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Column: Capello gives England excuse to fail again

Their colonial history notwithstanding, the English often like to think of themselves as being good at doing the right thing.

In deciding that John Terry should no longer captain the national team while accused of a racially aggravated crime, the English Football Association did the right thing.

Fabio Capello was either incapable or unwilling to accept that, and so said "ciao!" to his $9 million-a-year job as England coach. In doing so, the Italian demonstrated how little he learned about the English psyche in four years in charge of the Three Lions.

For Capello, the question of whether Terry shouted racial abuse at a black player was a matter for English courts to decide. And, strictly speaking, Capello is right. But there are broader considerations here, too, that Capello seemed to ignore, putting him on a collision course with the FA.

By suggesting that the Terry case isn't an issue for soccer to take a stand, that the Chelsea defender should remain England's captain because he is innocent until proven otherwise, Capello fell out of sync with both the FA and all those in England of various colors and political persuasions for whom the FA did the right thing.

It's often wise to be skeptical of politicians who milk the passions and popularity of sports to score easy points. But Prime Minister David Cameron's assessment of how Capello misjudged English moods was spot on.

"I don't think he was right about the John Terry issue," Cameron said Thursday as the nation digested wall-to-wall headlines about Capello's sudden resignation. "You can't be captain with that question mark that needs to be answered."

Terry stoutly insists that he didn't racially abuse Anton Ferdinand. If he is cleared at his trial in July, the FA decision to strip him of the captaincy will seem in hindsight to have been unfair, just as Capello suggested.

But the FA has a brand _ England _ and the reputation of English soccer to protect. It and others have worked hard _ and still have work ahead _ to rid the English game of racism. A head-in-the-sand, "not our problem" approach from the FA to the Terry case would have raised questions about English soccer's dedication to the anti-racism cause.

Capello seemingly didn't grasp that. His argument that it is not for "sports justice" to judge whether Terry committed a crime missed the point and took an overly narrow view of the issues. The FA wasn't judging Terry by ending his captaincy now. Instead, it was protecting itself and the image of England should he be found guilty later.

Doing so provoked much debate in England about how significant a captain is for a team. Some argued it is merely a ceremonial role no more important than that of a regimental goat.

Still, Terry, as captain, would have been the first player to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup above his head if England wins the European Championship final on July 1. So, even if ceremonial, the captain is still the face of a nation. It would reflect abysmally on England if a few weeks after Euro 2012 its captain is found to have shouted a racial slur at Ferdinand.

The idea that someone should not be punished "until it becomes official" was important for Capello, by all accounts a very principled man. For FA executives, the need to protect England, Terry and the captaincy by stripping him of that role "until the allegations against him are resolved" was so important that they went over Capello's head and acted without consulting their manager. Both points of view have merit but proved incompatible.

In abandoning ship four months before Euro 2012, the Italian bequeathed to his now ex-players the parting gift of a handy excuse.

If _ or should that be when? _ England labors in Group D against France and Sweden and makes Ukraine look like a decent side, expect Capello's ghost to re-enter stage left.

"Not really our fault, mate," you'll hear players say. "Given the mess caused by Capello's departure, what did you expect?"

A change of manager is not overnight going to cure the underlying reasons why England has failed to win a major trophy since the 1966 World Cup, not least of which is the physicality of English soccer and its lack of a winter break that together leave players drained and often broken for major international tournaments.

English media, which largely welcomed Capello's appointment on Dec. 14, 2007, started to turn against him after England's poor World Cup in 2010 punctured his winning aura. Much was made of how players supposedly chafed under his strict regime and bored of their Playstations and DVDs while locked away in Camp Capello in South Africa.

But shouldn't the honor of playing for England keep them motivated? Why is that too much to ask? The tendency of England players to buckle under, not shoulder, the weight of the England shirt predates Capello and will continue as one of soccer's riddles after he is gone.

That Capello was Italian was cool when he took over, replacing Steve McClaren who was uncool because he was English. Just as exotic meringue Pavlovas once seduced bland English palates, England at the start of the Capello era was hungering to go continental if that would bring success. Capello's broken English was deemed less important than his trophy-studded resume. The hope seemed to be that players would learn from Capello simply by osmosis.

Now the clamor is for the soccer equivalent of eel pie and ale _ Tottenham coach and London lad Harry Redknapp. As luck would have it, a jury acquitted Redknapp of tax evasion charges just hours before Capello resigned, clearing him for the England job should he and the FA so desire.

"We need an English manager now," tweeted Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand, Anton's older brother. "We don't need anything else lost in translation."

Englishness "should run right through the squad from players to tea lady," tweeted his teammate, striker Michael Owen.

Ah, dear England.

Still insular.

Still stuck in the limbo between eternal hope and near-certain disappointment at the next soccer rendezvous.

But still doing the right thing.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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