No fear. It's the phrase that jumps out as Fabio Capello, in his stumbling but rapidly improving English, explains what he expects of his England team. Leaning back, relaxed and smiling in a lakeside hotel just a few miles outside Klagenfurt in southern Austria the morning after he had watched Croatia defeat Germany in Euro 2008, Capello is laying down a blueprint. It is, he believes, what will ensure England never again miss out on a major tournament.
Capello has the personnel – he refreshingly dismisses the notion that a Premier League top-heavy with foreign talent does not produce enough skilled Englishmen, and says he needs no more than 14 top-quality players – but now needs to develop the characters. It will, he promises, all come together in just nine weeks' time when England play the Czech Republic in their final friendly match beforethe World Cup qualification campaign gets under way.
"That is what we have been working towards," Capello says. "It will be a very important game before qualification begins. We play at Wembley and in this game I hope the players play like a team with great confidence. And no fear. That is very important. We are getting better with each game and, in August, there will be no problem physically. Everyone will be fresh and not tired so I expect to see big progress."
What Don Fabio expects, he clearly gets. His strategy is clear. England go into September with a double-header – in Andorra, an easy warm-up, and then their old nemesis Croatia in Zagreb. Capello clearly wants to hit the Croatians early and exploit the possible hangover from Euro 2008 and maybe the loss of their talismanic coach, Slaven Bilic.
Capello was impressed by Bilic's team in the 2-1 victory on Thursday. It was certainly more emphatic than their win against Austria. "I have seen two Croatias," Capello explains. "I think the Croatia that we meet in Zagreb will be the same Croatia that played against Germany because the spirit of Croatia, not just Croatia but other teams when they play against a top team, a big team, means they play better."
Despite their absence from this tournament, Capello clearly regards England as a "big team". The failure to qualify gives him a chance to implement what he wants and expects. At first he was disappointed with the players' technical ability but he has reassessed his opinion. Now his main concerns, beyond the need for a right-back and a striker, are "spirit" and "character".
"We need to find the same spirit," he says of Croatia's special ingredient. "I am searching for this characteristic. All the players do play 100 per cent but they need to as a group, not individuals, and that is the most important characteristic of Croatia. We must try and get that spirit also. That will happen through my experience and the experience of the players also." Given his track record, he should not be doubted. "We need to play like a club. We are a very important football nation and we have to play to win. We have some impor-tant players, players who are leaders, and that is important for every team and every club. But they need to be leaders on the pitch, not in the newspapers."
Which is an intriguing comment for the Italian to make. Was he referring to the players who like their media profile – or the media who like to profile the players? Despite being urged to, he was not going to expand upon it. Instead he preferred to talk about the "leaders" he has managed in the past. "At AC Milan there was Baresi, Maldini, Rijkaard and Ancelotti. At Roma there was Aldair and Batistuta, and Emerson was very powerful. At Madrid, Hierro, Raul." Quite a roll call. But what about in the England dressing room, who is the leader there? "No," he says. "When I am not the England manager, then you will know."
Inevitably it raises the issue of captaincy. Initially Capello had four candidates in mind – Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry and Gareth Barry. Gerrard and Barry appear to have been discounted because they are too quiet, which leaves the two central defenders. David Beckham, were he playing in Europe rather than the US, would have been regarded by Capello as the strongest option.
He is slightly bemused by our obsession about who wears the armband. "In other countries, it's normal that the player with the most caps is the captain," Capello says. "But in England it's different, and that's nice. It's interesting. I always say the captain is not just there to swap the pennants before the start of the game. You have to be a leader on the pitch. Off the pitch everyone leads their lives, but all the players need to know the rules and it's important to behave. Everyone makes mistakes but it depends on the kind of mistakes you make. It's impossible to be perfect. Even for the Pope."
Such a comment, made with a laugh, shows how much he is enjoying his job – just as well, when the Football Association are paying him £6 million a year – but he claims to like the "pressure" and now understands "what it's like to be a national team manager". It's why he rejects the hand-wringing and excuses over the number of English players. "When I was a club manager we had 14 players only who were very good," he says. "And I won. It's very important that you have players of the right level. There are 35 per cent of players in the Premier League who are English but if enough of them are of a high level, it's enough."
He might not have been the England manager if a certain Luiz Felipe Scolari had accepted the FA's overtures prior to the last World Cup. But Capello feels it's a case of his gain and Big Phil's loss. "I'm happy," he says. "Thank you Scolari." They know each other well and Capello thinks the latter will succeed at Chelsea. "It's interesting to see a Brazilian manager in the English League. He will have his ideas and style." Just like Capello.