Winning is all that I exist for, says Capello as kick-off looms
Milner is fit again and Barry will be on bench but manager leaves key choices to last minute
It is not by chance that Fabio Capello wears a retro Umbro tracksuit top designed to look exactly like the one worn by Alf Ramsey 44 years hence when, in a different age on a different continent, he won the only World Cup that England have ever won.
As with all England managers, Capello will be judged by Ramsey's standards and that distant golden summer of 1966 and, as with all his predecessors who have reached a World Cup, he starts with such expectation tonight. Capello said that his team is ready to face the United States – he is even keeping up the fiction that he knows his starting XI – and also that the dream of an expectant English nation is also his dream too.
It has never been easy to break down the outer defences of Capello's personality and get through to what really makes the man tick and last night, as a mist descended on the England training session at the Rustenburg stadium, it was no different. It is partly his refusal to get dragged into the emotions of a game that he has come to regard so clearly and partly because he has been so slack in learning English.
It is traditional that on the eve of England's first game at a major tournament the manager speaks in more general terms about the expectation of leading the team into a World Cup, about the pressure – and dare we say it – the honour of the job. We just about got there last night with Capello although it was only a peek at the psyche of the man whom even the Prime Minister David Cameron described yesterday as "the most important man in England".
Capello said: "For me it's fantastic. It's exciting. It's a tough job. I understand perfectly that it's a tough job – not only for me but for all managers, because you can feel that, behind you, you have a whole country. When you arrive here it's completely different. You have to live one month with policemen, press conferences every day, TV, everything at every moment.
"You switch on the television and it's all about the World Cup. Really strong pressure from the media and everything. It's really important to understand that you exist [separate from it], but we have to stay out. We have to live with this pressure. It's not easy. But I try. We try."
As ever with Capello it is about the irritations and the minor annoyances of the intrusions on his well-ordered world. This morning, as is his custom, he will take a walk with his general manager Franco Baldini in the grounds of the Royal Bafokeng sports campus and the two men will discuss the team selection for tonight. Baldini will offer opinions and suggestions but that will not necessarily entitle him to knowing the team before the players and the rest of the squad.
As is becoming his custom, Capello is leaving a lot to the last minute. He was adamant that James Milner is fit to start, which probably rules out the Plan B which was Michael Carrick alongside Frank Lampard in the centre and Steven Gerrard pushed out to the left. Nevertheless, there will be a surprise in there when he opens up the flipchart with his players' names on it this afternoon.
It might be Gareth Barry who came through a final competitive training session in the stadium last night looking back to his best as a player. Capello said he would only be on the bench but this is a manager who reserves the right to say whatever the hell he likes and then change his mind. It might be Joe Hart in goal, the rookie keeper he is agonising over picking.
It is part of the way that he asserts control over his group, just like the outburst at the photographer on Wednesday which was a clever way of reminding everyone – outsiders like the press included – just who is boss. He is a man who has lived his life in the bootcamp atmosphere of Italian and Spanish football, where players spend much more time together in hotels before games than their English counterparts ever do.
This is Capello's world and he is comfortable in it. He is less sure-footed finding the words to describe what it would mean to England if they could, at the eighth time of asking since 1966, actually win the trophy and lay to rest all sorts of national inferiority complexes about the state of the English game.
"Yes, it's a dream [to compete in a World Cup]," he said. "But it was a dream to be England manager. I hope the next dream [to win it] comes off, too. Why not? I'm focused always to win. Always, to look ahead.
"In my career as a manager, I've built teams, worked with teams, worked with players, and always I've been focused to win. That's all that matters to me: to win and get to the final. In my mind, we play to win. That's all. I exist [for], to win."
A Capello training session is impossible to read: for the players, for his staff, for all but the man who stands, weight on one leg, watching the whole thing unfold. Teams are mixed up so it is impossible to be sure that one team is the first XI and the other side the shadow team. Last night David James, who is not in contention at all to play tonight, kept goal for one team for the entire practice game while at the other end Robert Green and Hart switched after each save.
Asked what he thought he could affect personally, Capello answered as usual that it was "the confidence of the players". He added: "Also, to be focused at every moment. The players will be really focused, that's really important here. With the altitude, the balls are terrible – terrible. It's impossible to control [it] when you play long balls. But I hope that I can help the players to be perfect in every moment. Also, the performance like a team will be really good."
The dig at the Adidas Jabulani ball was uncharacteristic of Capello, as a rule he tends not to be a moaner about the details of games – especially the details that are the same for every team. He is unsentimental too. As a player his World Cup history was a disappointment. In 1974, his Italy team went to West Germany as one of the favourites and did not make it out of the group stages; in 1978 he was left out of the squad and only learned of his omission when it was reported on television.
"I was a player at the World Cup," he said. "I remember everything that happened. I studied everything. We prepared every moment when we stayed in Austria and here, to make not the same mistakes than when we [Italy] stayed in Germany. This tournament is different. To be a manager with England is not like a club manager. If you lose two games at a club, you can recover your level. Here, it's in or out." Capello has trained his team hard since they came under his care almost four weeks ago and even last night parts of the squad were running sprints in the night air. If they look leggy or flat tonight; if they are badly organised or tactically vulnerable then it will be Capello who is to blame. That is the nature of the job. Those are the standards. Capello may remain something of a stranger to us but tonight will begin to reveal the measure of the man.
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