All this over an armband?

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 9 February 2012

While there is nothing new in England going into a major tournament in a state of some disarray, the buildup to this summer’s European championships throws some perspective onto the usual fretting about inconveniently fractured metatarsals. Having begun the week without a captain, England will end it without a manager. Fabio Capello has finally washed his hands of the whole circus. The Armband has killed again. 

The question of the captaincy hung heavily over England’s blighted World Cup campaign, of course, when John Terry‘s self-aggrandizing truculence culminated in what looked, from the outside at any rate, like the kind of shabby coup d’etat more beloved of self-destructive political parties than football teams.

Yet it was in apparent defense of the failed rebel that Capello offered his resignation, following an hour-long meeting with FA chairman David Bernstein and general secretary Alex Horne. After discussing the comments made by Capelloto the Italian broadcaster Rai, in which he apparently expressed his disagreement or disapproval with the FA’s decision to relieve Terry of the captaincy, his resignation was accepted with the usual bromides: always been a professional; thanks for your work; best of luck in the future. Angry quotes from Capello briefly caused waves on Twitter before being exposed as false, and for the moment, an uneasy silence lies over Wembley, which this afternoon’s press conference did almost nothing to address.

This is not to say that Capello has been beyond reproach. The launch of the ludicrous Capello Index was a major folly, as was his public flirtation with major Italian clubs prior to South Africa. At that tournament, his team’s football was moribund and uninspired, and its eventual exit was chastening.

Yet more than anything, it seems likely that the flip-flopping of the captaincy will define his tenure: from Gerrard, to Terry, to Ferdinand, back to Terry, and now finally to nobody. If there has been a failure to grasp a unique aspect of English football — summed up for one prominent talking head by his inexplicable and frankly suspicious pleasure in “an art collection reputedly containing several Kandinskys” — it seems likely to center on this vexed elastic band.

It is clear that The Armband’s significance is largely constructed, rather than deriving from any innate value of the position; as the Guardian’s Marina Hyde memorably put it, “the football captaincy is a role less significant than regimental goat.” In saying this, she is obviously correct — with a little training, a goat could call the coin toss and exchange a pennant, and would also be helpful keeping the pitch trim between games — but it is obvious that it matters. It mattered to David Beckham, who resigned it in tears, and it mattered to Terry, who craved it, won it, lost it, reclaimed it, then lost it again.

Why does it matter so much?

Looking for answers in the mists of time, perhaps it all goes back to England’s great psychosis, the 1966 World Cup (a victory that looks more poisonous every year). All those who pull on The Armband are measured against Bobby Moore: magnificent player, admirable man and the last son of Albion to raise the Holy Grail above his head. English Football: desperately seeking tall, blond center-half w/GSOH, leadership qualities, etc., for captaincy and maybe more. Who could help but strive to live up to that, and more crucially, who could help but pale in comparison?

Or perhaps it’s a more modern phenomenon. Beckham was the first person to conflate the role of being England captain with the much more culturally significant business of being a celebrity. As such, you could argue that this was when it became a thing: not just an accolade for the most likely leader in any given team, but a position above and beyond its fellows, a position of national significance. Modern-day England highly esteems those things that matter to celebrities. In particular, modern English footballers, gorged on the proceeds of their lightly taxed image rights, are both benefactors and victims of a culture engaged in slowly smothering itself.

Whether Beckham’s teary adieu or Moore’s ghost, it’s inarguable that England has a particular obsession with it. Capello’s Italy, for example, simply gives its armband to the player in the starting lineup who has the most appearances, be it veteran Gianluigi Buffonor fresh-faced Giuseppe Rossi. Ultimately, it all comes back to questions of leadership. Arsene Wenger, when challenged on his Arsenal team’s apparent lack of leadership,commented that “For the English, sport is a combat, and they can’t imagine going into battle without a general.” While the military metaphor isn’t quite right — generals tend to sit in tents well out of the way of any bullets — the point is resonant. England needs an officer, a nominated leader. While Italy and other nations trust their leaders on the pitch to establish their own authority through their actions, for England, authority comes from the office.

Despite what you will read in more than a few newspapers, Capello is not a stupid man, andthe way he dealt with Terry’s first misdemeanor made sense. First, remove the band for the sake of squad harmony. Doesn’t work. So, given that non-(c) Terry is poisonous, but that England without Terry is weaker, reunite JT the blackguard with the band he needs. And if, as seems likely, Capello wanted Terry to take his usual place in the spine of his team for the Euros, then the same logic would apply. A manager’s job is to maximize the performance of his players; if that means saying, “You, John, are my sergeant,” then so be it.

For the appearance-obsessed FA, though, the decision to remove it came in the knowledge that the captaincy has a potency beyond the field. It wasn’t a decision made for footballing reasons, but with both eyes firmly on the PR. And that, ultimately, is what divided the FA from its former manager. Terry was stripped of a role that has bulged beyond simply being the ceremonial figurehead, and Capello walked because his footballing plans had been disturbed by politics. It is understandable that he felt his authority had been undermined — it had — but in truth, the England captaincy goes to strange places that disposable managers cannot hope to follow.


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