Capello knows integrity matters in the heat of battle
O ver the last two decades, many followers of sport have had to swallow hard and come to terms with some ugly truths about the star performers they had previously admired without reservation.
For the previous century, more or less, the myth of the sportsman as social hero had flourished. Only a small inner circle knew the often tawdry reality. Now it seems that everyone knows.
American sport, in particular, is littered with the names of fallen idols. Many of them have been exposed, quite simply, as horrible human beings. The authorities who run baseball, basketball and gridiron have had to make their accommodations with the often sordid behaviour of their famous players. They've learned to hold their noses and turn a blind eye, all the time praying that the latest scandal will quickly get buried in the 24/7 news cycle. They've become skilled practitioners in the art of damage limitation.
It's a skill that the Football Association in England has had to develop in the last ten years too. They have learned, like their American counterparts, that it is impossible to police the behaviour of their players anymore. Where would they start? And where would it end? They cannot even properly control what many players are doing on the field, let alone what they get up to afterwards.
They know that public contempt for modern footballers is widespread -- but they are powerless to do anything about it. The best they can muster is a disingenuous policy that attempts to separate the private life of a professional footballer from his public life. They can hand him a three-match ban for violent conduct on the pitch, they can do nothing about his violent conduct in a nightclub. His club can fine him and suspend him for his behaviour but, for reasons mainly financial, this is as far as they will take the disciplinary process.
You could call it a moral vacuum, a failure of governance, or a legal quagmire of contract and employment law; the end result is that there are almost no professional consequences for a player's private misdemeanours.
But it is only within such a vacuum that a player with a repugnant private life could, in his professional life, become captain of England.
John Terry was on a binge in a Heathrow airport bar the day after the 9/11 atrocities. Along with three other young Chelsea players he drunkenly mocked American people who were watching the news from New York on television. The players were fined and made to apologise. "They had no decency or respect," said the then Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri.
The following year Terry and other players were charged with assault after a drunken brawl with nightclub doormen. Subsequent episodes included urinating on floors, and various shenanigans with bouncers, punters and lapdancers. And of course there was the rampant infidelity, followed by public apologies to his long-term partner, followed by further flings and affairs. Terry earns £170,000 a week. In recent months he has been caught grubbing for more cash with schemes that sound like they were hatched in a London east end pub.
Last week the football industry's institutionalised hypocrisy finally came home to roost. Terry's gluttony for money, the routine exploitation of women, the public humiliations of his partner, the hooligan behaviour -- none of it was up for discussion when he was first made England captain in 2006. It didn't matter if he behaved like a scumbag off the field, all that mattered was his bulldog spirit on it. The notion that the captain should also be a morally upstanding individual wasn't even on the radar.
But maybe it was on Fabio Capello's mind last week. For starters, he is a devout Italian Catholic who by his own admission prays twice a day. As a manager he is a formidable authoritarian. We would guess that the latest revelations about Terry's behaviour disgusted him. On Friday he sacked his captain.
Capello, like Giovanni Trapattoni, is all about the result. So it will be said that he fired Terry purely for football reasons. But maybe for Capello, the result, and the integrity of the players chasing that result, are inextricably linked. He comes from a country that knows how to win World Cups.
Perhaps he understands, in a way they don't in England, that to win a prize of such stature, a team needs one or two men of equal stature. Not just great footballers, but statesmen too; players with standing as people, with a sort of natural dignity and gravitas and composure. They must have character as men, as well as footballers. Because it counts for something: these are the players who come through, who can survive the pressure of a World Cup semi-final or final and carry the rest of the team with them.
John Terry's character as a footballer cannot be questioned; he has the mental toughness, physical bravery and generosity of spirit that makes him a dominant figure in the domestic game. But as a man he is strictly low-rent and low-grade. He cannot be conveniently separated into Terry the citizen and Terry the England captain.
It is a football issue not just because he had an affair with the former girlfriend of an England team-mate. It's a football issue because the winning of a World Cup requires a certain level of class as a human being as well as a player.