Chris McGrath: England need Capello more than ever – and Italy could use a dose of his brute realism too

Cesare Prandelli has guaranteed more offensive potential in every sense by calling up Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to his first Italy squad

There is a story, much cherished on the Turf, about the day Lester Piggott was beaten on a horse trained by Snowy Wainwright. "That's it, Piggott," raged Wainwright, as the champion dismounted. "You will never ride for me again." Lester was in his pomp, sought by every top yard in the land. Wainwright stabled half a dozen nags in a Yorkshire back-water. "Well, that's me screwed, then," Lester muttered. "I'd better hang up my boots."

Fabio Capello must have been tempted to respond in similar vein when those giants of modern football, Paul Robinson and Wes Brown, renounced service in the national cause.

It would not sound so very different, either. Capello can make Piggott, with his glottal mumblings, sound like some mellifluous Greek orator. Demosthenes, admittedly, trained himself to speak with pebbles in his mouth, but Capello, the Italian, still sounds as though he is swallowing a phrasebook. Until this summer, indeed, that seemed the one incongruity. How can such a man – one so cultured, so urbane, one who exalts himself from the bovine ruminations of those under his supervision, one who collects the works of Chagall, Kandinsky and Piero Pizzi Cannella – be such an execrable linguist?

Since the World Cup, however, pundits now doubt his fluency in the common idioms of football, as well. These will now be glorying in what appears a calculated affront from Robinson and Brown, who waited until Capello summoned them back to the fold before planting their feet and lowing.

To anyone not divorced from rational judgement by his wage packet, it should be easy to recognise a rather greater indignity than being ranked only the third or fourth best Englishman in your position. And that is to allow preening self-regard to poison the honour of representing your country. To others, however, this putative snub completes the sense that Capello is now a lame duck.

It must be granted that Capello's World Cup dismayed even those who never shared the delusion, espoused by those who should have known better, that his team had the remotest chance of winning the tournament.

In qualifying, albeit via a group that counted Andorra as the only other nation in existence 20 years previously, he had looked a man of iron. If anyone, for instance, would have the balls to drop Wayne Rooney – who had never retrieved his form, after being hastened back from injury by his club manager – it was surely Capello. But let's not deceive ourselves. We all admired his austerity, his contempt for the insecure reverence of his predecessor Steve McClaren for JT, Stevie G, and Becks. In South Africa, Capello became depicted as some kind of ludicrous martinet, stifling the enterprise in his midst. In reality, his failures were only ever a matter of degree.

It would require an especially puerile disenchantment suddenly to deny that Capello is one of the best coaches in the world. Remember Jose Mourinho's first Champions' League campaign at Internazionale? It was wholly devoid of any suggestion that he might imminently satisfy the club's great, unrequited craving. But one step back is often a necessary prelude to two steps forward.

And vice-versa. A vital revolution in Italian football, for instance, was grievously retarded when the Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup. One of the grandest of all football traditions remained mired in the bad old days: violence and racism off the pitch, stagnation and corruption on it. The singular circumstances of that success proved the final throes of an extinction. In South Africa, Italy finished below even New Zealand at the bottom of their group.

You can rest assured that Capello would have remained a very acceptable replacement for Marcello Lippi, after that. As it is, Cesare Prandelli brings his first squad to Upton Park tonight for a friendly against the Ivory Coast. Like his compatriot, who begins his World Cup exculpation against Hungary at Wembley tomorrow, Prandelli has made some necessary gestures to a livid public.

He has retained only nine of Lippi's final squad, and only one of the 2006 veterans. In particular, he has guaranteed more offensive potential, in every sense, by calling up Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. Both were too combustible for Lippi's taste, but Prandelli finds himself in a situation where fire can pardonably be fought with fire.

In Capello's case, his critics prefer to view the enlistment of young players like Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Adam Johnson merely as a sop. But their venom simply reflects the misplaced sense of entitlement they had themselves nourished so credulously. Now that the veneer has finally been peeled from the golden generation, Capello can attempt some more pragmatic alchemy.

Funnily enough, in his time he has got the best out of Cassano himself. Great careers have blossomed under Capello through precisely the adventure and flexibility he is suddenly supposed to lack. At Real Madrid he blooded Raul at 18; he also vexed fans and pundits by switching him to left midfield, where he promptly scored 21 goals.

The best that can be achieved by Prandelli with Cassano and Balotelli, or by Capello with Wilshere or Johnson or a defender as comfortable on the ball as Phil Jagielka, is a sense that nobody – not fans, not media, never mind players or coaches – is entitled to complacency even in the most venerable of footballing cultures.

As one pebble-sucking Greek once put it: "The easiest thing of all is to deceive yourself. For what a man wishes, he generally believes to be true."

James Lawton is away

Why all the scouts will be watching Udinese this year

The best managers don't even send scouts to the World Cup. They know that all that glisters is not gold, and that players who catch every mug's eye go home with hopelessly inflated values.

Some smart business was duly completed before the tournament: Barcelona securing David Villa, or Manchester United discreetly signing Javier Hernandez. It still seems surprising, however, that nobody was sufficiently seduced by Alexis Sanchez to bankroll his inevitable arrival among the elite.

The Chilean winger looked every bit as special as Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age, light years ahead of every defender quaking in his path. Sanchez has four years left on his contract with Udinese, and the club president vows not only that he will stay, but that this "will be the year of his consecration".

Kwadwo Asamoah, also 21, has meanwhile pledged at least one more campaign after impressing with Ghana, so Udinese will be compulsory viewing this season. But much bigger clubs will some day reproach themselves for not forcing their hand sooner.

You can almost taste the sea salt in League One

Now if those in League One could just tread water for a season, and wait for the good ship Pompey to sink a few more fathoms, football on the South Coast will never have been such fun.

As it is, Plymouth began the campaign by beating Southampton away in front of nearly 22,000 people. Gus Poyet is assembling a team worthy of a new stadium at Brighton next year, while Bournemouth last season defied the steepest odds – including a transfer embargo that reduced them to filling the bench with the assistant coach and a schoolboy – to win promotion under one of the most promising young managers in the business, in Eddie Howe.

Though there remains the lamentable possibility of Portsmouth passing one of these teams on the stairs, there is an unmistakable new saltiness to our maritime football.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003