Capello proves it: the P-word comes with responsibility

Work harder, practise more and take nothing for granted: no wonder the England manager is No 1, says Digby Jones.

There won’t be unanimity on ranking, or even inclusion, regarding The Times Sport Power 100; the margins between success and failure are so fine in the absolute (the furnace of pressure at the last) let alone in the comparative of opinion-driven rankings. But the list merits consideration as an important work because of that one word: power.

The judges analysed influence, esteem and impact (for good or bad, but there we go with the comparative again; Bernie Ecclestone, John Terry — influential for sure, but good or bad impact? In whose book?).

The most powerful person in British sport in 2010 is Fabio Capello, the England football manager. He not only has immense power vested in him but, to the delight of the many, he exercises it and is seen to exercise it. Upon his actions and decisions so many other factors, fortunes and ambitions will grow or wither.

He has, by actions, not words, crafted a template for managerial delivery in football from which many a manager in business and the public sector can derive inspiration. Power may be hinted at by words, but it takes effective form and drives change when action is taken and clearly understood by those affected.

I remember that early on in Capello’s tenure, as the final whistle went after a wonderful England performance, Wayne Rooney advanced on his new manager expecting no doubt the now-customary affectionate hug. What he received was a nod and an almost military-style handshake. The projection of power was in different hands.

Then there was the Terry issue. First, power was publicly transferred (not, note, delegated) by the FA to the manager. Swift, decisive action followed that was a message to anyone in a position of authority, of power, in any walk of life — the P-word comes with responsibility that, if not discharged or respected, limits at best and negates at worst the ability to get results from the projection of power where it matters: under pressure on the battlefield, in the sports arena, the boardroom, the shop floor, the floor of the House . . . wherever in our society setting an example to bring on others matters.

Getting others to climb their personal mountain and achieve starts with the acknowledgement of where the power lies. It is said that Joe Fagan, battling to keep the Shankly/Paisley dynastic results-delivery service going at Liverpool, was faced with a particularly shambolic display one Saturday and so ordered the team in for extra training the next morning. One player said he couldn’t make it because he was on a fashion photoshoot. Fagan told him to attend or be fined. The player pulled a “wedge” from his trouser pocket, threw it down on the dressing-room table and walked out, throwing a “see you Monday” over his shoulder as he went. Capello’s actions will hopefully inspire other managers to deal effectively with the prima donnas of the national game (and beyond), thus delivering better results, better teams, better examples and role models . . . and better people.

Margaret Thatcher once defined politics as the “acquisition, maintenance and use of power”. It is in South Africa this summer that the judge, jury and executioner will gather for Capello. If England do well, not only will a nation rejoice, but managers in all walks of life will be inspired to set the pace, stand up and be counted . . . and lead.

And it is this year’s football World Cup that justifies the selection of Sepp Blatter in second place ahead of the personification of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Lord Coe. I have a hunch next year may hold greater things for Coe in the rankings.

Blatter’s second place evidences the exercise of power in two different aspects of a changed, globalised world. Giving the World Cup to South Africa had to be a gamble in many ways, but Blatter forced it through. Any visitor to the host country is filled with wonder at the sheer joy, the pride and the hope of a black football-crazy population that only 25 years ago felt they didn’t matter, didn’t count.

Self-respect and self-esteem will soar as they welcome the world to their country in June. If ever the exercise of power in sport can change lives in ways that have nothing to do with sport, this is it.

Yet that same power, individually exercised in the opacity of deal-doing, pork-barrel sports politics, has effectively consigned world football to a barren, technical-free desert. Precisely at the moment when the developing world is using technology to do business and grow richer like never before, when prejudice and its parent, ignorance, are being defeated by amazing technological advance, when pollution and climate change are being taken on by applied technology . . . at a stroke, Blatter’s power has been used to deny football the very medium the world understands.

So we will go on with the handballs, the goals that never were, the dive that wasn’t, debilitating respect for the game, discouraging the investors and increasing, not diluting, pent-up frustration in the fanbase. In every other walk of life the football-loving kid from Soweto to Southampton sees issues sorted by the application of technology. Why not in the global sport? Power has been used by Blatter, but the goal he’s scored is in football’s own net.

The Times Sport Power 100 has paraded the deliverers of power. They work harder, they practise more, they take nothing for granted. People who make things look easy do that. Effective projection of power can inspire a generation, instil thought-leadership in a boardroom, set the standard.

Sport; the matchmaker of power with the furnace of competition in the goldfish bowl of publicity. The Power in Sport? The breaker of hearts and the realiser of dreams.

Article first published in The Times Sport Power 100 on the 20th March 2010