James Lawton: England and Capello must learn from Russia's international man of mastery

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The Independent Football

You might say pretty much all of a brilliant Euro 2008 has been a rebuke to the celebrity footballers of England and the feebleness of their leadership in the years of Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren. Surely, though, there was one night when the angst felt especially like iron filings driven by a gale.

It was Wednesday in Innsbruck when Guus Hiddink, who didn't rate an interview by the Football Association when the Eriksson regime fell apart finally under the crushing weight of its own ineptitude, proved yet again that for him making a football team, giving it a vision of how best to exploit its strengths and minimise its weaknesses, is not up there with astral navigation and the declining of Latin verbs.

No, it is a relatively straightforward business. All you need is a bit of conviction, a few players of marked ability and others who fully understand that they have valuable and quite specific assignments, just a little lead time, say two years, and, there, wonder of wonders, is recognisably a team.

Not, necessarily, one to whip the world, of course. But maybe a team that has enough coherence to suggest that formal introductions are not required before kick off. One, also, that does not arrive at a major tournament with the exaggerated swagger of someone who has just managed to scale Everest and K2 in a pair of track shoes.

Hiddink has long been known as a superbly practical football man, indeed one whose ability to get the most demanding of jobs done with the minimum of fuss and self-aggrandisement has established him as a cult figure in his native Netherlands, South Korea, Australia and, now, Russia, but surely if there is anywhere on the surface of world football where his mystique is most entitled to flourish it is in an England that has been watching the European Championship with a mixture of pure pleasure and unmitigated relief. Relief, that is, from the usual pattern of hype and disappointment and gut-wrenching attempts at self-justification that went away, at least for a few months, with England's failed qualifying campaign.

For a little while England's non-appearance in the finals was painted as a terrible national deprivation.

But of what have we been deprived? Only, if we recall the desperate struggles of our best players against Macedonia, Croatia, Russia and even, for a half, Andorra, of the formality of defeat, the tears of a David Beckham and the assertion of Michael Owen that not one of the Croatian players who brought down England at Wembley and outplayed Germany on their way to winning their group the other night, had the ability to claim a place in the team that folded so abjectly under McClaren.

Instead of witnessing such self-indulgence, the English fan has sat back, without a hint of fear or loathing, and enjoyed football of heart and some beauty and what appears distinctly to be the willingness of superstars like Michael Ballack and Ruud van Nistelrooy to perform at their limits for a few weeks on behalf of their nation's agenda rather than their own.

There was even an instant remedy for anyone suffering withdrawal pangs and it came at no more than the cover price of the magazine which apparently chipped in a substantial slice of the £5m cost of Wayne Rooney's Italian wedding.

When Hiddink found himself in charge of a riven and mutinous Dutch team in Euro 96 he sent home one of European's most significant and abrasive players, Edgar Davids. The Netherlands didn't prosper on that occasion, but it was the marker of a manager who, unlike Eriksson for particular example, believed that a team was not a collection of celebrity figures to be stroked but a unit subject to a common discipline, and if it happened that there was not much you could do to make a triumph you could still register a point that might hold for the future.

Such a consistent forceful attitude has shaped an extraordinarily varied body of work which includes a clutch of league titles, the European Cup, with PSV Eindhoven, and the deeply impressive World Cup campaigns of the Netherlands (1998), South Korea (2002), Australia (2006) and the current surge of Russia.

Most persuasively, it says that even at this late hour there are football men around who are still equipped to impose some of international football's best values. These certainly were represented by Russia's thrilling victory over Sweden this week. It was a performance that was not only uplifted by the speed and wonderful touch of Andrei Arshavin but also the collective force of players willing to run and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team.

All this would seem irredeemably bleak for the future of the England team if the FA, having opted not for a man of Hiddink's quality but Eriksson's chief lieutenant McClaren, had not atoned with the signing of Fabio Capello at a cost of £6m a year.

This, you may say on the evidence of the early going, is not guaranteed to return England to the family of serious football nations, but if we praise Hiddink for his work among some of the smaller, but more willing football countries, we must give Il Capo a little time to wrestle down some of the foibles of one of the biggest and, arguably, the most under-achieving.

In South Korea and Australia and Russia Guus Hiddink found players ready to be set aflame by the call of ambition and the chance to perform on football's greatest stages.

Capello, to his not entirely private astonishment, encountered those who required a brief seminar in the very basics of operating as a team of professionalism and even good manners.

He cannot be expected to work an instant transformation, no more than Hiddink when he took up a Russian team which, even when it was denying England a place in the most engaging football tournament in many living memories, revealed some shocking weakness. But then, with the help of a little patience from those who have long despaired of ever again seeing a vibrant England, Capello can surely win back a little of the self-respect and pride which has been scarcely less than rampant in Austria and Switzerland these last few weeks.

A serial winner, Capello once stunned football with the brilliance of his Milan team's victory over Johan Cruyff's Barcelona in the 1994 European Cup. Perhaps he will produce a similar feat for England one day. On the way he could do worse than run some film of the night Russia showed what can be done when you truly listen to a coach who just happens to know what he is saying.

There was one world-class performance in the first quarter-final, but it wasn't from Ronaldo

In all the character studies provided by Euro 2008, along with football that has engaged both the heart and the mind, surely no two have contrasted more sharply than those of Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Ballack.

This was supposed to be a perfect stage for the claims that have been made for Ronaldo – and by him.

We were supposed to see a master player coming of age but really, if you put aside some of that sorcery which will always be among his array of gifts, to what did he really amount?

Not a player who could begin to affect the course of events in the way of a Maradona or a Pele, a Cruyff or a Charlton.

More than anything, he has been a young and rather graceless man of the moment not the ages, and if he gets his move to Real Madrid, his Championship will be remembered not for enduring performance on the field but relentless self-advancement off it.

Ballack (left), a man not ever likely to underestimate his value to any employer, has nevertheless created the potential for a superior legacy.

He has shown that he understands better than almost all his contemporaries that there are times when great players are required to answer some more biting questions. The greatest of these concerns your ability to inspire team-mates and lift them on to another level. With increasing authority, Ballack is doing this for Germany as he did for Chelsea in a season which was almost rescued from disarray.

The German captain continues to look like a man of destiny. Ronaldo (left)? What else but a talented, acquisitive boy?

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