Saturday, March 29, 2008

Oh captain, my captain

For a position that requires the bearer to wear an armband and not much else - bring their familiarity with probability to the coin toss? Yell stuff like, "'e ain't don' nuffin' ref!" at the fella with the whistle? - there has been an awful lot of hoo-ha surrounding the issue of the England captaincy. In fact, leadership is right at the top of the agenda right now, particularly in terms of setting an example. What was John Terry doing whilst Ashley Cole pulled the head off of his teddy bear (also known as Mike Riley) at White Hart Lane? And how about William Gallas's wobble at St Andrews after Birmingham's late equaliser? Yes, that little (c) has become a weighty matter of late.

The issue of who would lead the boys out in the Stade de France generated enough column inches to reconstruct the Parthenon. In the end, Rio got the job after Terry was apparently overlooked by 'Il Professore' because of the general aspect of indiscipline that marks out the Chelsea captain. Of course, Terry's got poor form, so to speak, when it comes to speaking ill of the powers that be: he was fined early last year for questioning Graham Poll's decision to send him off in a match against Tottenham.

The Cole incident was a recent flashpoint, and highlighted the brothers-in-arms mentality that is the common mindset among footballers. Rather than step in and act as a placatory influence, Terry's first instinct, just like the rest of his team-mates, was to converge on Riley and unleash a storm of invective at the official. Similarly, when Javier Mascherano let his kettle boil over after being told to 'offski' at Old Trafford, it was noticeable that none of his fellow Reds managed to restrain him - an action that, had it been effectively carried out in the moments before the Argentine opened his chatterbox, would have saved Liverpool the penalty of being reduced to 10 men.

At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has said that he handed the responsibility of captaincy to Gallas to help forge a more committed, perhaps more stable, player who could help shore up the Gunners' back line. In doing so, he ignored the claims that Gilberto Silva - a more placid character by far - may have had on the role, and Gallas has undoubtedly responded with a certain vim and vigour. However, his passion has got the better of him at regular junctures (his recent lacrimation at Brum was preceded by a petulant kick at Nani in Arsenal's 4-0 drubbing against United), and the decision has highlighted the difficulty in trying to coerce your leader into also acting as an exemplar.

In picking Rio against France, then, Fabio Capello was perhaps just keeping the safety catch on. Ferdinand has performed creditably in the role for United in the absence of club captain Gary Neville, but then so has Ryan Giggs and even Cristiano Ronaldo. Roy Keane, who once skippered United with typical aggression, was symbolic of what has rightly come to be seen as the bad old days, and his ugly pursuing of Andy D'Urso as part of a pack of red-shirted team-mates was a nadir for player-official relationships. However, recently Ferguson seems to have abandoned the idea of having a 'representative on turf' - perhaps enforced by Neville's long-term absence - in favour of instilling a form of discipline throughout the team that needs little reinforcing by an armbanded senior player.

Because in reality, how important are such grass-stained generals? As Mascherano departed amidst much recrimination last week, where was his captain, Steven Gerrard? As a symbol for the crowd to exult and adore, Gerrard is a nonpareil - but as a communicator, a stabilising influence, even a motivator who can galvanise his team-mates through words rather than simply deeds, his worth must be questionable. Gallas and Terry are analogous figures - players whose characters override their ability to act as on-field prefects. A good example in the Premiership these days seems to be Gareth Barry, who quietly sublimates his own agenda in order to carry out his manager's bidding on the pitch. Martin O'Neill knows that Barry is a level-headed young man - and, more importantly, that the power of office won't go to his head.

Capello made a sensible call in throwing the elasticated black band Ferdinand's way. An unfussy player who can act as a focal point without distorting the focus, Rio is far more likely to embody his manager's ethos simply because he will concentrate on his game rather than grabbing the badge on his chest. And maybe, when it things get sharp and pointy, managers should be confident in their captain's ability to act as an ambassador for the team, rather than for their own ego.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home