Respect is not given. It’s taken.
I can’t remember why I got caught up with that slogan in the early 2010s, or what point I was trying to prove at the time, but I do remember the better part of it was that I’d read those words from the mouth of Fabio Capello. There were his familiar designer spectacles, a jaw that was square enough you wouldn’t want to argue, and the poker-faced stare to back up the instinct. Yet the early 2010s was when Capello’s superstar coaching status was beginning to fade off into the night.
It was the first time I’d ever grasp that a football coach couldn’t keep up the energy to graft results at the top of the game forever. Up until that point in my world, Fabio Capello was the guy who wins—period. It didn’t matter if you put him in the world’s biggest clubs, in charge of the England team, or at my favorite club Roma; he’d get his team over the finish line. But not this time. Now Capello was facing a professional identity crisis with England.
Fabio was now forced to admit his England 4-4-2 formation belonged “to the dark ages” and was sent packing from the England job. That moment was a watershed one for me as a young football fan, almost as eye-opening as the fact I was starting to see my favorite retired players go on to become football coaches. Which was just plain weird.
Before then, in all honesty, I grew up thinking that the guys sitting on the bench were just some managerial staff plucked out of nowhere; as if all they’d ever aspired to in their life was to be an old dude who puts on a tracksuit or tie, and yell at players from the sideline.
Fabio Capello didn’t do a lot of yelling or even talking for that matter. But when he did, pretty much every person inside football circles (aside from a handful of Roma players) would tell you Capello made himself heard. Don Fabio also had a funny knack for realizing his career dreams, no matter which road he had to go about it; like finally getting to train Rio Ferdinand (still the most complete centre-half I’ve ever seen play the game) as England coach, who was the same Ferdinand that Capello previously wanted to bring to Roma from West Ham, all the way back in the summer of 1999.
1999: A Year Out of the Game and Unfinished Business in Rome
Capello’s appointment to the Roma bench probably best mirrors José Mourinho’s decision to take the Spurs job some 20 years later. Like Mourinho prior to his Tottenham stint, Capello spent the 1998/1999 season taking a sabbatical from the game. Fabio had already won everything there was to win in club football as a coach in the nineties, and he could have even called it a day on that note. He spent the first half of 1999 earning plaudits for his color commentary on football matches.
It was the second time in Capello’s TV commentary career that he was praised, around the country, as an insightful voice and breathe of fresh air to Italian television’s coverage of international football. The first time was back in the eighties when a young Fabio worked as co-commentator for Rai while he studied for a director’s job in Berlusconi’s upper-management at Milan. Both times, however, Capello decided that staying away from the pitch wasn’t for him.
The way Capello’s second-stint as Milan manager ended in 1998 was even more motivation for Don Fabio to come back with a vengeance. Ironically, it was a thrashing at the feet of Zdenek Zeman’s Roma that saw Capello sacked from the Milan job in the spring of ‘98.
Capello was a guy who’d been tasked with bringing AC Milan back up the top of the table in 97/98, fresh off his success in Spain where he’d won the title with Real Madrid. Fabio had even earned the call of Madrid through his previous success in Europe with AC Milan in the early nineties, which saw the Rossoneri reach three consecutive Champions League finals and win one of them, while winning multiple trophies on the domestic front and even going undefeated for 58 straight games in Serie A under Capello (it helped that Capello started the Milan job with no European fixtures to interrupt his mid-week training at the time).
One of the hallmark victories of Capello’s “invincible” early 90s Milan team was the 8-2 dismantling of Zeman’s Foggia in the spring of 92. But fast forward eight years, and here was Zeman’s “losing” football giving Roma their biggest win over Milan in history.
Capello left Milan that summer, telling Rai Tre in the immediate post-game presser of that Roma-Milan match that he apologized to the fans and Berlusconi, and that he was ashamed of the team’s performance. Milan turned to up-and-coming Serie A coach Alberto Zaccheroni (and the never-ending saga of whether they’d finally bring Andriy Shevchenko to Italian football) to finally get out of mid-table, while Zeman qualified Roma for Europe. But then Zeman waged his one-man war against Juventus and the alleged doping of Serie A players, and his overall results as Roma coach weren’t enough for Sensi to justify the political nightmare of keeping Zeman on the bench.
Franco Sensi’s official, retrospective excuse for firing Zeman was that the coach “wanted to sell too many players and start Roma over again.” But that doesn’t really hold water when Sensi’s choice to succeed Zeman was none other than Fabio Capello in 1999. This was the same Capello who’d convinced AC Milan to open the checkbook and sign superstars for the Diavolo in both stints as manager, and also convinced Milan to wash their hands of expensive signings who wouldn’t fall in line with Capello’s demands.
It was down to Capello that Edgar Davids’ Milan career was over before it ever really got started. Though, in Capello’s defense, he did reportedly tell the Milan upper office to sell Davids abroad and avoid the risk of the Dutchman becoming a force with Milan’s Serie A rivals.
The club didn’t listen, and we all know how Davids’ Juventus career turned out. And it was Capello who oversaw the signing of future Golden Boot-winner Davor Suker to Real Madrid’s frontline in 1996, only to threaten to drop Suker from the team during Capello’s entire year there if Suker and fellow strike partner Predrag Mijatovic didn’t heed to Capello’s demands to involve a little-known Real Madrid 19-year-old forward in their attacking play at the time. That young fella’s name was Raúl.
Breaking Raúl into the first team at Real Madrid is no mean feat on Capello’s CV, mirroring his decision to coach a young Paulo Maldini (back when Capello was Milan Primavera coach) all the way to the Rossoneri’s senior team, and later on breaking Giorgio Chiellini into the Juventus senior side. So Capello was to balance his big-budget signings with the ability to promote generation-defending young talents, but all this to say: Capello arrived at Roma as a coach with the reputation for expensive tastes, and no expenses spared.
It didn’t matter who you were or how big your reputation as a player. If Capello felt he’d made a mistake in signing you, he’d lobby the club to get rid of you all the same—no matter the cost.
So, despite Franco Sensi’s claim that he could no longer afford massive changes, Roma had clearly hired a coach who was even more uncompromising than Zeman when choosing Fabio Capello to be Il Boemo’s successor. Yet another facet of Capello’s approach to man-management that made him an unusual choice for the Roma bench was Capello’s willingness to ramp up the spotlight on players in his post-match conferences when results weren’t being met.
Aside from the previous comments he made to Rai Tre as Milan coach on the way out the Milanello door, Capello wasn’t afraid to publicly pull the cards of his Madrid players right in the middle of that 1996-1997 La Liga title campaign.
“If you want to build a strong team,” said Capello to the press immediately after a comeback Real victory over minnows Hercules di Alicante that season, “you have to act like men, telling each other what’s wrong to each other’s face.”
That was after a Real Madrid win—in only the second league game of the season! Such were the demands Capello placed on his team from the get-go. In today’s game where modern players’ emotions are wrapped in marshmallows, that’s seen as the cardinal sin of throwing the team under the bus.
That sentiment goes double at a club like Roma, where players are idolized as either world-beaters or world-beaters-in-the-making. But despite all the reasons why Roma and Capello didn’t look like a happy marriage in the making, there was the undeniable pull of unfinished business for Fabio in Rome.
By going back to Roma, Capello was re-visiting another former club of his playing days. We’ve covered his playing history before with Roma, so we’ll be brief with the details here. But it’s enough to say that a young Capello—in his early twenties at the time—was one of three major Roma youth talents “sacrificed” to Juventus at the dawn of the 1970s.
That was a decade where Roma were recovering from major losses and, in a twist of irony, the expense of hiring megastar-coach Helenio Herrera meant the club were forced to balance the books by selling one of their best young players in Fabio Capello. Three decades later, Capello was back and ready to find closure on a long-lost chapter of his footballing story.
Now he was that megastar coach. Now he was ready to prove that he wasn’t just a “company man” of Berlusconi’s in Milan. Now he was ready to prove he hadn’t merely found himself in the right place/right time to take over from Arrigo Sacchi on the Milan bench and enjoy the fruits of Sacchi’s labor with the Rossoneri.
Most of all, Capello was ready to prove you could break the Big Three hegemony in Italian football, by launching his most ambitious Scudetto challenge at a club like Roma.
What Changed on the Pitch at Capello’s Roma?
When Mourinho takes charge of Roma this summer, the expectation is that The Special One can help bring balance to a Giallorossi side that’s proven itself capable of scoring goals, capable of working together to create quantity and quality of goal chances but critically lacking the ability to manage games in big moments. It was a similar mandate for Fabio Capello at the turn of the millennium when he was brought in to tweak Zeman’s prolific Roma into a balanced machine at both ends of the pitch.
Capello, as a former international player himself, is known more for his brutal honesty with players, his attention to detail when it comes to building a club environment, and his attention to his players’ technique on the training pitch. Strategy and tactics are the few areas in Capello’s portfolio where the Italian legend is uncharacteristically modest about his influence on his teams—though he is known to take credit for other coaches’ victories once they succeed him at clubs.
He once called Alberto Zaccheroni’s Scudetto-winning side of 1999 “his” (Capello’s”) Milan team, claiming the spirit that went into that Milan resurrection was down to the foundations he’s relayed at the club.
That’s a bold claim, given Zaccheroni was one of the hottest properties in the league at the time and shifted Milan’s football to playing his favored three-at-the-back, brought right-back Thomas Helveg and forward Oliver Bierhoff with him from Udinese, and helped Milan finish 1st in the league just 12 months after Capello had walked out the door on a Rossoneri team that finished mid-table.
The truth may lie somewhere in between when it comes to that 1999 Milan Scudetto win, but Capello, for his part, wasn’t immediately ready to shift to a three-man backline in Rome, despite showing he had the taste for it in his Real Madrid title win of 1997; and despite it being the new trend in Serie A at the time (though a three-man defense back then doesn’t have the same implications that three-at-the-back has in Serie A today). Instead, when Capello took residence in the Eternal City, he shifted away Zeman’s old 4-3-3 formation to Capello’s tried-and-true 4-4-2 shape—the same shape he’d inherited from Sacchi back in the glory Milan days of the mid-nineties.
Capello’s keen eye reckoned expensive striker Marco Delvecchio would struggle to meet expectations as Rome’s chosen goalscorer in the capital. What Delvecchio had in spades, though, was work rate—not something you’d say at first glance when looking at his wafer-thin frame. But Delvecchio had shown enough grit under Zeman’s system that Capello felt he could move the Italian striker back into a four-man midfield.
Delvecchio now operated as a right-winger that helped to cover the defensive side of Roma’s game from that flank, while box-to-box midfielder Eusebio Di Francesco was initially pushed out to be a wide player on the opposite flank. The biggest implication of all this was upfront: Roma’s number 10, Francesco Totti, was now going to be leading from the frontline.
Totti had previously been shifted out wide left under Zeman—a standard tactic in global football to help protect a fantasista who’s creating a lot for your team, but risking turnovers of possession because of the inherent risk in his creativity. From the wide position, Totti losing the ball at least meant Roma wasn’t losing it in dangerous areas.
Zinedine Zidane got the same treatment at the international level for France, Ronaldinho would later get the same treatment at both PSG and Barcelona. But Franco Sensi’s Roma were fresh out of transfer market funds (only able to re-up their finances by going for an IPO on the stock market for the first time in the club’s history—and selling off a third of A.S. Roma in the process) and needed to make an icon out of the greatest football talent to ever graduate from Roma’s academy.
So Totti was one of Roma’s chosen front two, even if it wouldn’t last long before Capello told Totti privately in training that if he didn’t improve his shooting technique, he would never be taken seriously as a goalscorer.
A hot take, indeed.
Then Fabio Capello’s hand was forced when it came to picking Totti’s strike partner in that inaugural 1999-2000 Capello season. The general chaos that surrounded Roma’s signing of goal-getter Vincenzo Montella from Sampdoria was Capello’s first hint that his chairman Franco Sensi was, quite frankly, a tool.
Sensi had been caught in between signing Montella to meet Zeman’s wishes and then firing Zeman. All the while Roma greeted a striker nicknamed ‘The Little Airplane’ to take over the number nine shirt while hiring Fabio Capello as the new Roma coach...when Capello didn’t like diminutive strikers in his team. You still with us? Yeah. It was a relief for everyone at the club then, when transfer consultant Franco Baldini won the good graces of both Franco Sensi and Fabio Capello in his short time working with the club.
Baldini first hit Roma’s radar when he helped the club sign Paulo Sergio to Zeman’s frontline. But years of careless spending by Franco Sensi—performing at the club as his own sporting director prior to Baldini—meant the club was weighed down by misfits like Gustavo Bartelt and Fabio Junior. While Franco Baldini began to inherit the sporting director role at the club, Roma were already forced to sell Paulo Sergio to Bayern Munich in 1999 to redress the balance.
That meant Capello went into that season with Totti and Montella upfront and precious little backup on the bench. But it was also the dawn of a plot from Baldini and Capello to use Franco Sensi’s hunger to win public approval against him, signing one of the (if not THE) greatest striker to the club just 12 months later.
Before then, however, Capello had some of his own transfer flops to confront.
Out went Luigi Di Biagio on a free transfer to Inter in 1999, and Damiano Tommasi took up his place as the ball-winner in Roma’s new flat-four midfield. Tommasi’s rising influence in the team proved crucial, but Capello’s choice of midfield partner for him was less so.
Marcos Assuncao was tasked with being the creator—and free-kick taker—to help launch Roma on the counter, but Assuncao flattered to deceive in his time at the capital club. At the back, Capello put an end to Roma’s goalkeeping woes by bringing AC Milan academy product Francesco Antonioli to the capital.
The Italian keeper was never spectacular for Roma (especially not in the golden age of Italian keepers at the time) but he was at least consistent and reliable. In front of Antonioli, Fabio Petruzzi was replaced with Brazilian defender Zago alternating with new signing Amedeo Mangone (he was the club’s underwhelming plan B when their bid to sign Rio Ferdinand failed). Neither defender found consistency in their performance and, coupled with an aging Aldair at the back, that meant Capello was far more conservative in the number of Roma players he would allow to break forward in attack. It was far more conservative football than Capello had shown in his Milan days.
On the tactical side, Capello had previously shown himself a manager happy to let his Milan sides commit as many as eight players running forward to attack, as well as letting the libero defender Franco Baresi swap positions with one of the central midfielders while Milan were on the ball. He knew the overriding culture of AC Milan in the 1990s was one where they were used to using greater numbers in attacks to create easy, short-passing chances on route to goals.
The only major tweak Capello had ever made to that Milan dynasty was to ask them to use the offside trap less aggressively. But it was evident to Capello he wouldn’t have the same luxury of being so cavalier in Rome.
Aldair was too advanced in years to risk pushing him up in midfield, and Roma’s other centre-halves just weren’t that good defensively. Capello restricted his Roma side to commit a maximum of five players in attack (if he was feeling generous) while using the re-inforced steel of his hard-working midfield to shield the defense. Assuncao’s hot-and-cold form was quickly replaced with a fellow new signing at the club: Italy U-21 international midfielder Cristiano Zanetti.
Despite Zanetti’s good performances and willingness to match the general work rate of Capello’s team, injuries soon followed. Repeatedly. Both to Zanetti and many other Roma players that year, which meant an underwhelming 6th-place finish in Serie A for the 1999-2000 season.
It was good enough to bring Roma back to the UEFA Cup, but not what the club or press had in mind when they’d landed the blockbuster signing of Fabio Capello to the Roma bench just 12 months earlier. What’s more: Lazio were now the reigning 2000 Serie A champions just across the city. Changes were needed in the culture surrounding the club if Roma were really going to mount a title challenge for the 2000-2001 season. Capello will be the first person to admit that a coach (or specifically an antagonistic, results-driven coach) has a limited window of time to galvanize a club and dressing room behind his mandate.
If you go with the general thinking that a coach needs three years—but no more—to really shape a team in his image, then Don Fabio had already used up one of them on what was mediocrity by his high standards. Accordingly, Capello's influence really started to extend beyond the pitch in the summer of 2000, molding perhaps the most tight-knit coaching staff that A.S. Roma has ever seen.
2000-2001: Galbiati, Neri, Tancredi, Baldini...and Batistuta
One year into Capello’s reign, Roma’s players couldn’t pretend they weren’t familiar with Capello’s attention to detail by now. The coach known as the Sergente di Ferro (Drill Sergeant) had already deemed there to be a culture of “laziness” at the club—within his first week on the job—and confronted it head-on.
“Just to make you understand what the players were used to [at Roma]”, recalled Capello to Sky Sport (via Corriere dello Sport) just last year, “Sensi showed me around Trigoria to see the buildings. He showed me the players’ bedrooms and they weren’t in the best shape, then he showed me the [new state-of-the-art rooms] of the youth players.”
“So I told the president that the first team should sleep in the youth team’s rooms and vice versa. Then the team rounded up after the first session one day, and the players were asking me why they weren’t staying in their old bedrooms anymore. In their view, the old rooms were more convenient to go directly to the dressing room. I replied that the new rooms were better because they were air-conditioned. But there’s the problem: The laziness of having to walk an extra 50 metres just to reach the dressing room. That’s just to explain how the team mentality was at the time.”
Then came the changes to training and player recruitment. Roma knew they had to tackle their injury problems if they were to march up the table, and Capello solidified a mix of old and new loyalists within his inner circle at the club.
Capello had already brought assistant manager Italo Galbiati with him, from their days together at Milan and Madrid. Franco Baldini was given more and more responsibility by Capello to go out and find the transfer targets needed to take Roma to the next level. As Capello first crossed paths with Baldini in their time in Rome, so too was the story between Capello and goalkeeping coach (and Roma Hall of Famer) Franco Tancredi. But if you believe Roma president Sensi’s view on the changes, then Capello’s most influential move was bringing back fitness coach Massimo Neri to Roma.
Neri had previously worked at the club under former Roma manager Carlo Mazzone but soon chose to follow Capello wherever the latter went. It was the same story for Baldini, Tancredi, and Galbiati; who all followed Capello to Juventus (with the exception of Franco Baldini and his scorn for all things tainted by Luciano Moggi), Real Madrid, England, and then, in the twilight years of Capello’s career, everyone on the coaching staff working with Fabio in Russia and China.
If you ever played Championship Manager 2001-2002 as any club other than Roma, then you knew it was damn hard to try and entice any one of Galbiati, Neri, or Tancredi away from Roma. Along with Baldini, these guys were a real full-service unit behinds the scenes.
At one point in Capello’s second spell at Real Madrid (in 2006-2007), the club forced Capello to let Massimo Neri go in favor of Madrid’s preferred fitness staff. But that’s one of the few stretches in which any of the core men of Capello’s unit have gone different paths. If Capello first needed to break down players to get inside their heads, then Neri’s training regime was the structured yet blunt instrument that would help Capello dig to the core of Roma’s psyche.
Neri believed the competitive edge for football players was rooted in greater athleticism, and absolutely not on isolating muscles to compete on strength. In other words: Ditch the weight training.
Neri became known for putting players through a graduated fitness regiment—from pre-season all the way through the calendar year—that started with long-distance running (three separate sessions of running 1.3 km each—just for starters!) in the mountain range away from Rome, and ended with high-speed, repetitive sprints over shorter distances as Trigoria. This was a daily pre-season occurrence.
Neri wanted Roma players to be confident they could last well past the 90 minutes AND enjoy the edge of greater explosiveness within the tight spaces of Serie A games. Neri is also adamant, to this day, that a lot of football injuries can be blamed on over-emphasizing strength training, but he’s also the first person to tell young players that they should consider doing longer aerobic and technical sessions in general, even if that meant taking time in the rest of the day to craft their own personal, individual sessions at home on top of the workload asked of the team.
“A 2-hour training session won’t kill anyone,” said Neri to CalcioScout much later in 2015. “There are no tricks in football training [for success] but my advice would be: Don’t limit yourself to only training with the team, whose sessions are sometimes limited to a maximum of 50 to 60 minutes.
“If you really want to improve yourself as a player, take note of the best tennis players. They’re often on court doing 3 to 4 hour training sessions, working on the same technical moves. In even the best hypothetical team training, how often are you really going to touch the ball in a session split between 20 to 24 players? Think about it.”
In truth, Neri talking about the need for more involvement on the ball in training sessions is a big departure from the image he and Capello’s loyalists held in Italian football throughout the 2000s. At the turn of the millennium, Capello’s teams had a reputation for being focused on athletic, aerobic training exclusively. Ballplayers be damned.
And that was the image of Capello’s title-winning Roma of that 2000-2001 season on the pitch. Roma were gritty, defensive, and reactive. Roma were focused on defending the result once they’d won the lead in games. That routine almost led to their premature downfall on the pitch in the spring of 2001.
Capello’s 3-5-2 Roma Wins the 2001 League Title at the Death
This was the era of the Seven Sisters, where even Fiorentina and Parma were footballing powerhouses on the continental stage. Club owners had delusions of grandeur, seeing the political and public relations success that Silvio Berlusconi enjoyed at Milan in the 1980s onwards, and seeking to replicate that success for themselves.
There’s a poignant piece of dialogue in the 2011 drama film Il Gioellino—based on Parma and Parmalat’s downfall and the European financial crisis brought about by them cooking the books (and also starring Daniele De Rossi’s wife)—where the main character playing a football club owner is advised that success in Italy means running a company, running a bank and running a football club.
In other words: Footballing success was public relations.
The league was a marketing platform to reach the young, male political voters of Italy. The end result, on the pitch, was a ton of money spent into Italy’s top seven teams at the time (and an elusive return on investment that they’d never see), which all contrived to lower the points tally needed for Capello’s Roma to win Scudetto in an 18-team league season. So Capello trained Roma, in pre-season, with a mind to keeping a flat back four formation, reasoning that new signing Emerson would be given the keys to the midfield and shift the odds in Roma’s favor for the 2000-2001 calendar. But Emerson picked up a serious injury weeks before the beginning of Matchday 1, meaning Capello was back to square one.
The manager had to deal with the fact he’d lost the most sought-after player of their summer transfer campaign. The gamble and faith he’d placed in his Brazilian star was just the beginning of a long-term relationship between Capello and Emerson, who would later move on together from Roma to both Juventus and Real Madrid.
The real stink of Capello leaving for Juventus in 2004 was that he outright told the Roma squad to their faces that Capello felt Emerson was more of a leader than Francesco Totti at the time, and told the Roma dressing room to follow Emerson as an example if the team wanted another shot at success. At the time, it wasn’t clear to anyone involved that Emerson was just weeks away from joining Capello up in Turin.
Only a handful of people could have seen that coming, but not the coach nor the players. Instead, it was left up to the Sensi family to sell Emerson behind everyone’s back.
There the Sensis sat in the office Roma Mayor Walter Vetroni, a football journalist turned public servant and known Juventus fan. Joining Vetroni and the Sensis for the summer 2004 meeting? None other than Juventus’ upper management to finish the Emerson transfer deal.
On the other end of the phone line, the Sensis had their sporting director Franco Baldini insisting he could get more money if Roma sold Emerson to Real Madrid instead. But the Sensis were determined to do business with Juventus in the long-term, as part of an understanding reached with Juventus to bail Roma out of their financial troubles.
The Emerson deal left Franco Baldini with a bitter taste, watching close colleague Capello go north to Turin and Baldini’s bosses in Rome getting into the bed with what was still, at the time, Luciano Moggi’s Juventus. It was too many personal blows for Baldini to take at the hands of nemesis Moggi at the time, so Baldini walked out on Roma by the spring of 2005. But not before cutting an interview on TV where Baldini cryptically warned that Italian football was rife with corruption and would meet its comeuppance soon enough (he was proven right by the summer of 2006 and Calciopoli).
Such was the price Roma and nearly every other one of the Seven Sisters paid for their over-spending in that era.
Unfortunately, the 2001 title win just didn’t take on a commercial level. Roma didn’t go critical mass on a national, European, or global stage even if their spending was enough to fund a small nation’s military. But Roma wasn’t in a position to gain fans from other big clubs overnight and, even if they had been, they lacked the structure to take advantage of those gains, regardless.
This was simply ill-thought spending with no real chance of recouping from the Sensis, but some fans (like a teenage me at the time!) would tell you the joy of Roma’s 2001 victory was all worth it.
Back at the starting blocks of that ‘00-’01 season, the injury to Emerson forced Capello to re-think how he wanted to split the game time among Zanetti, Tomassi, and Assuncao (midfielder Di Francesco also spent most of the 2000-2001 season on the injury table). Short of bodies in midfield and his managerial instincts telling him that a young Walter Samuel was ready to be Roma’s physical phenom at the back, Capello finally jumped on the mainstream wave of playing a three-man backline to compete at the top of the league table.
But the 3-5-2 formation (or 3-4-1-2 formation) was based on defensive solidity rather than what a three-man backline in Serie A is used for today. In present-day Serie A, teams play to recover the ball much higher up the pitch on average, and so Italian teams usually find it difficult to break out of the opposition press on their backline and midfield. Today’s Serie A teams look to use more ball-players at the back to help link up the backline with the midfield and attack in the possession phase. But Capello’s Roma certainly wouldn’t have faced those problems in that area of the pitch (and if they did, they could always bring Aldair off the bench to add some class on the ball). Roma definitely weren’t a team to press high up the pitch, either.
At Milan, Capello had chosen not to change Sacchi’s legacy of immediately pressing the ball anywhere on the pitch whenever Milan lost possession. But, by the time he reached Roma, Capello instructed the Giallorossi to only press other teams once the opponent was fully in control of the ball. Not a moment sooner.
That left Roma enough time to fall back into defensive 5-3-2 shape, with Candela and Cafu moving back from midfield to form a five-man backline off the ball. In more aggressive games, Candela would stay in midfield to try and trap the ball out wide, but that was the closest Capello’s Roma came to living on the wild side.
Fundamentally, Capello used three-at-the-back as a defensive strategy to snuff out the threat on Roma’s goal before Antonioli ever had to worry about raising a glove. Truthfully, Zago and Jonathan Zebina weren’t the best of defenders (despite Zebina’s eye-watering transfer fee) but Walter Samuel’s performances for Roma were as good as it gets. Zanetti and Tommasi worked hard at shielding the defense and, as we mentioned, Vincent Candela was handy at tackling the ball out wide on the flank.
Candela was never a great player (certainly never put in the same conversation as his French international counterpart Bixente Lizarazu at the time) but he raised his level of performance under Capello. On the other flank, Cafu was well on his way to getting into the conversation for Greatest Right-Back of All Time—the Brazilian could operate just as well defensively as he could join Roma’s attack. The motivation Cafu found under Capello meant that the coach had indirectly given the Brazil national team the best days of the Cafu-Roberto Carlos partnership to come.
It was Capello who brought Roberto Carlos to Real Madrid back in 1996 after the Brazilian left-back was deemed a flop in Italy at Inter Milan. When Roberto Carlos looked back on his playing career, he would explain his change of fortune at Madrid, under Capello’s stewardship, with a simple observation: “At Inter Milan, no one actually told me that I also had to defend.”
If there was anything Capello would have been disappointed over that Brazil World Cup 2002 success, it was Emerson missing out on the tournament. By the summer of 2002, Emerson was meant to captain the Brazil team that would go on to lift the Jules Rimet trophy at the Japan/South Korea tournament. But once again, Emerson suffered an injury in the Brazil friendlies leading up to the match.
That Emerson was meant to be the leader of that team was testament to his form in a Roma shirt by then, which began when the Brazilian recovered mid-season, during 2000-2001, to add some more steel and verve to that title-winning Roma midfield.
In the end, Roma won that 2001 league title with a tally of just 75 points; a far cry from the two-team Serie A seasons that would largely follow after Calciopoli, where sometimes upwards of 80 points only won you a top three finish. With the Seven Sisters taking points off one another, the margin for error in Roma’s title push was greater. But some draws and losses in that 2001 spring had the season on a knife-edge, all the same.
A 3-1 loss away to Fiorentina in April was a dent in Roma’s psyche, as were the series of draws that Roma limped to in the aftermath. A 2-2 draw at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin kept Juventus at bay in the title run-in, but it was treated like a win given that Roma were down on morale and down two goals within the first six minutes of that title-deciding crunch match. The mental pressure of trying to deliver a title in Roma colors weighed that heavily on the team.
That pressure led to visible inhibitions on the pitch, where you began to worry if Capello’s tactics weren’t too defensive, leaving the team full of too many doubts at the beginning of matches where the onus was on the Giallorossi to break open the scoreline at 0-0. Thank God (or Totti), then, for Capello and Baldini’s emotional blackmail over president Franco Sensi in the summer of 2000; a gambit that landed them Gabriel Omar Batistuta.
Batistuta remains the man who defines the term “clutch” in Roma’s modern footballing history. In order for Roma to get their hands on Batigol, the duo of Baldini and Capello got in touch with famed football journalist Mario Sconcerti at the Corriere dello Sport to right a few wrongs in Roma’s failed transfer bids gone by.
Capello had wanted Roma to sign Ruud Van Nistelrooy to his frontline, but the club (as was frequently the case) took their time haggling over RVN until the opportunity was lost, with the Dutch striker seriously injuring his knee in the spring of 2000. Ruud was out of action for the rest of his PSV career, but a certain manager at Manchester United never lost faith in his talent and wrapped up his signing later on. Meanwhile, Capello was left with Bartelt and Junior. Vincenzo Montella did his best to win over Capello’s prejudice against him by scoring 18 goals in Capello’s first season at Roma, but Don Fabio still had his eyes set on something different.
So Baldini and Capello got Sconcerti to put a story in the paper that Roma had won the race to sign Batistuta (it wasn't true but drove fan expectations to fever pitch—now Sensi HAD to sign Batistuta), who was being forced to end his spell as Fiorentina’s captain because of the Viola’s own money troubles at the turn of the millennium.
Batistuta wanted one legitimate shot at winning the league title that his prolific Serie A career deserved, and played that 2000/01 season on essentially one healthy knee to get it done. Twenty league goals (21 in all competitions) for Batistuta told the rest of the story.
There may be a debate today over whether Dzeko or Batistuta is Roma’s greatest striker in modern football history, and Dzeko certainly deserves credit for shouldering the responsibility of taking over Francesco Totti’s withdrawn/complete forward role in the False-9 era that still shapes the club’s playing identity right now. But when you factor the weight of Batistuta’s transfer fee, the ailing health problems that Batistuta refused to show on the pitch, the emotional weight of divorcing his old club in a way that made sure that ONLY winning a league title with his new club would make the “betrayal” of Fiorentina worth it (Fiorentina fans originally torn down Batistuta’s club statue in 2000, only to make peace and rebuild it later), then does it really matter if Batistuta only had one great season in a Roma jersey?
Batistuta delivered under immense pressure, his goals bringing his Roma team across the finish line.
When it comes to being the big man for the big occasion, if you’re comparing Batistuta to any other Roma striker then you’re likely talking apples and oranges. But Capello and his inner circle didn’t only base their 2001 title success on big-money transfer signings (including Emerson and Walter Samuel to change the entire spine of the team), nor training regimes and not even changing the club’s culture and routine at Trigoria. Capello, as we mentioned previously, based a lot of his success on man-management.
If he was going to confront what he saw as “lazy Roma culture”, then Capello knew he had to try and get inside the head and heart of Roma golden boy Francesco Totti, to try and break him down mentally and rebuild Totti closer to Capello’s vision of a number 10.
It was a bold gamble; one that eventually saw Capello and Totti’s relationship put on ice, and had Capello leaving to Juventus three years later. The very same Juventus that Capello publicly promised Roma he’d never leave them for again.
The Capello Cycle: Destroy, Rebuild, Victory
“[But] I never had any personal problem with Totti,” Capello said to Sky Sport. “Maybe I asked him to give more, to be less Romano, meaning to be less lazy. He could do it all and do it more. I never questioned the strength or the quality of the player, nor the human side. Actually, if I have to tell you [about the personal side], I advised Totti to stop giving away money to his agent. I told him a player like him didn’t need an agent. He needed a business manager or a lawyer to do his contracts.”
Since Capello’s days as Roma manager, he’s been joined by other voices inside the club’s history who point out Totti is better off finding some kind of love affair with hard work, rather than relying on his status and talent to make things come together for him. But the fact is only Francesco Totti will ever know what it’s like to the main event, the icon, and the showstopper at the epicenter of Rome’s thirst for sporting success for over 25 years. So if Totti has only ever reacted to Capello’s provocations with lukewarm feelings at best, then Totti must have his own reasons.
And Totti isn’t alone when he dismissed Capello as one of Totti’s least-favored coaches in his playing career.
Fabio Capello heaps tons of praise on midfielder Damiano Tommasi as Capello’s “best player” during their spell in Rome, but Tommasi freely admits he found Capello a killjoy, and Tommasi gives credit for his own footballing success to Zdenek Zeman. Though Tommasi also recognizes the symbolic importance of hiring a top-status coach like Capello at the time, as the ex-midfielder claims it gave the team “the knowledge that we could win and the duty to win” on a mental level. It’s a similar story with Vincent Candela and others. That Fabio Capello remains so unloved in Roma folklore, despite the success he brought, is perhaps what drove him to declare Christian Panucci (who played under Capello at Milan, Real Madrid and Roma) as “his only friend in football”.
And even Panucci had several run-ins with Capello in Rome. That’s just the way Capello ticks. Even after Capello retired from football, he still refuses to play the people-pleasing game as a regular guest on Sky’s Calcio Club.
If he’s not warning Inter prodigy Sebastiano Esposito (whose football agent is Francesco Totti) to “not make the same choices as Nicolò Zaniolo [by moving from Inter to Roma]”, then Capello is busy creating awkward silences in Atalanta post-match interviews by warning Gian Piero Gasperini, out of context amid yearly speculation that Gasperini could jump ship to take the Roma coaching job, that “Roma isn’t Bergamo.”
Capello has also openly reflected on his second spell at Madrid, where he admonishes the Italian view of European football at the time, claiming that “many people in Italy” were talking about Capello going back to Madrid as if he were “joining a lesser league.” Don Fabio simply takes no prisoners, and it’s that no-nonsense style that he carried with him throughout his managerial career.
Capello is less of a talker, though. His first move as Roma coach was to silently let the club know he would no longer respond to questions from the local press, and would only take questions from the national papers like Gazzetta dello Sport. It wouldn’t be right to characterize Capello as an agent provocateur the way Mourinho plays up to that particular role on the microphone. Capello’s spell as Juventus manager was characterized, by former Juve midfielder Alessio Tacchinardi, as one where Capello would watch all training sessions from afar, his iron gaze letting the players know that they were under surveillance.
That wasn’t such a common approach for most Serie A coaches; not even his Juve predecessor Marcelo Lippi. It was one thing for a head coach to look in on tactical training and technical training. It was another thing entirely that Capello stood in on every single training session, including physical sessions led by Massimo Neri.
The Sergente di Ferro was always mentally taking notes, watching a player’s technique, posture, and movements on the pitch. Always ready to tell the next up-and-coming defender when he had the stuff to make it at the top level, and always ready to tell a young, precocious Zlatan Ibrahimovic that the superstar forward’s ball-striking technique was absolutely wrong. Ibrahimovic non sapeva calciare (“Ibrahimovic doesn’t know how to kick”).
That critique on his game doesn’t stop Ibrahimovic from citing Capello and Mourinho as the two best coaches the Swede has ever worked with, and even putting Capello on top as Zlatan’s most impressive manager of the two.
“When [Capello] gets angry,” Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography of their time together at Juventus, “there are few who would dare to look him in the eyes. Capello is not your friend. He doesn’t make chit-chat with the players. He’s the drill sergeant, and it’s generally not a good sign when he calls you over to talk.
“He destroys and rebuilds. I like men who have that kind of power and character. Once, Zebina slid in on me [in Juve training] in a way that was particularly hard. I stood in front of him and told him right in his face: ‘If you want to play hard, tell me right now. Then I’ll know to do it, too.’”
“So he gave me a headbutt and the situation got heated very quickly. I hit him out of instinct, and he immediately dropped [flat on the ground]. Capello stayed put, just a little way away, with an ice-cold air around him as if none of this affected him. Thuram reacted differently. ‘Ibra’, he went on the attack against me, ‘you’re young and stupid. Don’t do that. You’re an idiot.’”
“Then a raised voice came from across the pitch: ‘Thuuuuuuraaaam,’ yelled Capello, ‘shut up and move away.’ Capello never gave us any warning about it again. He simply said: “That was a good thing for the team.’”
That was part of Capello’s team-building technique. When he was asked what makes a successful managerial style, Capello often warned that the group should be wary of false leaders.
There were false captains, false idols, and characters who were willing to talk a good game about sacrifice and winning games but, when it really came down to it, the team didn’t follow them because those players didn’t deliver under pressure. Capello also talked about how “players constantly watch the coach” to try and figure out if that man is the right one to steer them towards victory.
As much as the press felt Capello’s stare over his players, Capello himself imagined the constant gaze of his players staring back in all those years. Watching. Trying to figure out if Fabio still had that passion for details of the game, or whether he would be out the door to his next club.
Respect is not given. It’s taken.
If Winning is Everything, Winning With Roma is Beyond Everything
Capello’s stint as Roma manager would prove to be his joint-longest spell at any given club—the five years between 1999 and 2004 equalling his first stay at Milan, and his five years sitting on the England bench.
If you count Capello’s two league titles won as coach of Juventus (which, if we’re being real, were unjustly stripped away from the club purely because Italian football needed to make an example of Moggi at the time), then he’s the joint-winningest manager in Serie A history alongside Giovanni Trapattoni on seven titles won.
Unlike Trap and other successful names like Allegri, however, Capello mastered the unique feat of winning one of those titles away from the hegemony of Italy’s Big Three: The 2001 victory with A.S. Roma.
To Capello, it was all done by destroying and rebuilding teams. He never built a long-term dynasty at any club, but Capello didn’t know any other way. Leave it to Clarence Seedorf, speaking to Signori del Calcio once again, to widen the field of view beyond just results and trophies, to the different ingredients that go into the makeup of the world’s most successful managers.
Seedorf benefited from his spell under Capello, but he’s also known different approaches from guys like Carlo Ancelotti who’ve tasted success at every echelon of club football in their own way. Seedorf still has good words to send Capello’s way:
“The last game I played with Sampdoria was against Milan [in 1996],” said Seedorf. “At the end of the match, Capello comes to me and Karembeu to tell us: ‘Do you want to come with me to Real Madrid?’”
“‘Of course,’ we replied. Then when I arrived in Madrid, there was a very beautiful rapport created immediately with him. Not least of all because he believed in me, even if I was a very young player at the time. It’s true, Capello is very hard on players, very insistent on the pitch. He lasts very little time at his clubs because he doesn’t climb down to the level of fighting and arguments, and it can be that, after a couple of years, he doesn’t manage to press the right buttons to motivate that same group of players. Compared to someone like Ancelotti, Capello doesn’t gamble much on the human aspect of relationships. He wants results.”
“But with me, he was always great. He taught me important things, he put me at ease when it came to tactical understanding, gave me so much confidence, and raised my self-esteem. In fact, that season, that’s absolutely how we won the league.”