Capello, compromise, captaincy – the implications beyond sport

Well, this is the first time we’ve tackled sporting controversy here at the theomusicology blog – but there is a first time for everything. To those of you who do not follow football (or soccer if that’s more familiar), I hope you can still get something from this.

While there are many people who could not care less about professional sport, it is a big part of our society, and like every other social arena, it provides ample opportunities for anyone to reflect on serious questions regarding aims, values, goals, dreams, worldly achievements – and the role that ethics and morality play in these areas.

If you are a bona-fide fan of the England football team, then we can safely assume that you  would actively want this team to win the Euros later this year. The question is: at what cost?

How important is winning? The answer a person gives undoubtedly gives depends on their perspective, which itself will be contingent on the extent of their investment (or lack thereof) in the competition in question. If you are an armchair supporter of the England team, then the level of your investment may not extend beyond paying a regular TV licence (if you get that far). However, if you decide to pay for a cable-channel subscription, then the stakes rise a bit higher. And once you buy a ticket to a game, then your vested interest in the outcome goes up steeply – especially if you don’t live in London. And supporting England away from home is an expensive enterprise, even if you have money.

So for those fans who are planning to spend big money to get to Poland and the Ukraine this summer in the hope that England make it all the way to the finals, there is a LOT riding on the outcome. And I have not gotten to the players or the manager or the Football Association as yet…

How does history regard the losers? How many people are truly open, generous and spiritual enough to say that winning is not enough – it has to be done in the right way? Even in the Christian community, the way in which people of all denominations, cultures and social backgrounds contend for their teams is increasingly tunnel-visioned and some of the banter is very far from lighthearted and does all those involved very little credit. But one thing emerges from all this – one does not have to have anything of real worth invested in a situation to have an opinion on it. And all our opinions as human beings are undergirded by our value systems.

It is at this time that the hypocrisy of press media practices takes a new light. If Capello delivers the tournament, but does so in a way in which certain people think is morally questionable, then he will be smeared even in victory. But if a journalist embarks in the shadiest of shady practices to get a story that undermines a member of the England team’s standing in the wider world, then he or she is ‘just doing their job….’

I am particularly interested in this situation because I live in a church community that is very, very largely comprised of black people, far too many of whom do not seem to really know how to relate on a consistently genuine level to someone who is not black or trying to get down with black people. I spend a significant part of my working life and my social life with white people who are also not always comfortable with cultural/racial difference. For most of my life I have had more really close secular friends than I have had Christian friends. There is more I could say in this vein, but to the chase: I have lived my entire life across social and cultural boundaries. This is why I find the very, very binary and limited views of so many of those who profess to be open-minded so frustrating – and especially those who claim to have received the gospel of Christ!

Now, I had better point out that being genuinely open-minded is not a synonym for having no fixed opinions and also for rejecting the concept of absolute truth. One MUST define one’s values even to oneself to have any chance of genuine emotional and spiritual stability within oneself. But having established those, one is then called upon to live in a world where confusion and ambiguity have set up their own kingdoms and are not short of subjects. Some of my fellow preachers whose sincerity is nothing but commendable appear to forget that Jesus Himself did not treat each and every person the literal same way when they came to Him; they have good theology, but shockingly limited pastoral awareness!

You want to know how this links to the football? Look at what we have here: an England team who really did not do themselves justice at the last World Cup, and a manager who might have been sacked in the aftermath of that. You have a bunch of players who have failed to deliver for England despite all that has been said about their talent. And a highly-decorated manager who has won more of this world’s honour and glory than most will ever even dream of who has been touted in the media and in wider public opinion as hapless, bumbling and incompetent. How did he and his players get here?

Capello is a manager whose cultural and life values have been forged somewhere else. My opinion is as subjective as anyone else’s but I remember the AC Milan team which he managed – an astonishing collection of players whose work on the field reduced me to awe every time they were featured on Football Italia on a Sunday afternoon on Channel 4. I remember one time watching Lazio put three goals past them in the first half, and then Milan came out and scored five without reply. The football they played (both in offence and defence) was quite breath-taking. But you can google him and read his record. My point is that he has not come close to being the mug that he has been made out to be in the English press – but because he has made some decisions which have really baffled many people, we have declared open season on him.

That may be our right, but how qualified are most of us to have an opinion worth hearing? As a professional musician, I’ve lost count of the wild, random and specious madness I’ve heard from music lovers about the musical decisions of world-class artists on gigs, recordings and DVDs. Most of these people have barely the capacity to sing in tune or play in time – but they expect to be taken seriously on this subject!

Now, I am not saying that everything Capello does is right – but what is the yardstick by which we judge his (or anyone else’s) decisions? He is being paid a huge amount of money to do one thing – deliver the first English victory at a major international football tournament for the first time in going for fifty years. Here are his problems: after years of watching both English and European football, I would have to say that our English players are more technically aware than they used to be, but our game is built on cultural values which impinge on sporting values. The Premiership teams that dominated the Champions League for a while were largely managed by foreign managers with huge numbers of star players. The UK is a place in which heroes are made overnight and then torn to pieces the next day. We provide more money through more avenues for more athletes in more sports and get less return than other countries whose sporting development systems breed a greater level of desire to do whatever it takes to win – legally.

We don’t have the culture to win. And we don’t have players to win. I am a Manchester United supported who can see that it looks as if Rio Ferdinand has been badly treated by Capello, but Terry has proved to be more consistent and enduring as a player. More ruthless and better equipped to handle the pressure. If I am the England manager trying to pick a captain who I KNOW will get out there and fight for the duration, then of all the longstanding England players, only Terry emerges. Look at the recent fitness records and big-game performances of Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard! Hard to argue that their best days as players are not behind them now.

People have missed the fact that Capello has passed the morality test in his own life better than many other managers. He pulled the captaincy from Terry because he failed as a man. Not as a player. But Capello then realised that this moral groove was not going to result in giving him better results on the pitch. Capello is not the Stuart Lancaster of English football with nothing to lose if he loses every game. He has everything to lose by England crashing out of Euro 2012 badly.

What are the higher values of this FA? To be a moral example to the nation, or to preside over a winning national football team? Capello has the best record of recent England managers in games that actually matter – the qualifying games – but if that was any of us, we would want to win so badly before the contract ends. He wants to win, and in his mind, he needs John Terry. As an old-school pragmatist, he knows (just like the Wales rugby team discovered) that you DO need experience to win a tournament – and especially in defence!

As a conductor, I’ve had to enlist players and singers I REALLY did not respect at certain times in order to deliver whatever I was being paid to do. So Capello needs a defence which has some knowledge and awareness of what it takes to win against the best. And ideally he needs a captain who can handle the pressure. Terry has shown that he can actually do that (better than Wayne Rooney, for example). And in the end, even the secular moralists who do actually support England might be mindful to taking an amnesia pill or three if England win Euro 2012 with a man who is a horrible human being as captain.

And that’s Capello’s point as far as I can see – of the experienced candidates, who else is more morally qualified to lead the team? Not Steven Gerrard or Rio Ferdinand or even Frank Lampard – all of whom have serious moral skeletons in their closet. Who has an unblemished record? Who is a true role model? Who really possesses the integrity?

The FA’s decision makes beautiful sense to me as a Christian. Of course it is not right that Terry captains England. But does that mean that the FA have made the right decisions for the right reasons – of actual moral principle?

Or is the decision to undermine their own manager and strip Terry of the captaincy based on their desire to not be accused of being morally reprehensible in the eyes of the wider world – and therefore nothing more than a damage-limitation exercise?

We don’t know. But either way, the timing is terrible from the point of view of trying to win Euro 2012. And look at how Capello is forced to defend a player who he already regards as a less-than-good person  – just because he needs to do all he can to win a tournament. Scott Parker could be an excellent captain, but what qualifies him to lead players who have several times over his tournament experience?

If winning didn’t matter to these people, then all is well. But in professional sport, winning is all that matters. Many have hung their ultimate morality out to dry for the sake of an edge. That is the saddest thing about professional sport.

Closer to home: what price will YOU pay to get what you want? What compromises will you make to achieve greatness in the eyes of the world? And if you have judged Fabio Capello negatively for supporting the idea that John Terry is innocent until proven guilty, are you consistent in your own application of moral principles, or do you also change your value system depending on the stakes of the outcome for you personally?

Something to think about…

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