Fabio Capello: The Ruler

Words by Callum Rice-Coates Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 9, 2018

Fabio Capello did not allow much of a glimpse beneath his hardened exterior. He was, throughout his time as a coach, stoic and almost indecipherable. And that did not always lend itself to popularity.

He prioritised success and efficacy above all else: it did not matter if he upset a player, or if some fans did not take to his style of play. His managerial record – perhaps partly because of his willingness to approach the game ruthlessly and without scruples – was consistently excellent.

Capello, though, often emerged as the bad guy. “You want to know about Fabio Capello’s human side,” said one Italian journalist, who had followed him closely for years. “Well, that’s easy. He doesn’t have one. To have a human side, you need to be human.”

The reality was far more complex. Capello was not, as some suggested, the total embodiment of evil. He was capable of terrifying his own players, certainly, but there was a more sophisticated, contemplative side to him. On his days off he read philosophy and perused art galleries. He travelled the world and studied history and culture. But he was equally capable of dishing out a bollocking. He did not shy away, as Gabriele Marcotti wrote in his biography of Capello, from “putting a razor blade up against players’ arses” if they stepped out of line.

He was, in many ways, a contradiction. And that was often true of his teams. His first job, with Milan, required a considered approach, and he provided it, taking over from Arrigo Sacchi and moulding a team in his image.

An already successful Milan team became even more so under Capello: from 1991 to 1996, he guided the Rossoneri to four Serie A titles and a Champions League victory. It was there that Capello earned a reputation as a pragmatic coach: someone willing to adapt, amenable and open-minded. Milan, under Capello, were capable of entertaining. The principles instilled by Sacchi remained and Capello, at first, saw no reason to drastically change things.

He was, though, unquestionably more defensive. The third title of his tenure was achieved having conceded just 15 goals. Milan were a force, but they were no longer wildly admired.

Jorge Valdano, the former Argentina forward turned philosophical observer of the modern game, was one of those left with a feeling of emptiness by Capello’s approach. “People often say that results are paramount, that, ten years down the line, the only thing which will be remembered is the score,” he said. “But that’s not true. What remains in people’s memories is the search for greatness and the feelings that engenders. We remember Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side more than we remember Fabio Capello’s Milan side, even though Capello’s was more successful and more recent.”

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But Capello was from a different school of thought. He was not a romanticist, not concerned by ideals or aesthetics. For a man so fascinated by art – at his home he had an elaborate collection of expensive paintings – he was curiously distant from the creative and the expressive in football. Perhaps he saw no comparison.

Nor, it seemed, did criticism have an adverse effect. Capello, by a certain point in his career, was used to it. Controversy seemed to follow him: at Roma, where he coached after leaving Milan, Capello spent much of his time engaged in a war of words with rivals Juventus, accusing them of doping and influencing referees, amongst other things. Then, in 2004, he left Roma for Juventus, and was labelled a hypocrite.

At Juventus, the two league titles he won were stripped following the Calciopoli scandal – although Capello was cleared of any involvement. And at Real Madrid, he found himself in trouble when he raised his middle finger towards home fans at the Bernabeu.

That was not all. Capello’s temper on occasion got the better of him. On a tour of China with Milan in 1996, an argument with Paolo Di Canio led to a fight. Capello had antagonised the confrontational striker by pointing out that his “face looks like a penis”.

It was not difficult to see why Capello made few friends in the world of football. He expected unwavering discipline from his players and did not see eye to eye with most journalists. “Why should I waste my time listening to people who are clearly less intelligent than me?” he asked at one press conference.

Players did not always take kindly to his abrasive, assertive manner, too. He won trophies with almost every club he coached but for some he was too much to handle; too demanding in his approach. Some Real Madrid players were less than pleased when Capello set a strict midnight curfew, a diet of fish and little else, and a dress code of blue suits and white shirts on matchdays.

By the time he moved on to the international game, Capello’s ability to squeeze every last drop of potential out of a team seemed to have waned somewhat. Or, perhaps, his methods were not conducive to success with a national team. With England, Capello appeared bereft of ideas. He created a functional team but one that fell desperately short when it mattered. It ended with a humiliating defeat against Germany in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.

“We had expected ideas and creativity,” said Rio Ferdinand – one of those alienated by Capello. “Instead, Capello’s attitude was, ‘I’m the boss and you’ll do what I say all day, every day’. There was never much warmth. He seemed to need to show us how strong and disciplinarian he could be and was so aggressive sometimes it was just ridiculous.”

When Capello retired earlier this year, at the age of 71, one could imagine the collective sigh of relief breathed by his former players. A reacquaintance with the Italian might not have been welcomed.

But if he did not always earn their friendship, he certainly – in most cases – earned their respect. And if he didn’t… well. “The most important thing is results. That’s not a philosophy, that’s a fact.”

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