The fact Fabio Capello saw it coming and had warned them made it harder to take. “The most incredible thing that’s happened to me,” he calls it, which is saying something for a man who spent 56 years in the game, won the European Cup, four league titles as a player, nine as a manager, and has been to the World Cup with three countries.
One of those was England in 2010. It was not particularly memorable but the Italian can’t help it, not when Frank Lampard’s “ghost goal” haunts him even now 10 years on.
“Everyone saw it,” Capello says. “Besides, because of the effect on the ball, when it hits the bar, the floor – the pitch was dry – and goes up like that, it can only have gone in: it’s physics.” But the goal wasn’t given and rather than drawing level with Germany in the last 16, England still trailed and were soon out. Capello says the decision was “historic” but it also hurt because he could see it happening.
“There had been a conference in Salt Lake City in February: an hour about the ball, 45 minutes about referees. The preparation was perfect, they said. This, that, the other. And I said to the referees’ chief: ‘Why not put someone behind the goal, a fifth official?’ ‘No, we’ve decided this way’…”
There is a grin, irony etched on that familiar face. Capello sees himself before the same men four months later. He slaps his hand, hard. “Look! I said this would happen,” he begins. “We worked for two years and because of someone else’s mistake we’re going home. Because you didn’t put someone there. What’s he sitting in the stands for? Put him behind the goal. It was there! I told them that in February.”
True but it does not change the fact that in 2010 England were – how can we put this? – not very good. Whatever mistakes the referees made, were not more made by the team and their manager? The catalogue is a long one. Time, then, to go through it, page by painful page. Capello sits on the sofa at Sam Mamés in Bilbao, where he’s about to address the Bilbao International Football Summit, and, edging towards a low table, begins.
“Rooney had problems, he wasn’t right,” he says, a little enigmatically. “Beckham got injured, Ferdinand got injured: important players, with charisma, leadership, players you need. We got there and played without conviction.”
The question is simple: why? The answer is complex, a portrait of multiple system failure.
Starting with the simple, let’s address the most basic question: why did England go 10 years without finding a good fit for Lampard and Steven Gerrard? “Because they played in the same place,” Capello says. Why not remove one, then? “Because the other players aren’t better,” he replies, laughing, swiftly dismissing the suggestion he employed Gerrard on the left. “No, only when defending: when we had the ball, he was free.”
“When we played, I didn’t see the same comfort,” Capello continues. “We played a pre-tournament friendly and I could already see something was missing. Afterwards people said things like we were based too far away [from everything], the players were holed up and didn’t like it, it was too long, too hard. That’s nonsense, stupid. The preparation was perfect.”
“Look,” he says, which is something he says a lot, “in my life, I played one World Cup: the greatest thing. I used to wait in anticipation for the squad announcement. I didn’t go to Argentina 78 having played throughout qualification. Now, that hurt. Being at a World Cup is a sacrifice? Twenty days is a sacrifice? What about the people there working for the team, up at five every morning? That’s sacrifice. It’s not a sacrifice to play.
“People said: ‘They’re not used to it.’ Not used to it! You’re there to work. You have the whole of England behind you. And four years later they were in the centre of Rio and were sent home early too … so …”
“The England shirt weighs heavy,” Capello says. “So much time has passed without winning. ’66 is a problem because whenever a World Cup or Euros starts, they think they can do it again. Always, always, always. It’s important to play without that weight, with more freedom. A lot is psychology but, honestly, I think the problem England have is they arrive at tournaments tired.
“In September, October, November, we had no problem playing the world’s best teams. In March, April, so-so. In June, problems. That’s why I think it is physical. You play a lot of [club] games and your culture is: fight, fight, fight, never stop, even if you’re four down. I liked that.”
And yet, Capello thinks, it costs. Not that it was the only factor and he believes it is different for Gareth Southgate. “My team was a bit old. We didn’t have young players and in the past there was tiredness. Now they have good young players. Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are important. There’s quality, speed, everything. If I have a doubt now, it’s the centre-backs but England have lads who are younger, fresher.”
“You also need confidence and England have that now,” he continues, pausing to add with a wry smile: “Now they have a goalkeeper …”
You didn’t? “No, I didn’t. I’ve always had bad luck with goalkeepers internationally. The goalkeeper is very, very important, as much as a striker. Anyone who wants to win a title has to have a goalkeeper.”
In South Africa, Capello had Rob Green, who let a harmless Clint Dempsey long shot slip under his body against USA. Green later talked about a culture of fear, a lack of communication. At its most basic level, that is a recurring theme of Capello’s era, it is also an accusation he dismisses, if not always entirely convincingly.
“People said the players didn’t understand my English but it’s football: 20 words [are enough],” he says. He says so in Spanish, incidentally. Communication was no problem, then? “No, absolutely not. It was in Russia and China, but not England.”
Few words were spent on dropping Green, certainly: Capello told him he was out and the conversation ended there. “You can’t say anything. Everyone makes mistakes. He made one, so I changed. I put in Calamity James.”
Yes, that is how he refers to David James – without missing a beat.
“I had Green and I had [Joe] Hart, just a kid. I asked the players. Hart or Calamity? ‘Calamity.’ I put Calamity in because of the players’ trust. John Terry and the defenders had more faith in James. Hart had played only once.”
Green also claimed Capello had fat-shamed the squad, telling three-quarters of them they were overweight. Also true, Capello concedes, spreading his hands. “They came like this. You explain, tell them what to do. They’re professionals. The problem is, they arrive at the end of the season. ‘We’re used to eating this, used to doing this, not used to that.’ It’s hard to change – especially if you don’t have leaders [among players] to guide them.”
In part, though, that was precisely what Capello had come for, chosen as a corrective to perceived lax discipline under Sven-Göran Eriksson, a break from Baden-Baden. “It’s not discipline,” Capello insists. “It’s respect for the shirt: you represent a country. You’re not there for fun; you’re there to work, for the game, for English spirit. At a club you might need [a warmer, closer relationship] but not a national team. There’s the maximum respect. We’re focused to the target and that’s it.”
That last line is the only one delivered in English. “All that stuff is nonsense, always has been,” Capello concludes.
“Look, one thing I do think,” he says, after a short pause. “In the first game against USA, it’s a gift from Green. In the second game [England 0 Algeria 0], we played so-so. The third game, Slovenia [a 1-0 win] … I almost don’t remember it … and then there’s the last one against Germany and …”
And? “There is something very important, something that whenever I think about it still lingers here,” he says, pointing to his head.
“Germany was a young team, very young. Listen: a young team that goes from 2-0 to 2-2 has a psychological problem. For us, that’s a tremendous boost. But that wasn’t to be [because Lampard’s goal wasn’t given] and I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s still there, still there. I would have liked to see the second half then. We hit the bar, had chances, and on the break they score the third, then a fourth. I could see it: we were growing, getting better, and then …”
And then Capello stops and slaps his hands together and it’s all over.