Fabio Capello has brushed off claims by José Mourinho that the Portuguese was the Football Association's preferred choice to become England manager three years ago, pointedly saying he would never comment publicly on another job out of "respect" for the incumbent.
The build-up to Tuesday evening's friendly against Ghana saw Capello forced to justify his decision to field an experimental side at a sold-out Wembley and to defend his command of the English language. The 64-year-old insisted he needs only "100 words maximum" to express his instructions to his players, although he was reluctant to use many of them when confronted by Mourinho's comments.
The Real Madrid manager, speaking in L'Equipe, had claimed he was within "hours" of succeeding Steve McClaren in 2007 only to inform the FA that he had had a late change of heart. "I almost signed up," he said. "But at the last moment I pulled back, preferring to wait for the right job to come along, a good club, a challenge that could motivate me. That was Internazionale."
The FA insisted on Monday night that, although Mourinho had featured on their two-man shortlist to replace McClaren, with public opinion having pressured them to explore his availability, Capello was "always our first-choice".
Asked about Mourinho's remarks, Capello was initially dismissive. "I don't know," he said. "This is a question for the chairman that chose me, not for me. It does not matter. Absolutely not. Every time a club or a national team decides to choose a manager, they decide to speak with a lot of managers. It's normal. This is not different."
Yet his response became more animated when pushed on the matter. "I don't like to speak about my relationship with other clubs or teams out of respect for other managers. I don't like to speak about this. I've said enough."
The timing of Mourinho's comments was distinctly unhelpful given the scrutiny under which Capello is working, particularly after his clumsy handling of the transfer of the captaincy from Rio Ferdinand back to John Terry. That farcical transition has endured another twist, with Terry one of six players released back to their clubs after the win in Wales on Saturday, leaving Gareth Barry, who was not deemed worthy of a place on the bench in Cardiff, to captain the side against Ghana. "It was a surprise," Barry said. "To find myself not involved at the weekend and then, a few days later, told I'm going to lead the team out at Wembley … it sums up how quickly things can change."
Capello's communication skills had been heavily criticised while the furore over the captaincy rumbled on – he intends to speak face to face with Ferdinand in the next few weeks – although he defended the standard of his English after more than three years as national coach. "I think when I speak with the players they understand everything," he said. " In this job, it's important when you speak with the players. If I need to speak about the economy or other things, I can't. But when you speak about tactics, you don't use a lot of words. I don't have to speak about a lot of different things. Maximum 100 words."
Capello has only 15 months left on his contract but suggested he is continuing to work hard to polish his English – "I try to improve every day" – and considers Tuesday evening's friendly an opportunity for fringe players to stake their claim for future inclusion. Scott Parker is expected to start on the bench as he struggles with minor calf and shoulder complaints, and Aaron Lennon has returned to Tottenham with a minor hamstring injury. Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Andy Carroll – who will play for up to an hour – will start in a 4-3-3 system, with Capello having spoken privately to the £35m Liverpool striker to discuss the off-field perils of life in the limelight.
"Look, he's young," said Capello. "Really young. His behaviour now is really, really important. He needs to be careful at every moment. When you play with the England team, at every moment you are the focus of the fans, the newspapers, the photographers, the people that live around him. I spoke with him privately. Not only Andy likes to drink beer. He needs to improve, to drink less."
That advice has not been offered to Jack Wilshere, who should start at Wembley, with Capello stressing that "[Arsène] Wenger will be a good teacher for him".
The crowd at the friendly will be swollen by up to 26,000 Ghana fans, although there is a sense of disappointment that England will be fielding such a skeleton side. "I decided to release the players because they would have played four games in 10 days, which is a lot," said Capello. "For the respect of the players, for the respect for the clubs, I decided these players can go home. Because in this period, if you are tired at the end of the season, it's possible to realise really strong injuries. But this will be interesting for the fans, and for me, to see the value of the players when they play for England here."
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