‘Underwear model excluded from team!’

There was something desperately contrived about the frontpage fuss over David Beckham’s absence from Fabio Capello’s first England squad.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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So, Fabio Capello’s first England squad was finally announced yesterday – have you recovered yet? It was never going to be a popular decision, but it was one Capello had to make. Still, I’m sure I won’t be the only one to miss those trade-mark crosses whipped in from the right, the unabashed pride at wearing the three lions, and, of course, that face. Strangely, however, Phil Neville’s omission has largely passed the media by. Instead, the exclusion of David Beckham, a famous British model currently touring the US, has dominated the headlines.

There is something desperately contrived about the fuss surrounding Beckham’s absence. Take Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph: ‘The omission of the world’s most recognised footballer from the England squad announced yesterday represents a wonderful mission statement by Capello.’ (1) Does it really? It seems instead to be a rather easy, if sensible, decision entirely in keeping with Capello’s reputation for pragmatism. And besides, didn’t the last incumbent of the England hotseat, Steve McClaren, also make a similarly ‘wonderful mission statement’ 18 months ago by dropping Beckham, before he ‘shat it’ and recalled the Man with the Golden Balls for a friendly against Brazil the following June?

The fact of the matter is that Beckham was omitted because he is, like a lot of us, not playing a lot of football right now. His last competitive game came against those giants of world football, Minnesota Thunder, on 11 November. Since then he has interspersed trips to Africa with UNICEF and then to Brazil to promote his new football academies, with a spot of training with Arsenal. Sadly, Capello is not picking his team on the basis of head tennis and shuttle runs. As Capello himself explained: ‘The reason that David is not in the squad is because he has not had any real match practice since playing in November. When I spoke with David on the phone I advised him that he is still part of my plans and, once he is playing regularly in America, we will look closely at him again.’ (2)

It all sounds perfectly reasonable. The other squad omissions also seem prudent, which after McClaren’s smiling folly is almost refreshing. Along with Beckham, and Neville Neville’s aforementioned second son, out go a goalkeeper, the Oaf Robinson, and a tiny trio of attacking speedsters: Andrew ‘AJ’ Johnson, and one-time Spurs duo, diddly Defoe and little Lennon. None of whom can really have any complaints. The Oaf Robinson has been making as many mistakes between the sticks as Ashley Cole has between the sheets, so he can hardly have been shocked that Capello decided to give him the old heave-ho. And little Lennon may have terrorised Manchester United’s Patrice Evra at the weekend, but most Spurs fans feel he’s been a shadow of the player from last season. The new Franz Carr anyone?

As for diddly Defoe, when he hasn’t been practising the arcane art of ‘warming the bench’, he has been playing to minimal effect. So desperate is the little fella for some regular playing time, he signed for Portsmouth yesterday. He needs games and confidence, says Harry Redknapp. But now it turns out that Pompey have, somewhat negligently, failed to sell the bloke Defoe was supposed to be replacing. I hope the wee man remembered to bring that seat cushion with him to Fratton Park.

Andrew ‘AJ’ Johnson, Beckham’s little brother, has perhaps more reason to feel aggrieved having both been playing and, better still, scoring occasionally for Everton. Unfortunately, scoring goals by outwitting a defender of Titus Bramble’s ability doesn’t earn you much kudos; Bramble’s not the kind of player likely to be wearing an international shirt any time soon. As it happens, AJ never really seems to believe in himself. Yes, he tirelessly chases the ball along the back line of defenders, and sometimes into the corners, but there’s something in the way he gives a thumbs-up and pensive smile to a team mate after just missing a nailed-on chance that says: ‘I lack conviction.’

As for the players that did make it into the squad, sound judgment prevails there, too, with only Curtis Davies’ call-up a surprise. The Villa man did, after all, describe his debut for the club in honest if unflattering terms: ‘Just awful; I didn’t contribute anything. I’ve been bigging myself up, saying I’m ready and obviously I’m not. I’m not good enough to get in the team yet. I’m honest with myself in every performance and that was rubbish – I looked like a pub team player.’ (3) He would have fitted right in with McClaren’s team on that rainy night against Croatia.

In a sense, though, Fabio Capello could do little wrong. There were no controversial decisions to be made, hence the scramble to make something of David Beckham’s exclusion. Compare this say to the vitriol sent Graham Taylor’s way when he persisted with John Barnes over Chris Waddle in the early Nineties and the current squad almost looks self-selecting. What Capello – the Italian George Graham – has brought to the English national team is a sense of purpose, an air, if you like, of quiet certainty. There is none of the spun-over insecurity of McClaren, or the killer’s calm of Eriksson – there’s just a sense that he knows what he’s doing. Such self-belief, founded on a record of nine league titles in Spain and Italy, is well expressed by Capello himself: ‘I can’t stand the crap that gets talked by everyone: players, fans, the media, club officials. Why should I waste my time listening to people who are clearly less intelligent than me?’ (4) Duly noted, Fabio.

Of course, such arrogance can get up peoples’ noses. Paolo Di Canio fell out with Capello at Milan for leaving him out of the team during a pre-season tour of China, and in doing so passed comment on Capello’s ‘ugly penis-face’. Capello showed his nerveless self-belief by promptly selling one his most talented players to Celtic. As his treatment of players as different as Di Canio and Beckham shows, he does things his own way. His sole objective is to win, but he does so by fashioning a team in which everyone has to perform their role for the team. It is a method that not only has proved effective so far, but could be successfully imported. For if there’s one thing England has lacked it’s direction. As former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi put it, ‘for Capello, football is all about winning. He does not see beauty in the game.’ (5) Here’s hoping he lives up to his reputation.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Duleep Allirajah is sick (as a parrot).

(1) Fabio Capello leaves no room for sentiment, Daily Telegraph, 01 February 2008

(2) Ruthless Capello casts Beckham aside, Guardian 01 February 2008

(3) Drinks are on ‘pub team’, The Times 28 September 2007

(4) A touchline philosopher: the real Fabio Capello, Independent 13 December 2007

(5) Don’t fool with Capello, The Times 16 December 2007

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