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What Capello’s departure says about Chinese football

When the end came for Fabio Capello, it was tempting to shrug nonchalantly and claim clairvoyance by pointing to the growing pile of tattered CVs strewn around a bin labelled ‘Foreign CSL Failures’. After all, Sven Goran Eriksson, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Felix Magath etc. have all been ushed out the door by club owners whose demands are notoriously opaque.

In Capello’s case, however, having guided Jiangsu Suning clear of relegation in 2017 and with the season still stumbling through its infancy, the departure was premature. The Italian is known for his austere relationship with media and so, unsurprisingly, discontent failed to surface in stale pre-match press conferences. In truth, Capello’s failure to last half a season is indicative of an endemic problem in the Chinese game; the struggle for control between footballing and non-footballing elements.

International media pointed vaguely in the direction of Suning’s “hierarchy”. Yet as is typical of Super League clubs, Jiangsu’s upper echelon is so removed in presence and so haphazard in voice that it is impossible to adequately diagnose the problems between the club and Señor Capello.

Perhaps, as rumor suggested, he was genuinely peeved by a boardroom instance to keep Alex Teixeira in lieu of Benjamin Moukandjo. Perhaps the new-fangled U23 rules lowered down from on high were more irksome than he’d anticipated. Or perhaps it was the calamity of VAR that particularly spoiled his spaghetti. It’s impossible to know.

Irrespective of the minutiae, the former England manager seemed to have lost a grapple for control over footballing decisions the type of control a megalith of European club football undoubtedly expected to hold at a club lacking both knowhow and pedigree. One images it’s a bit like hiring Mozart to play a dinner party, only to inform him upon arrival that the grand piano is off-limits and he’ll have to make do with a second-hand recorder and the tambourine found in an attic fancy dress chest. Chin-up Wolfgang, it’s only music.

It speaks to a desire of Chinese club owners and footballing authorities to court (read purchase) the brands and branded faces of football’s internationalism without submitting to their influence. This will to funnel Chinese football and its surrounding culture in a specific direction has been the basis for a host of recent headlines.

The China Cup was an attempt of Wanda Group and Gree Electric to capitalize upon the brands of Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez instead of focusing upon how best to improve the Chinese national team. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) pledges to develop football stars, yet plans to ban tattoos, themselves a hallmark of the very individuality from which the game is indivisible. A couple was recently ejected from a Chinese Super League game after a marriage proposal, a reflection of the narrow perimeter encircling ‘football culture’ in Chinese stadiums.

In this light, the hiring of Capello begins to seem purely like a publicity decision. A prestigious Italian face to match the outfit; Inter Milan’s appropriated black and blue stripes. In Suning’s eyes, if the Italian could successfully drive the hampered Suning train with only his left hand, well, fantastico! Geronimo! Full stream ahead! I

f not, so be it, at least Jiangsu got a glorious photo-op and international headlines to boot.

Inhabits Beijing. Consumes football. Runs marathons.

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