Fabio Capello was denied his first-choice World Cup finals base next summer after a coup by the Argentina Football Association that went as far as dispatching their ambassador in South Africa to ensure that Diego Maradona's team secured one of the country's most sought-after training facilities.
The Independent has learnt that Capello made a personal plea to the University of Pretoria for them to grant England use of their facilities for next summer as late as October. The English Football Association have since had to settle for the Royal Bafokeng sports campus outside Rustenburg but there are serious concerns about the quality of the training pitches which have only recently been laid.
The FA's first choice was the University of Pretoria's high performance centre but Capello was beaten to it by Argentina's ambassador to Pretoria, Carlos Sersale, who secured an agreement with the centre's chief executive Toby Sutcliffe in April. However, Sutcliffe revealed yesterday that the English FA were still pressing their interest in the facility as recently as mid-October when it remained a possibility Argentina may not qualify.
Sutcliffe said: "The Argentina ambassador came to see us around Easter time to look at the centre being used as the base camp for Argentina. He gave me the prerequisite of what he wanted and I said that would be fine as long as they came up with the payment. Dr Carlos Bilardo [Maradona's right-hand man] was the guy I spoke to. They told me that they wanted first right of refusal. On Father's Day [21 June] I got a phone call from a young lady at the English FA to say that Fabio Capello and Franco Baldini [his general manager] were in the country and they came to have a look round. Mr Capello was a fantastic gentleman but I made it very, very clear that Argentina had first right of refusal.
"A week before the Argentina game to qualify for the World Cup finals [against Uruguay on 14 October] we received an email from the English FA saying that if Argentina did not make it to South Africa they would really love to come to stay at our place. We would love to have had England but it was one of those things. The ground work had already been done and we had a letter of intent from Argentina."
The English FA are delaying signing a contract with the Royal Bafokeng sports campus because of their concerns over the quality of the pitches, and the lateness with which they were holding out for the University of Pretoria demonstrates the depth of their concerns.
Sutcliffe said that he had warned the FA back in 2007 that they should book the high performance centre for their World Cup base. "The guy who was then the Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn, and the head of the FA visited us and I said 'Listen guys, don't snooze, this is where you should be for the World Cup'. That was the last I heard from them."
Having inspected the centre, Capello had decided that ideally his England players would base themselves there during the day but stay at the five-star Sheraton Hotel in Pretoria during the night. The Argentina FA have decided that the sleeping facilities at the centre, described as four-star at best, are good enough for their players and only the rest of the delegation will stay at the Sheraton.
The Fifa system dictates that competing nations pick their first three choices of base camp but no two nations are permitted to select the same one.
Despite the fact that Argentina qualified more than a month after England, they benefited from being one of the first teams to visit the country and they made sure their ambassador kept the option open while Maradona's team struggled to qualify.
Sersale, the Argentine ambassador to Pretoria, said that the agreement was an example of "southern [hemisphere] cooperation". He confirmed that he had worked on behalf of the Argentine Football Association to make sure that the university was reminded of its earlier promises when it came under pressure from the English FA to entertain the possibility of hosting the English team.
Q&A: All you need to know about HQs for 2010
Is Pretoria better than Rustenburg?
They are similiar camps, but Pretoria has better quality training pitches at the moment. The Bafokeng sports campus in Rustenburg is a new, purpose built complex, and England will be the first team to use the facility when it is finished. The centre offers ten pitches, a medical centre and a dental surgery. In contrast the High Performance Centre at the University of Pretoria was launched in 2002 as South Africa's first elite sports centre, and contains nine pitches. Fabio Capello has spoken of the need for his players to train at high altitude, and the Pretoria centre is situated 1,500m above sea level while Rustenburg is 1,370m. Both Australia and The Netherlands have opted for altitude near Johannesburg. The Dutch will be using the Bidvest Wits Stadium and the Aussies the Kloofzicht Lodge.
Will the grass be greener by the time Capello arrives?
The Rustenburg complex uses a blend of kikuya and rye seeds to maintain the quality of the pitches, which are meant to help the turf survive in all conditions. This method is exclusive to Africa and creates a well-rooted playing surface. Capello has been assured by the campus that the pitches will be exactly like those he can except in the World Cup venues. Capello will be at the base in February to check the quality of the ground. All the bases at the World Cup have to be Fifa approved, and if the Italian is still not happy, he can demand another Fifa assessment.
Is it a fair process?
It is the same for all 32 nations. They submit three preferred bases to Fifa as soon as they qualified. The team base camps are then allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. However, teams such as New Zealand who have qualified late for the competition have found it hard to find suitable camps that are not already used. The contract between the base camp and the country must signed by 31 January. England are currently asking for an extension.
James OrrReuse content