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John Brewin profile picture Posted by John Brewin
Jun 16, 2014

Capello driven by Russia challenge

Russia striker Aleksandr Kokorin says he's looking forward to showing what he and his teammates are capable of ahead of their game against South Korea.

CUIABA, Brazil -- A country of diminished hopes but lofty ambitions to go alongside considerable financial resources, there are many similarities between Fabio Capello's World Cup missions with England and Russia.

The Italian coach remains unbowed and unrepentant over what happened in South Africa in 2010, and affects diffidence to any questions about his English experience. Last year, when Russia played Brazil at Stamford Bridge, he deflected a question about Roy Hodgson's team with a simple "I don't care."

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Even now, he puts the blame for England's last-16 exit at the hands of Germany on the failure of the officials to notice that Frank Lampard's shot off the bar crossed the line. Had it been given, it would have completed an unlikely comeback from two goals down and would have turned the impetus England's way.

When asked on Monday if he has changed his outlook since 2010, he went on the offensive, suggesting it was that mistake in Bloemfontein that led FIFA to adopt the video technology that rubber-stamped France's second goal against Honduras on Sunday.

"I didn't change," he told a news conference ahead of his team's match with South Korea at Cuiaba's Arena Pantanal on Tuesday. "It's FIFA that changed. You saw the result yesterday. England was just penalised. Everyone knows, from 2-0 to 2-2 what difference that is. But anyway, this helped the case for technology. We paid the price for technology that is now out there."

Capello seems far more relaxed than he did under the predatory glare of an English press pack whose greatest problem with him was usually his shaky use of their language. It might irk them to know that in Cuiaba he used English freely, at one point reminding a photographer to take his camera with him, and joking with the FIFA delegate running the news conference. There was also a slight nod to his previous role with the suggestion that preparations for Brazil included the concept of "wanting to make sure the players didn't have anything to complain about."

Expectations among the Russian football public are not nearly as unrealistic as those of the English. Russia are underachievers on the international stage. Ahead of their hosting of the World Cup in 2018, Capello's mission was to simply qualify for Brazil's finals, a task that Guus Hiddink failed to do in 2010. Beyond that, making the knockout round would be deemed a success; Tuesday evening's opening match with South Korea can set the tone as Belgium are expected to be the major force in Group H.

"I am happy about what we have done so far, but this is just the beginning," said Capello. "I am confident in the abilities of my team. All of the teams that we are going to be playing against will realise that our team has great players in it."

The absence of skipper Roman Shirokov was mourned as a national crisis, and Capello delayed the announcement of his replacement in the armband until the eve of his opening match. Defensive mainstay Vasili Berezutski received the honour in Shirokov's stead, for which Capello's explanation was that his new leader "speaks English, and communication with the referees is very important."

Capello's preparations have other last-minute qualities about them. His squad arrived in Mato Grosso a day later than the Koreans, to follow the example of Italy's tardy arrival in Manaus ahead of their England victory. Indeed, Russia were among the latest travellers to Brazil itself, though Capello had an easy explanation for the logic in that decision.

"It was 32 degrees when we were training in Moscow," he said. "It was hotter in Moscow than everywhere else. I kept checking the globe. It doesn't feel that hot to me here."

Andrey Arshavin was moved on as Capello made his mark.

The hard-line disciplinary approach that eventually caused problems with his England charges has been met with approval in Russia, a country that understands the concept of dictatorial rule. Russian disaster at Euro 2012 was put down to the fecklessness of "playboys" like Andrey Arshavin, the likes of whom Capello swiftly jettisoned. The emphasis is on dogged tactics, hard work and the pressing game with which Capello had such success as a club coach at Juventus, Roma, Real Madrid and AC Milan.

"Our biggest star is the coach," said Berezutski. "He is a very respectable coach. He won titles in Spain and Italy, he is a Champions League winner. We don't have players in the squad with such a respected reputation."

Despite seeming more relaxed, some hardline stances remain. "As regard social media," said Capello. "I can tell you that tweets can sometimes be a nuisance if they are not written in intelligent fashion. In order to prevent such nonsense, I ask my players to abstain for one month. In one month they can go crazy." Having won a league title at every club he coached (although those in Turin were stripped after the Calciopoli scandal), the sense is that Capello -- after his disappointment in 2010 -- still feels he has something to prove as an international coach. "My motivation is that I want to do something different with new men, new languages and a new country," he said.

Wednesday will be Capello's 68th birthday, an age when he could be counting his considerable wealth in the idyllic Italian countryside. Instead, Cuiaba finds him embracing his latest challenge.

John Brewin

Based in London, from where he covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. He reported from the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and was formerly a senior editor of ESPNsoccernet.