Fab's Cape Fear: Players fed up of Capello's boot camp
The first time James Milner was named in an England squad, he arrived at the team hotel carrying illicit cargo.
Milner is one of the most dedicated professionals in the game but some of the older England players had regaled him with tales of woe about the level of control Fabio Capello exercised over them during England get-togethers.
In particular, they had told him that the food was miserable and bland, that there was not enough of it and that most players sneaked a few extras in to relieve the monotony.
So when Milner showed up at The Grove in February last year ahead of England’s friendly in Spain, he had stashed a couple of bars of chocolate in his case.
When he got down to dinner, he told some of the other players what he had done and, as players often do, they sensed the opportunity for a wind-up.
They asked Milner where he had left the chocolate and when he said it was still in his case, expressions of alarm spread across their faces.
They lied and told Milner that Capello was such a control freak he made a point of rifling through the bags of new arrivals to check whether they had smuggled anything in.
They said it was only a matter of time until Capello discovered his stash. They said he might even be in his room right that minute.
Milner shot back up the stairs and got rid of the chocolate. As he disappeared from view, the other players roared with laughter.
There were other occasions under Capello when players got so desperate for some variety in their diet that they arranged for surreptitious fast-food deliveries to be made to the team hotel.
One said that when his order arrived, he was so worried about being caught red-handed by the England boss that he was almost too scared to eat it.
The point is that when England’s players were only away from their homes and their clubs for a short period, they could deal with the bleak austerity that Capello imposed on them. They could laugh together at their prison conditions and have some harmless fun trying to bend the rules. They could get by on gallows humour.
It also helped that they were winning matches under Capello in their World Cup qualifying campaign. The harshest regime seems acceptable when everything is going well and the public and the media are acclaiming you as heroes.
But the England players have been subjected to the regime for close to five weeks now and it has become brutally obvious that it is having a damaging effect on morale.
No one wanted a repeat of the Baden-Baden experience at the 2006 World Cup in Germany when England players were socialising with their wives and girlfriends all the time and when Sven Goran Eriksson was in thrall to the players.
But Capello has taken things in South Africa to the opposite extreme and it became apparent in Cape Town with England’s shockingly poor performance against Algeria that the players had reached breaking point.
Wayne Rooney played so poorly that it was obvious he was either unfit or deeply, deeply unhappy. And Capello insisted that he was fully fit.
Capello’s unblinking, unsmiling, unbending regime gave the players no release, no respite, no variety from boredom and isolation.
His refusal to compromise on the players’ living conditions at their isolated base outside the small village of Phokeng exposed his lack of experience of tournament football.
It might work to quarantine players for short periods but when they are shut away for weeks on end, it gives them an advanced case of Cabin Fever. When Rooney was asked last week to describe his daily routine, his answer went like this: “Breakfast. Train. Lunch. Bed. Dinner. Bed.” He made it sound like something from The Gulag Archipelago.
Whoever is right and whoever is wrong, whether the players are spoilt or not, the only issue that matters is how to get the best out of them.
Capello has not done that so far in this tournament. He has not even come close. So he has to change.
Yesterday, there were at least tentative signs that Capello has realised he has to relax the living conditions at the Royal Marang Hotel before it is too late.
England’s players are a lot better than their performances at this World Cup so far have suggested. But they need some sort of release from the pressure and the monotony and, until the weekend, they had not been allowed it.
But on Friday, Capello allowed a group of senior players, including Rooney, to stay up late at the team hotel and have a beer together.
It was the first sign that he recognised he needed to adapt his methods to tournament conditions and allow the players more freedom.
It also suggested he may have been ready to listen to suggestions from the players at last night’s team meeting.
But clearly his hard-line stance at that get-together proved he is not prepared to change his methods, and his England stars now know he is not a man to be crossed.