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The England national team has a recently resigned manager who could not keep his ego in check, a recently dumped captain who faces criminal charges regarding racism, and will go into its next major tournament nursing wounds carved from an extraordinary crisis played out in the public glare.
Yet, while Fabio Capello and John Terry are far from blameless in the sorry saga making headlines not only in England but around the world, the true culprit for the way the situation has degenerated just a few months ahead of Euro 2012 lies within the corridors of English soccer power: Football Association chairman David Bernstein.
Capello quit as manager Wednesday. A day earlier, he had infuriated the FA by lambasting its decision, made 24 hours prior to that, to strip Terry of the England captaincy.
At a meeting with Bernstein at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday, Capello's fate was sealed. Bernstein wanted Capello to recant his criticism of the decision and accept the FA's authority. Capello wanted to be sure there would be no further interference in what he saw as a team matter. The two sides were miles apart and a split was inevitable. Capello quit on a point of principle; Bernstein made little attempt to dissuade him.
There are times when a change in head coach can be a positive step for a national team, allowing a fresh mindset and an opportunity to build for the future. Heading into a major tournament such as the European Championship is not one of those times.
Having seen his side struggle dismally at the 2010 World Cup, Capello finally seemed to have figured out how to get the best out of his players and marched them through qualifying with consummate ease. The biggest concern, for a while at least, revolved around Wayne Rooney's two-game suspension that will kick in with the start of the tournament, and, further ahead, who would replace Capello, whose contract was due to expire after Euro 2012.
But then the Terry plot reached boiling point and drew in a new cast of performers. Terry is accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand during a match between Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers on October 23, and the case was expected to be heard reasonably quickly, with the expectation that if convicted he would almost certainly have had the captaincy stripped away and lost his place in the England squad as well.
However, when Terry's legal team had the case delayed until July, it threw the FA into a quandary. What it should have done was to realize a legal process had to be respected and carried on with Terry as captain, a role for which he has the appropriate credentials as a player.
Ideally, the matter would have been dealt with within soccer, where the punishment for Terry, if he is found guilty, would actually be far more damaging to him than the legal consequences. When he enters court in the summer, the maximum penalty for a conviction is just a $3,800 fine, or about 12 percent of his daily paycheck.
The FA meanwhile, could have levied something far more painful. Liverpool's Luis Suarez was banned for eight games for making racist comments towards Manchester United's Patrice Evra, and a similar ban, plus a hefty fine, could have been levied on Terry. The case would have been heard more quickly, and if Terry was found guilty, he could then legitimately have been stripped of both the captaincy and his place on the England squad.
There have been suggestions in the British press that if FA officials had made it clear at an early stage that they wanted to control the Terry situation themselves, then the Crown Prosecution Service may well have backed off, and this unwieldy outcome might have been averted.
Instead, the FA now looks as if it made a pre-judgment on Terry, effectively convicting him in the eyes of public opinion before he has been heard in court. Already he has lost a major sponsor, Umbro, in the wake of having the captaincy taken away.
If Terry is successful in his court defense, and if he chose to do so, he could potentially have a monumental civil damages case against the FA for disparaging his reputation – mightily ironic given that he is not exactly a squeaky clean character.
Capello finally believed that despite the issues going on with his team – despite Rooney's hotheaded challenge that led to a ban, despite Terry's hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons – that his team was actually coming together as he wanted it.
A proud man, he was infuriated when the FA stepped in to take away the captaincy from Terry on Monday, insisting it should be his decision and his alone.
Within hours he had vented his ire in an interview with Italian television, the single act that truly stirred up the hornets' nest. A man more interested in the genuine welfare of his national team than his own promotion might have taken it on the chin and moved forward.
But Bernstein, many suspect, has a political agenda of his own and would love to move higher into soccer politics in the future. To that end, he was never going to be associated with a player accused of racism, even long before any verdict could be reached in court. Also, he was never going to accept any questioning of his authority, even from a manager paid $9 million a year and with a glittering track record in management.
So Capello has gone, four years at the helm brushed away in a quick meeting before the Italian was chauffeured away into the London night. One or more caretaker managers may be brought in to temporarily bridge the gap, with newly acquitted Harry Redknapp – he faced charges of tax evasion – a hot favorite to take over full time, probably after the summer.
And now English soccer rolls on, through these extraordinary times and extraordinary storylines. Nothing ever comes easy to this particular national team, one that has never been slow to shoot itself in the foot and that on this occasion has been sabotaged by its leading administrator.
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