Fabio Capello's mission has been clear ever since he took over the Russia reins in July 2012: to forge a side capable of challenging for glory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Sealing a spot at Brazil 2014 was always earmarked as a crucial step in that process, but the veteran Italian coach will not be travelling to South America with limited aims. In particular, he is determined that he and his charges avoid the bitter sense of unfinished business that marred his maiden World Cup four years ago, when England suffered a heavy 4-1 loss to Germany in the Round of 16 after an underwhelming group stage.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Capello opened up on the subject of Russia's ambitions in Brazil, his tactical philosophy, his World Cup memories, goalline technology and his favourite Brazilian player of all time.
FIFA.com: What are your expectations of the World Cup in Brazil?
Fabio Capello: Before this, we hadn't qualified for a World Cup in 12 years. Brazil 2014 will help us gain experience of the real thing ahead of the following World Cup in Russia, so we'll go to Brazil with a lot of commitment and the desire to play a good tournament. But although our main objective will be for our players to amass a huge amount of experience, that won't stop us from being ambitious.
What are your goals and the biggest challenges you will need to overcome?
Our first goal will be to qualify from the group stage so that we can head into the knockout rounds with peace of mind. Naturally, our ambition is to go as far as possible, but knowing how tough it is to get out of the group phase, experiencing that will give our players a full understanding of that particular challenge. All the teams will have more or less the same problems, for example in terms of the climate and distances, but that mustn't become an excuse. The most important thing will be to arrive there with a winning mentality and the desire to come away with a lot of experience.
How were you able to pick your team up after the losses to Portugal and Northern Ireland during qualifying?
My message was clear and simple: I reminded the players that we were still top of the group and that we should continue approaching our last few games with the same will to win that we had at the start. It never looked certain we would qualify, especially in our [final] match against Azerbaijan, when we conceded a goal that turned out not to be costly. Overall, the standard of the teams was very high.
What was the secret to your attacking strength and defensive solidity, your team having scored 20 goals and conceded just five?
We tried to develop a certain mentality adapted to modern football. Nowadays, you have to stay compact and play short passes. We qualified because we found a good balance, with the team's desire to get forward not destabilising our defensive system.
What is your playing philosophy?
In my playing philosophy, the team has to be perfectly organised. But, within that system, you need to leave talented players the chance to express themselves freely. The system depends on the type of players you have at your disposal. If you have players who are very strong technically but less so in physical terms, like Spain, you can opt for a style based on ball possession and passing in triangles. But if you're in charge of a team like Belgium, where every player is over 6'1, it's possible to go for a more physical style of play. It's up to the coach to take into account all those parameters when defining the team's style. Personally, I've always played with several forwards but I've always had teams that were well organised in defence and ready to go on the attack.
Who are your key players?
I don't believe in key players but rather in 'key positions'. Teams are built like a tree. The trunk is a little bit like the central spine, with a good goalkeeper, a good centre-back, a good midfielder and a good striker. The team is built around that base. The captain has to be a leader, someone as important in the dressing room as he is on the pitch – and not just the player who tosses a coin at the start with the referee. If he's not a leader, he's not a captain.
What are your memories of South Africa 2010?
There's still one memory that I haven't managed to get rid of yet. I recall the meeting we had with all the coaches. I asked: "Why didn't you bring the assistant referees along as well?" I was told that that wasn't part of the plan. So I made the point that we'd worked hard for two years to get this far, and that a simple mistake – a ball going out or not, or a penalty given or not given – could lead to our elimination. And in the end, that's what happened. I've never been able to forget that meeting, which never resulted in any follow-up, because I'd predicted what would happen to us without knowing it.
Are you in favour of goalline technology?
Absolutely. Or even the use of an additional assistant referee who would reduce the risk of mistakes to ten or five per cent.
What do you expect the atmosphere to be like in Brazil for the World Cup?
Brazil is a fantasy world when it comes to football. Let's hope it will be like that – just fantasy and beautiful football.
How do you expect Russia to perform in Brazil, as you plan ahead for Russia 2018?
I've said that the important thing for us to gain experience. I'm not thinking about 2018 because for now I'm focused on Brazil. I want results in this World Cup and for my players to be focused and aggressive, while making progress on the mental front. I want them to get good results, starting at this World Cup.
Who is your favourite Brazilian player of all time?
I was lucky enough to come up against Pele with La Nazionale in a match where he was playing for an American team. Before that, I'd only seen him on television. During the game, I saw him do two things that really impressed me, and that's when I realised he was indeed the greatest player of all.
What is your earliest World Cup memory?
The Sweden 1958 final (Brazil beat Sweden 5-2), which I watched on a black-and-white television in a bar. I remember two things: the fantastic goal scored by Pele, who was just 17-and-a-half at the time, and the goal buried with total calm by Nils Liedholm, who was playing in Italy for AC Milan.