Apart from the country’s highest elected office, there may be no British job so heavily scrutinized and culturally significant as that of manager of England’s football team. Britain, like the rest of Europe, is obsessed by football. And while its domestic leagues attract the best international players, making it one of the richest and most powerful sports franchises on earth, its national team has failed to win a major championship since 1966. To say fans here are a tad bummed out about this is like saying Charlie Sheen has a bit of an ego problem. Indeed, when it comes to football, Britain is as much a nation defined by bitter disappointment and nostalgia for past victories as it is by an enduring love for its national game.
This swell of collective emotion is why, when Fabio Capello abruptly quit his position as team manager last week, England responded with a heavily qualified hip-hip-hurrah! Qualified, because the surprise resignation plunges the team even deeper into an ongoing leadership crisis just months before the next European championship in June. Hurrah, however, because Capello had long been criticized by fans and commentators alike on two counts: 1) he failed to take the team further than the second round at the last World Cup, and 2) after four years of earning $9.5 million per annum for coaching just a dozen or so games a year, his command of the English language showed little, if any, improvement.
To his credit, Capello resigned on principle. His dispute with the Football Association, over whether team captain John Terry should be stripped of his arm band pending a trial set for July over allegations of racist remarks, was a matter of professional integrity (though it didn’t make British fans any sorrier to see him go). Earlier this month, Capello gave a candid interview on Italian state television in which he declared he “absolutely” disagreed with his bosses’ decision to strip Terry of his captaincy pending his trial for racial abuse of another player, the Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. “I have spoken to the [FA] chairman and I have said that in my opinion one cannot be punished until it is official and the court—a non-sport court, a civil court—had made a decision to decide if John Terry has done what he is accused of.”
There was, apparently, no turning back. A statement announcing Capello’s departure was issued shortly after his hour-long meeting with FA heads David Bernstein and Alex Horne at Wembley Stadium in London last Wednesday. Just before hopping on a flight back to Italy, Capello released a brief statement, saying, “I would like to thank all players, staff and Football Association for the professionalism they have shown during my years as manager of the English national team.”
Dramatically, the break occurred on the very same day Tottenham Hotspur coach Harry Redknapp was cleared of charges of tax evasion in a high-profile criminal court case of his own. The popular coach is widely considered to be the most likely successor for Capello’s job—a likelihood bolstered by his successful track record as a player and a manager, as well as his public image. Redknapp is an East London cockney with the flushed complexion of a man who enjoys a pint with the lads. Asked about his feelings on taking over the national team, Redknapp was dismissive. “I don’t know anything about the England job, I’ve not thought about it. I’ve got a job to do, I’ve got a big game on Saturday with Tottenham. Tottenham is my focus,” he told reporters gathered outside his home in Dorset.
If Redknapp does take the job, he might well do so with some trepidation. The intense press scrutiny endured by the England manager famously led sportswriters to dub the role “the impossible job.” No manager has passed the semifinals since Alf Ramsey led his “wingless wonders” to glory against West Germany in 1966. Since then, a string of managers has endured public scorn and the wrath of the British media in failing to deliver the desired result.
Swedish manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, the first non-British appointment, came closest, despite being hired amid nationalist controversy in 2001. After guiding the team to three successive quarter-finals in major championships, in 2006 Eriksson was duped into telling an undercover reporter, Mazher Mahmood (the now-defunct News of the World’s notorious “fake sheik”), that he would be willing to leave his position to manage Aston Villa. Despite public outcry over the dirty sting operation, Eriksson departed his post later that year and was succeeded by his assistant, Steve McClaren.
As the FA mulls over whom to appoint next, the Olympic and under-21 coach Stuart Pearce will take the helm. The bosses say they’re running a full and thorough search for a successor, but this time around, smart money’s on a homegrown candidate. “He will not definitely be English, but clearly there is a preference for an Englishman or a British person,” Bernstein told the press. “In the end we want the best person so I’m certainly not prepared to rule out anything at this stage.”