A perennially underachieving European nation hires Fabio Capello to lead them to World Cup glory. They make him the highest-paid national team manager in the world and, after he guides them to first place in their qualifying group, reward him with an enormous contract extension.
Expectations rise heading into the tournament, not least because the draw appears -- on paper -- rather favorable. Then, in the first game, their goalkeeper makes a horrible blunder and they end up drawing a match they ought to have won, 1-1. And suddenly, cracks start to appear.
It was England four years ago, it's Russia now. Substitute Igor Akinfeev for Robert Green, and it's 2010 all over again. At least on the surface.
Capello -- whose Russia side take on Belgium at the Maracana on Sunday -- isn't about to follow the same script. For a start, unlike Green, Akinfeev will keep his place.
"He is an excellent keeper and there was never any question of dropping him," he says.
Like most in football, Capello has had a superstitious phase, most notably in his first stint at Milan, when he had a specific seating chart on the team bus. But that was 20 years ago. Today, he won't say whether he's still superstitious -- which some may interpret as "yes, I am, but I don't want to generate more negative juju" or "no, I'm not, and in fact, I don't want to talk about such nonsense" -- but the regrets of 2010 are still there.
He believes England could have become stronger as the tournament progressed. Take Green's blunder out of the mix and the run could have been entirely different. Ghana in the round of 16, Uruguay in the quarterfinals, the Netherlands in the semis ... all teams which, on paper, may have been beatable. (Spain in the final? Another story).
He's also still convinced that had Frank Lampard's ghost goal stood against Germany ("A grave injustice" he called it Friday) they could have beaten Argentina and then reached the semis, where -- again -- they would have smacked into Spain. In many ways, when Russia hired Capello, it seemed a good match. His desire to continue working was strong and he had long since nurtured the ambition of coaching a national team.
Why not Italy?
The reason for it is vintage Capello. His resume is fairly evenly matched with that of Marcello Lippi, the other great Italian coach of his generation. They've both won plenty of league titles and a Champions League crown, but the difference is that Lippi also guided the Azzurri to the 2006 World Cup title.
By coaching Italy, even if he became world champion, at best Capello would only be equalling his rival. But winning the World Cup with a foreign team, well, that would be entirely unprecedented, and it would swing the pendulum back in his favor.
That's the mentality of a man who turned 68 last week but looks and sometimes acts 20 years younger. Beyond the gruff exterior and cocksure veneer is a guy who regularly engages in self-examination -- though, it must be said, if he found he got something wrong, he usually corrects it quietly, rather than admitting his mistake.
And in Russia he found a group that's up his alley. It's a squad that's disciplined and -- more importantly -- doesn't mind taking orders. That in itself is a change from England, where, as recently as this past week, Rio Ferdinand complained that, during his time as national team coach, Capello ruled with an iron fist and rarely showed "warmth."
Indeed, the "five-star prison" -- as England's South Africa training camp in Rustenburg was routinely described -- probably wouldn't bother the Russians. They, perhaps more than those England players who complained to the media, seem pretty clear on the fact that they are professionals here to do a job.
The draw with South Korea was described as dour, but again, that's in keeping with Capello's pragmatism. He's often described as an uber-defensive manager, but in fact, with the right group, he's sent out entertaining and prolific teams, like his early Milan side or the Roma team that won Serie A in 2001. Right now, however, he sees the priority as the 2018 World Cup, which Russia will host. This is a dry run; it's about building confidence and experience, and the best way to do that is to advance from the group stage in Brazil.
"We lack international experience," Capello said last week. "We were as tense as the strings on a violin early in the South Korea game. But we showed strength of character in bouncing back after going behind. And that's important to me."
He keeps going back to the issue of international experience, and you can see why. Russia's top teams pay very high salaries, which means internationals have little incentive to move abroad. As a result, his entire squad is based at home.
"And in Russia, you can have up to seven foreign players in your starting lineup," he says. "Which means there are usually four Russians. With nobody abroad and 16 teams, you do the math and you'll see how many players I can choose from. Not many."
Given limited options and the importance of building self-belief, Capello has gone with a group heavy on veterans (Akinfeev, defenders Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich, wing-back Yuri Zhirkov and striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov all have at least nine years' service with the national side) with a sprinkling of youth (centre-forward Aleksandr Kokorin, midfielder Oleg Shatov) and some hand-picked veterans previously overlooked (left-back Andrey Yeschenko).
He lost midfielder Roman Shirokov, arguably his best player, to injury just before the tournament, but had no qualms about handing the keys to the midfield to Shatov, despite the fact that, at 23, he had only seven caps going into the tournament.
The players, at least in public, appear to have bought into his message. It isn't necessarily a visionary one -- like Jose Mourinho, Capello is more about executing basic tactics well rather than conjuring up brilliant schemes -- but then, it doesn't need to be. The way Akinfeev -- whom Capello describes as "one of the very best keepers in the world" -- apologized in public and blamed himself for the South Korea error is very much a function of his boss, a guy who is very big on "taking responsibility" and "owning up to mistakes." (His critics might point out that Capello values this in others and less so in himself, but that's another issue.)
Capello says he's not out to prove anything -- and, frankly, after nine league titles with four different teams and a Champions League crown, there isn't much to prove -- though it's telling that when people bring up England and perceived failures, his answer is always the same: "I don't talk about the past. The numbers talk for me."
And the numbers say that he has a higher winning percentage and the highest points-per-game ratio than any England manager, just as he has the highest points-per-game ratio of any Russian boss.
That said, especially after the England experience, Capello knows that it's not numbers that will keep him in a job. It's advancing in tournaments and the perception of forward progress. That is why he's well aware that, despite his new, big contract, getting it right against Belgium on Sunday and Algeria four days later will matter more to his future than what his statistics say.