SI Vault
June 07, 2010
Once insular, stagnant and fearful of change, England now has its football fate—some would say its national birthright—in the hands of a suave Italian art collector who has the Three Lions looking like world-beaters
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June 07, 2010

Bangers And Bolognese

Once insular, stagnant and fearful of change, England now has its football fate—some would say its national birthright—in the hands of a suave Italian art collector who has the Three Lions looking like world-beaters

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England's ultimate sporting achievement remains its lone World Cup title, won at the old Wembley in 1966 on home soil, a triumph that catapulted the players (captain Bobby Moore, Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst) and their coach (Sir Alf Ramsey) into the national sports pantheon. That it came at the expense of West Germany just two decades after the Blitz only added to the legend. "Winning the World Cup was part of a very exciting time in England, particularly in London in the '60s," says Barber. "There were so many changes, and we were breaking out from the postwar restrictions and just having fun, really—people were into pop music and the Beatles. Winning the World Cup fit in with a really positive era."

Now 59, Barber has been at the FA long enough to remember bringing tea each day to Sir Alf, who always took the tube to work from his home in Ipswich. Pop a video of the 1966 final into the DVD player, though, and it's clearly a period piece. For starters, the game itself is utterly different—absent the crunching tackles and pressure defense that define so much of modern soccer. Even more noticeable: Every England player in '66 was white. They all came from a domestic league that had only a handful of players from outside Britain (which includes Scotland and Wales) and not a single foreign coach.

That's hardly the case these days. More than a century after England gave the world its most popular sport, the world is returning the favor. Decades of immigration, much of it from the Caribbean, have produced a generation of black players who are fixtures in English soccer. Over the past 15 years, moreover, the forces of globalization have turned the Premiership into the world's richest and most cosmopolitan sports league. Supported by $1.2 billion in annual television revenue, lucrative multinational sponsorships and gazillionaire owners from the U.S., Russia and Asia, the Premiership is unmatched when it comes to attracting the world's best players and coaches. In the 2009--10 season, less than half of the league's players and six of its 20 coaches were English.

The foreign influx has had a double-edged impact on England's national team. On the one hand there are fewer spots in the Premiership for developing homegrown players—good luck finding a reliable English goalkeeper, for example. On the other, the English players who've risen to the top have done so against elite competition, adding layers of sophistication and confidence from playing with and against top foreign players and managers. Two of England's starters, midfielder Steven Gerrard of Liverpool and left back Ashley Cole of Chelsea, have had British managers only for the briefest of spells at the senior club level. Likewise, national team stalwart Frank Lampard was a middling, stereotypically English box-to-box midfielder for West Ham United until he moved to Chelsea at 23 and became a world-class player under a succession of coaches from Italy, Portugal, Brazil and the Netherlands.

But while it was one thing for foreign coaches to take over Premier League teams, it was another entirely when Sven-Göran Eriksson, a Swede, was chosen in 2000 as the first foreign manager of England. Not only has no country led by a foreign coach won the World Cup, but most successful soccer nations—Brazil, Germany, Argentina—have never even hired an outsider. Yet England was desperate, its underachievement with a succession of homegrown managers revealing an insular mentality that was distrustful of innovation. Besides, the few serious English candidates were retreads who'd had the job before. Still, for many in England the hiring of a foreign coach sparked a crisis of self-image. "This football-crazy population of 58 million is no longer possessed, apparently, of one person who has the faintest idea how to manage our own national team," wrote Jeff Powell, a columnist for the Daily Mail, in one remarkable diatribe. "We sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer-throwers who spend half their year living in total darkness."

Eriksson spent six years on the job, leading England to the quarterfinals at two World Cups (2002 and '06) and at Euro 2004—decent results that made nobody draw comparisons with 1966. Eriksson's successor, his former assistant Steve McClaren, was English, but his 18-month tenure ended in disaster, his team failing even to qualify for Euro 2008. And so the FA chose to dip back into the foreign pool. This time it hired Capello.

And Powell responded, "So we move on from the hammer-throwing Swedish lotharios who live half their year in darkness to the spaghetti-twirling Latin lovers of football's black arts.... Our national game is surrendering its soul once again, this time to an Italian job lot."

No one has spent more time at the highest levels of Europe's three ruling soccer cultures—Italy, England and Spain—than Capello. His experience, as you might expect, has left him with several preferences. Jamón Ibérico is one; as a party trick, Capello can lift a slice of ham that came from an acorn-fed Spanish pig, take a whiff and tell you the brand. Perhaps just as surprising, Capello prefers English referees to those of Italy or Spain. "They whistle less," he says. "I like this."

Get Capello playing the compare-and-contrast game, and he can say a lot in a few words. Italy? "In Italy we study the strongest parts of the opponents. After, we go forward." Spain? "They like to play short passes. No long balls, no long-distance shots. You have to arrive at the box after many, many passes." And England? "In the last five years England changed a lot. Before, they always played long balls, their two forwards were very tall, and scoring a headed goal was very important. Now the forward is not only tall but is good technically. He has to try to play more. Because the foreign managers arrived here, the best foreign players play here. And the English players improve a lot because they understand where you can improve by training on other things."

Capello is still a club manager at heart, which is why he places so much importance on evaluating players during practice (and less than you'd expect on games, in particular friendlies). During his first camp as the England coach, in February 2008, Capello's goals were twofold. One, he restored respect for authority, instituting his own Ten Commandments, which included no flip-flops or cellphones at the training table. Two, Capello and his staff began to repair the team's confidence, which had been bruised by the Euro 2008 qualifying fiasco. Too many of the English players were like soldiers, they thought, waiting for orders on the field. At Capello's first practice he simply instructed them to take their favorite positions on the field. When they looked at him quizzically (What do we do now?), the response was simple. "Play! Please play!"

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