There are 262,000 Google search results that combine the words “Capello” and “Mafia.” “Capello” and “godfather” nets 30,000. A discussion in the comments section following a Guardian blog post by Richard Williams jokingly asks whether Capello is the long-lost son of Mussolini. The Scotsman discerns in his face “elements of a Roman emperor unlikely to grant clemency.” More than that, according to the online betting site Bodog: “Julius Caesar, Benito Mussolini, Tony Soprano, that nasty and temperamental emperor geezer off the film Gladiator…all would have been proud of Fabio Capello’s ruthless decision to leave David Beckham stranded on 99 caps.”
So here we are. I couldn’t find any published material comparing Capello to Cesare Borgia, but it’s not hard to see that England fans and the English-speaking media are turning to a particular sort of metaphor in order to conceptualize Capello’s term as manager of the England team. Capello as mob boss (“Don Fabio”), Capello as fascist dictator, Capello as Roman emperor: there’s a particular image in anglophone popular culture of a merciless, murderous, rapacious and intimidating style of Italian masculinity, and it’s in this image that Capello’s English tenure is being portrayed.
What’s odd—or perhaps not so odd, when you think about it—is that the tenor of the portrayal so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Capello is being described as a tyrant and a killer, but it would appear that he’s a tyrant and a killer in a good way. “No false Dons this time with Godfather Capello in charge,” ran one headline yesterday morning. “Capello Lays Down the Law,” was the headline on Football365. Best of all, from today’s Sun: “Fabio Capello gave England’s superstars the first taste of his iron fist last night.” If only the Ides of March weren’t coming up, they might have asked him for more.
There’s a fascinating process at work here, because what seems to be happening is that Capello’s foreignness—which was initially a subject of anxiety for a large segment of England supporters—is being run through a particular popular-culture filter that recasts it as an expression of English strength. It isn’t the real Julius Caesar, after all, to whom Capello is being compared, or the real mafia don. It’s the movie version of each, the figure through whom we’re able to indulge power fantasies and a dream of dominance without real-life moral consequences. None of these figures is foreign, really. Collectively they represent a kind of mythic caricature, rooted tightly in our own cultures, of the strong leader, the boss, the man no one dares to talk back to, the man who doesn’t care how you feel.
After England crashed out of their Euro 2008 qualifying campaign in November, there was a deep need among England supporters to see the players put in their place. This was both a strategic priority (because spoiled, pampered players whose wives travel everywhere with them aren’t strong enough to win major tournaments) and a psychological need (because spoiled, pampered players who lose tournaments are an object of contempt). When Capello arrived with his disciplinarian reputation, and then again when he acted to drop superstars from the team and set some rules to govern the other players, he tapped into a collective need to see the players punished, whether to shape them up for subsequent competition or simply to strike a punitive blow for their previous underachievement.
Capello’s role was a combination of both forms of discipline, and the speed with which the media and the fans began to see him through mafia imagery and icons from imperial Rome suggests how broadly and deeply that was felt. Capello would be the man who would hold no player in awe, who would insist on hard work and commitment; he would be the figure whom the players would have to fear. He would restore English values, in other words, to an England squad that no longer represented them.
Not only in the tone, then, but also in the concrete imagery in which Capello has been welcomed to England, there’s a kind of embalmed hostility toward the players that will be difficult to erase. Yesterday’s 2-1 win over Switzerland in Capello’s first match in charge may begin the process. But we may not have a definite sign that England have forgiven their team until they look for a different way to approve of their manager.
Brian Phillips makes the trains run on time at The Run of Play.
Photo credit: wallyg