have already opted for coastal venues, which means criss-crossing the country, like supporters of every other visiting side.

Given the vastness of South Africa, it would have made more sense than ever to revert to the old system of basing each group on two nearby venues. (In 1966, for instance, the four groups were London, the North-east, North-west and Midlands). Instead, no teams play at the same stadium twice, and England fans in popular Cape Town must make round-trips of 1,560 miles to Rustenburg and 800 miles to Port Elizabeth. Should their team succeed in what Capello long ago stated was his minimal ambition, to reach the final, devoted fans will have travelled some 7,000 miles internally.

Before all that there is a friendly on Wednesday 3 March at Wembley, wisely against African opposition for the first time since South Africa seven years ago, and probably with Algeria's play-off opponents Egypt. From that day on, if Capello is seen to be holding himself rather oddly it will be because he is keeping all fingers and toes crossed that there are no further injuries to add to the one suffered last weekend by West Ham's Carlton Cole (not as serious as was first thought). The Football Association must submit a provisional squad of 35 by mid-May, which will be made public, then pray not to lose too many of them in the Europa League final (12 May), FA Cup final (15 May) or Champions' League final (22 May). Two more friendlies will be confirmed, one of them almost certainly in Austria, where England will undertake altitude training at the end of May.

As for the rest of the contenders, France, Argentina, Italy, Holland and Spain all have cause to be as pleased as England. Brazil and Germany find themselves in the toughest groups, with the likelihood of nasty second-round games (against Spain and England respectively) if they only finish runners-up. Ghana and Ivory Coast would like to have avoided those sections too, so African teams will need all the home support that will be generously offered by vuvuzela-blowing South African fans, who may be supporting the worst host country yet and have not been favoured against France, Mexico and Uruguay. Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast, beaten by Holland and Argentina in a "group of death" last time, must now take on Brazil and Portugal before they even consider the prospect of becoming their continent's first-ever semi-finalists.

The composition of that Group G has persuaded some (British) bookmakers to rate England's chances above Brazil's and second only to Spain's. Whether that is hard financial logic or patriotism talking is one of many intriguing questions to answer in just over six months' time.

Steve Tongue

England's opponents

When Slovenia qualified for the World Cup for the second time in their fledgling history, the country's prime minister, Borut Pahor, kept a promise to national hero Matjaz Kek (below): he got down on his knees and polished the manager's shoes within minutes of the team knocking out Guus Hiddink's Russia.

Slovenians are proud people, and even their politicians keep their word when it comes to sporting matters. Kek's team, for all their underdog status, will not be a soft touch when they face England in the final game of Group C. Beaten 2-1 at Wembley in a friendly in September, Kek says there will be no feelings of inferiority when the two meet again in Port Elizabeth on 23 June. "This is one of the toughest draws we could have had but we were better in both games against Russia and when we play England this time, it will be very different to Wembley. People say we have nothing to lose but you always have something to lose."

The Algeria coach, Rabah Saadane, believes England could go the distance and end two generations of under-achievement. Saadane is resigned to the fact his side, who squeezed into the finals by knocking out Egypt, will have to play out of their skins just to survive.

"It's a group whose teams have bags of experience, who have big coaches like Capello," said Saadane. "England are a team that can go far. They've always had individual quality but now they've got rigour. Football in England has progressed a lot in terms of tactical discipline."

As for the USA, England's opening opponents, their coach, Bob Bradley, is resigned to being bombarded with questions about 1950. "We hope it can happen again," he said of America's famous 1-0 win. "It didn't come straight into my mind when the draw was being made but it is still talked about in the US. It's a great way to start."

Andrew Warshaw