It wasn’t only Fabio Capello’s most virulent critics who called for him to walk away from his job as England’s head coach when the team collapsed so wretchedly during last year’s World Cup in South Africa.
Quite a few of his admirers also thought it was probably a good idea, despite seeing him less of a culprit than most of his hugely rewarded players.
They had complained bitterly about the tedium of being imprisoned in a five-star corner of the high veldt before performing with great inadequacy against teams like the United States, Algeria and Slovenia — and then falling apart against a young and brilliantly coherent Germany.
Mindful of his superb track record as a player and a coach before his collision with the culture of a chronically under-achieving England, the more benign critics thought that he was rich enough to forfeit the last two years of a $12-million US contract which would inevitably come at an extremely high cost in ridicule.
After the defeat by Germany, a microphone was thrust under his nose and he was asked: “Do you think you are worth six million pounds a year?”
Capello shook his head gravely and tried to explain. “It is not the wages but the man that is important,” he said. “It is about his knowledge and his achievements and what the people who employ him, after looking at his record, think he can bring to the job. I have been very disappointed about what has happened here and I do not want to leave on this note.”
Soon, he was announcing his intention to see out his contract and take a shot at redemption in the qualifying stages and finals of the European Championship which will be played out in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
On Friday night in Sofia, Capello’s Last Stand began to make a whole lot more sense.
It was not so much that England so comfortably mastered Bulgaria, a team which, despite the recent hiring of former German playing legend Lothar Matthaus as coach, still looks a million miles from the quality of the side that under the inspiration of the brilliant Hristo Stoichov made it to the semifinals of the 1994 World Cup. Or that England, after some earlier uncertainties, now look certainties to top their qualifying group.
What was so striking was that the new, young England players looked as though they relish the chance to represent their country. This was especially so in the case of Wayne Rooney, England’s most spectacular failure in South Africa.
When England was jeered off the field in Cape Town after a hapless performance against Algeria, Rooney took particular offence. It didn’t help that his complaint, voiced on national television, included an obscenity. Later an agonized Capello confessed that when he had looked out on to the field he scarcely recognised a single England player. “I cannot explain it,” he said. “I didn’t see my team.”
It got appreciably worse, especially a week later when Germany eased to a 4-1 win. What Capello, no more than anyone else who wasn’t inhabiting Rooney’s skin, couldn’t know was to quite what a bad place the Manchester United star was heading. This became evident only when the Sunday morning tabloids screamed the details of Rooney’s relationship with an expensive prostitute ... and that he had paid a hotel porter roughly $300 to bring him a pack of Marlboros.
Rooney’s image — and his form — went into freefall.
His agent demanded that his client be given a new contract or a transfer, despite his increasingly wretched performances, and the player explained that this was not the result of greed but frustration at the club’s failure to make major signings during the summer.
Then, after months of dismaying decline, something quite extraordinary happened. Wayne Rooney started playing again — really playing. Game by game, a little more of the old craft and vision was returning. He scored an amazing, scissors-kick goal to settle the battle with local rivals Manchester City. It was at vital stride towards United’s record-breaking 19th title.
He was superb in the Champions League semi-final ejection of Chelsea and was, by some distance, United’s best player in the losing final against Barcelona.
He said that at 25 he was dedicating the rest of his playing days to an attempt to meet the standards set by Barcelona’s great Lionel Messi. Rooney also appeared to have had a strikingly successful hair transplant at a mere $60,000 cost, and some felt that this alone might have provided a mighty surge of the spirit.
Whatever the reason, the Rooney bandwagon rolled on quite beautifully through Sofia. He scored two of England’s three goals, bringing his total to seven in five games, and dwarfed every other player on the field. He also made a great Italian coach believe that there might just be a respectable end to his English adventure.
James Lawton writes for
The Independent in the U.K.