The more I hear of England football coach Fabio Capello, the more reassured I become that he is the kind of level-headed operator our team has sought for years. The Italian's latest statement, in the wake of England's qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, laid down the rules for contact between the players and their wives and girlfriends, the so-called WAGs, in the tournament. It hit exactly the right note.
Capello's view is there should be no absolute ban on the players' other halfs attending the tournament, but he stresses that there is hard work to do, and any contact should be in downtime, say between the group stage of the tournament and the knockout phase. This is a subtle shift from Sven-Goran Eriksson's regime, which saw the England team attend the World Cup in Germany in 2006 with a full retinue of WAGs.
His view was that the presence of familiar women around the camp would settle the players and thus improve performance. As history tells us, England's displays in 2006 were mostly lamentable, although I think the women took rather too much of the blame. Steve McClaren, Eriksson's successor, solved the problem by failing to qualify for Euro 2008. In fairness to Eriksson - whose regime I think is denigrated more than it should be - the late great Brian Clough, who took two small town English teams to success in Europe was also a great believer in the benign influence of a good woman, preferring to sign married players, and encouraging those who were not to settle down. George Best, on the other hand, was famous for not settling down, was never short of female company, and still managed to sustain a glittering 10-year career at Manchester United.
The fact is that there is no accepted sports science opinion on the thorny question of whether conjugal relations are beneficial to an athlete or not. Boxers, for instance, tend to be cloistered in a training camp before a big fight, but then the very intense physical activity involved makes them a special case. However, when Ricky Hatton spent a month up in the Nevada mountains in April prior to his fight against Manny Pacquiao, tensions grew, with trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr admitting all was not well. Maybe a weekend or two spent with his wife would have soothed Hatton, and led to a better outcome.
But if boxers need to be careful to preserve every shred of energy for the battle ahead, what of table tennis players? One would have thought they could spend their leisure time exactly as they wished. Not in China apparently. Romance and table tennis do not mix, according to the authorities there. If they are right, I wasted some of my best teenage years knocking a ping pong ball across the net at my local youth club.
Sports officials in China banned Wang Hao, their men's singles world champion, from dating a teammate, because they believe relationships make players unwilling to accept the level of discipline and sacrifice necessary to compete at the highest level. Wang accepted the edict, I suspect he did not have much choice, and only now that he is 25 years old, is he being allowed to have a girlfriend. It all seems a little extreme, but I suppose the Chinese know what they are doing when it comes to this particular sport.
Capello would get short shrift if he tried it with our footballers, and shows his commendable good sense by steering a middle course. @Email:email@example.com