James Lawton: Capello at odds with Wembley's selective bile
Wednesday 09 September 2009
A most reasonable expectation is that England will tonight qualify for next summer's World Cup finals without a single blemish.
Indeed, if the team do what is confidently expected of them and beat Croatia to maintain their 100 per cent record in competitive games under Fabio Capello there will be good reason to believe that they have responded extremely well to the proposition from their manager that it was time to grow up.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to say the same of a substantial section of the new England's supporters at the new Wembley, those who are certain to spell out the maturity of their patriotism by jeering incessantly at the "foreign cheat" Eduardo da Silva.
It could even be that in their enthusiasm for this project they might even forget to boo some of their own players: Ashley Cole, who is currently in magnificent form, and Joleon Lescott, should he figure in the action after his mistake in last Saturday's friendly against Slovenia.
There is a good chance at some stage he will because Capello yesterday threw some more light on one of the more significant nuances of his managerial style. He explained that his anger does not centre on individual mistakes, which are part of life, but a failure to transfer the hard work and purpose of the training field into game action.
This, though, is unlikely to translate into much of a hint of tolerance on the terraces if the job of booing Eduardo proves to be not all- consuming.
Lescott's decision to respond to the vastly greater earnings offered by Manchester City apparently puts him beyond the pale as far as many Wembley customers are concerned, though, ironically, David Beckham's agreement to a £28m contract in North American minor league football appears to have done nothing to curb the rapture when he takes a proprietorial trot along the touchline.
Capello confessed to being bemused by the selective distaste of the England fans, a feeling which may widen among the more fair-minded occupants of Wembley tonight if the baiting of Eduardo reaches expected levels.
The Brazilian-born Croat was always going to face something of a backlash from opposition fans after his outrageous dive against Celtic, but the arrival so quickly of such a match as tonight's is bound to have stoked up some of the worst fires of prejudice.
Against such a reaction it can only be said that in tonight's team England are certain to have at least two players for whom the art of simulation has scarcely been totally neglected.
Both Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard have been known to go down in questionable circumstances, the latter surely winning the prize when he gained a penalty for England against Hungary in a friendly three years ago.
The point, of course, is that simulation has been for so long a fact of football life and if Eduardo's offence is only the second to have brought TV review, and is most vivid in the memory, it hardly makes him a figure worthy of unique scorn at Wembley tonight. Except that he is a foreigner – and he is at Wembley, not some other place where perspective does not inevitably shrivel to nothing before it can take a gulp of air.
Not, of course, that Wembley has an exceptional prejudice against the opposition. Zagreb is not exactly a bastion of dispassion, of course, and it is in a part of the world where over the years there have some shocking examples of terrace racism. However, the bile tends to be reserved exclusively for the opposition. Wembley, unfortunately, has developed the nasty habit of seeking out villains wherever they can be found and, it seems, with the threat of permanent unpleasantness.
The prospect of such acrid atmospherics should not, though, detach us too far from the force of Capello's work, which tonight is likely to reach its first significant milestone. He remains stupendously steadfast under any weight of advice or pessimism, something which in the past has driven many of his predecessors to the point of dementia.
We can be sure most of them would already have submitted to the cry for Jermain Defoe's selection on the back of his impressive flurry of goals. But Capello's most basic instinct is to build around a method which he has developed and is convinced is best suited to the overall strength of his team.
There are many points of interesting contrast as Capello robustly insists that it is his job to dictate both the shape and the composition of his team. Two of them concern the preparations of Sven Goran Eriksson shortly before and during the last two major tournaments for which England qualified. In the 2004 European Championship, before the second group game against Switzerland, he was still debating with his players the value of the diamond system, which prevailed and led directly to the self-exile of England's most constructive midfielder, Paul Scholes.
A few weeks before the start of the last World Cup, the identity of an experimental holding midfielder is still breathtaking. It was Jamie Carragher, a master of his trade in set defence, who also gave up on the meanderings of England.
Against such chance and speculation, there are the certainties of Capello. With the World Cup final still the best part of a year away, his priorities have been carefully sifted. He has committed himself to Glen Johnson, accepted his defensive imperfections and gloried in his presence and his potential to grow. He has renovated and kept faith with the impressive qualities of Emile Heskey. In the case of Heskey, Capello knows he has different but viable options in Defoe, Peter Crouch and Carlton Cole. But then he has also seen that if England do have a significant chance of making any kind of challenge for the great prize it is because they have in Rooney a player who can potentially perform in any company and for any stakes – and that the possibility is best preserved not by the scoring fecundity of Defoe but the supporting force of Heskey.
None of this, he suggests, is written in stone. But – and here surely is his greatest strength – nor is it blowing in the wind.
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