Fabio Capello gave no assurances to John Terry yesterday that he would remain the England captain – even hinting he would make a temporary appointment while he makes up his mind. In an uncompromising mood, the England manager said that all his players would be subject to a character assessment and none of them could take anything for granted.
Capello was in Zagreb to agree England's qualifying fixtures for the 2010 World Cup and, in only his second official appearance since getting the job, made it abundantly clear that the age of the big-name reputations in the England team was over. There were no promises David Beckham would win his 100th England cap in the friendly against Switzerland on 6 February and barely did Capello praise an individual player. In fact, his only specific comment about the games he has watched in England thus far was that he was impressed with the standard of refereeing.
The Italian had come straight from a seven-hour meeting with officials from the federations of England's Group Six opponents – Croatia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Andorra – in which he negotiated to play Croatia in September this year and next year. Capello wanted that because, he said, he believed English players were at their freshest in that month.
While Capello felt that he had won the day on the fixtures he was not prepared to give his senior players any reassurance. He said he would not be meeting the players, either individually or in groups, before the squad convenes on 4 February for the first match next month. "I am accustomed to meeting managers," he said, "although there might be an exception if a player is injured."
The new England manager's no-nonsense approach is a welcome departure from the old pals' act of previous regimes – and he is taking nothing for granted. On Terry's position he said: "The captaincy is a very important decision. The captain issue is a very important one for England. There are many things I have to evaluate and I must come up with the choice that is right.
"A captain must be a leader, someone who carries the team, somebody that in every moment is important for the team. I am evaluating whether to decide on a definitive captain, or to appoint a provisional captain. First I have to know the candidates well. Please don't take this is as indecision. I want to get to know the players well."
The 61-year-old Capello gave his answers through an interpreter but understood the majority of the questions in English. Nevertheless, he kept the superlatives to a minimum. On Beckham's future, he was non-committal. "We still have time to decide. He is important for England and can still give a lot, but all the players are equally important. I consider them all on the same level. A manager has feelings, but first and foremost he has to take decisions."
There will be five friendlies – including the Switzerland match and meeting France in Paris – before September's qualifying games against Andorra and Croatia away. The 10-day squad meeting in May, which includes two friendlies, will be crucial for Capello to get to know his players. There are free Saturdays before the home games against Ukraine and Croatia that could also be used for friendlies.
Evident from Capello's words was his desire to get to know the England players before he makes any long-term decisions. He may not be a man who kowtows to the big names but he is a student of footballers and their characters. He said that some aspects of English football had "gone beyond my expectations" while others had "perplexed" him. Although he declined to name the latter, it is worth remembering that he has visited Kenilworth Road this month.
"There are two main things I want for the five friendlies: first to try to create a team and second to try to discover new players who can be integrated into the group," Capello said. "The team I want is in my head, taking into account what I have seen so far, and the England games I have watched. But to have an idea of what I can achieve, I first need to know the players well – not only their characteristics with the ball but their tactical sense."
On the question of the bad behaviour of high-profile players, Capello said that footballers should be "an example to the young", although it is not thought that he had Joey Barton in mind. He also said that the England job was bigger than managing Real Madrid – "I was accustomed to the great pressure that comes with Real Madrid but Madrid was a club – this is a whole nation."
And he liked English referees because they "whistle so little compared to the rest of Europe".
Road to South Africa
6 Sept: Andorra (a)
10 Sept: Croatia (a)
11 Oct: Kazakhstan (h)
15 Oct: Belarus (a)
1 April: Ukraine (h)
6 June: Kazakhstan (a)
10 June: Andorra (h)
9 Sept: Croatia (h)
10 Oct: Ukraine (a)
14 Oct: Belarus (h)
For Sam Wallace's discussion of England's World Cup qualifying fixtures go to blogs.independent.co.uk/extratime/