Manager talks of 'hardest test' as football heavyweights gather

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The Independent Football

Around the swimming pool at the Hotel Cullinan in Cape Town yesterday was a who's who of some of the most famous coaches in the world. Marcello Lippi swept in followed by Italian television crews; Dunga signed autographs by the door and Joachim Loew sat drinking coffee with his identically attired colleague from the German Football Association.

On the far side of the pool was Fabio Capello, who permitted himself to remove his Football Association blazer and roll up his shirtsleeves in the November sunshine. But that was as informal as it got for the Italian. These few days in South Africa are purely business and come tonight, he will know much more about the scale of England's World Cup task.

The World Cup final draw by the waterfront in Cape Town is the signal that the biggest tournament in the world is drawing close, and with it all the hopes, expectations and fears of the English football nation. Even Capello, a man not given to waxing lyrical, found himself caught up in the mood of anticipation and excitement about the summer ahead.

"Yes, it's starting and for me it is the first time I have breathed the atmosphere of the World Cup as a manager," he said. "The mood at the airport, the people, Fifa World Cup flags everywhere, Bafana Bafana. It's exciting. As a player it was different. As a manager you have to think of more things. You have to decide more things, you have to check more things. Over the next five, six months you have to decide everything, to choose the best solution."

There are already solutions that need to be found with the Royal Bafokeng sports campus near Rustenburg where England plan to stay over the tournament and Capello was quite clear yesterday that he is not impressed with the standard of the pitches. Of course he is meticulous about the technical details but the quibbling over the grass is also a way of Capello putting down a marker to the FA and his players: he is in control and things have to be done his way.

Today he will learn whether England face a group of death – including potentially France, Ivory Coast and the United States – or a group of sleep, say Honduras, Uruguay and Denmark. Either way, Capello recognises that he has the chance to elevate himself in the pantheon of coaches to a level few ever attain. "It will be a great test," he said, "the hardest test of me as a manager.

"I want to get to the final and I have great confidence in my team. We play against the best teams in the world. I know the value of the opponents and I know the value of my team. Yes, it's my first World Cup but I hope it's not the last."

He and Lippi, who already has that World Cup winners' medal, had a beer together earlier in the day. Lippi said: "We agreed that we deserved to be here and that the only shame was that the third great Italian coach, Giovanni [Trapattoni], is not in South Africa. Both of us would like to meet again, just before the final on 11 July."

A recurring theme with Capello is the players he is likely to have at his disposal come next summer and once again he was fretting over fitness. "We have a really good group of players, if we have the best available. This is the problem, always the same problem. If you play against Brazil and miss five players... at the World Cup the levels are really high and the big players make the difference."

The prospect of African sides at the first African World Cup finals also stirred Capello's imagination. He believes that one African side will make it to the semi-finals and he watched the Ivory Coast in person against Germany in Gelsenkirchen last month. He will ask the FA to invite an African nation for the Wembley friendly in March.

Capello said: "I think this will be one of the most important World Cups for African teams and I believe one will get to the last four. I wanted to watch one of the African teams – it was really important to know the style and characteristics. Ivory Coast impressed me very much. They played well. [Didier] Drogba was injured and didn't play – but it was a really good team, one of the best teams in Africa.

"It will be really important at the end of the season to see which player will arrive fresh or fit. A player like Drogba is important. A player who plays a lot of games will not be fresh and some players make the difference. It [African football] is really fast. The spirit of this team is to go forward, sometimes you have some problems when you have to defend, but all the players are really good technically."

Almost two years since he accepted the job of rescuing a beleaguered national team, Capello is already thinking like an Englishman: he actually believes England have a chance of winning the thing. The first signs from South Africa suggest they could not have a more spectacular stage on which to try.

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