For England fans, the name of Fabio Capello evokes mixed feelings – the man who took over after the debacle of the Steve McClaren era and took England to the World Cup with an almost flawless qualifying campaign, and yet the manager who oversaw the tragic under-performance of the ‘golden generation’ in South Africa, scraping through a simple group before being pummeled by one of the country’s greatest rivals. Not only that, he kept his job and succeeded in reaching the European Championships, another early hint of revival, only to walk away in a show of power politics just weeks before the tournament. Forever chastised for his ‘traditional’ approach, it would not be unfair to say that Capello never really got on with the England role.
On the other hand however, there can be no denying that he is an excellent manager at club level. Top flight titles in Milan, Madrid, Roma and Turin – the two with Juventus ultimately revoked in the wake of calciopoli – are testament to his abilities as a club boss, with enough in the way of tactical acumen, man management skills and transfer market prowess to put together a winning side. There are those who would argue that Capello has had it easy given the quality of the clubs he has taken charge of, but four titles in five years in his first spell at Milan, including a Champions League earned by thrashing a seemingly unstoppable Barcelona in the final, and Roma’s first Serie A win in more than a decade are more than viable arguments against such accusations.
It was therefore his club pedigree, rather than his limited and ultimately unsuccessful – although Capello retains the title of England’s most statistically successful manager, winning exactly two thirds of his games in charge of the Three Lions – international career, that the Italian has been appointed, barring disastrous contract negotiations, as the next manager of Russia’s national side. At times the appointment process seemed infinite, at times farcical – evidenced by the presence of the likes of Harry Redknapp and sabbatical-taking Pep Guardiola on the publicly-announced 13-man shortlist for the role – but it would appear that the Russian Football Union finally have their man, opting for a third foreigner to take over after six years of Dutch control under Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat.
One of the biggest critics of Capello’s imminent appointment has been Valeri Gazzaev, the mustachioed president of Alania Vladikavkaz, who many considered a leading candidate for the role. Second only to Oleg Romantsev in terms of success amongst Russian managers, Gazzaev has not managed a club since an ill-fated spell in charge of Dinamo Kyiv in 2010, his candidacy perhaps highlighting the backward-looking nature of the RFU board. Whilst the likes of Gazzaev, Yuri Semin, whose career highlight came with Lokomotiv almost a decade ago, and Anatoli Byshovets – who held the position in 1998 but earned his reputation by winning Olympic gold for the USSR ten years earlier – are considered, more relevant managers were overlooked. Whether as a result of their clubs being unwilling to negotiate, the managers preferring to stay with their teams, or simply a lack of vision from those in charge, it is something of a mystery as to why the likes of Luciano Spalletti and Leonid Slutsky were not even considered.
One reason could well be the source of Capello’s incredible salary, believed to be one of the world’s highest for a football manager when he officially takes the role, coming in at around €10m per year. Whilst a portion will be paid by the RFU as per usual, the remainder will come from the personal pockets of Suleyman Kerimov and Leonid Fedun, the billionaires behind Anzhi and Spartak respectively. With club owners depended on to finance the managerial position, it is hardly a surprise that the man chosen has come from outside of the Russian top flight.
The salary, however, is what causes most concern for the Russian fan. After accepting the England job in 2007, Capello announced that it would be his last job in football, one last big contract more than enough to see him into a comfortable retirement. His refusal to resign after the debacle in South Africa was seen my many as the Italian clinging on to his wages, and although his subsequent resignation earlier this year puts a damper on the theory, there are plenty of signs pointing to the Italian’s more mercenary nature in accepting the Russian reins.
Firstly, there is little obvious motivation for his agreement other than the salary. The contract is for an initial two years, by which point he will be 68 – not an age at which he is likely to be able to lead a much-needed long-term overhaul of the domestic game. Secondly, Russia have no reasonable chance of competing amongst the challengers for the next World Cup given the decidedly average crop of ageing stars, and yet the 2018 edition will be on home soil. Russia need a manager looking to build with the future in mind as well as achieving success in the present – Capello will not be around long enough to see his changes take effect. Finally, there is the linguistic-cultural barrier, something which the Italian with in England, and is sure to do so again in his new adopted nation. So close to retirement there will be no incentive for him to learn a notoriously difficult language or attempt to understand the Russian mentality, both necessary keys to success with the national side.
Combined with what has become tactical rigidity and a disciplinarian approach which may not sit well with some of Russia’s star players, the neutral observer may well suggest that Capello’s appointment could well be the most expensive stopgap in football history. Attracting a manager of his undeniable reputation is surely a great boost to Russia’s image, but in terms of footballing achievement and the next generation of Russian talent breaking through, it is not a move which inspires hope. Even if Capello does bring unlikely success to the nation, reinforcing the notion that money solves problems cannot be a wise move for the future. At this point, and with a limited talent pool with which to work, only miracles can justify the RFU’s latest decision.