One day, Fabio Capello should write a revealing management book entitled The Trouble with Captains. Given the way his England tenure became embroiled, eventually to crash and burn, in events surrounding John Terry, you may think he would want to avoid contentious situations in his new role as head coach of Russia. Easier said than done, however.
When Capello took up his position in Russia in July, shortly after their promising side had imploded at Euro 2012, the Italian inherited a team captained by a man with a maverick approach to football and fitness – Andrey Arshavin. The Arsenal enigma was on the receiving end of some pointed criticism from within the game at home. The Russian Football Union's honorary president, Vyacheslav Koloskov, was particularly vocal in his assessment of the situation. "I've said it before and I'll say it again – Arshavin isn't the face of the national squad," he said. "He's not the captain. The captain has to inspire the team, and not walk on the pitch with his head down like it happened with Arshavin in friendly games. The captain needs to have character. While Arshavin has none."
Capello wandered from one captaincy brouhaha into another. He quickly chose Igor Denisov to be the new skipper. The experienced, combative midfielder, a Zenit St Petersburg stalwart, possesses more of the traditional traits expected of a team leader, the kind of "character" that Koloskov references. "He has a very strong personality and a winning mentality, and those are very important characteristics for me," assessed Capello. So far, so straightforward.
But as Russia prepare for the crunch World Cup qualifying test against Portugal, Denisov has been a figure of controversy. He is currently caught up in a dispute with his club which means he has spent the past three weeks either training on his own, or with the reserves. His first-team exile was punishment for taking a stand against the monster salaries being paid to the new arrivals from the Portuguese league – Hulk and Axel Witsel – who arrived at Zenit for a combined outlay in the region of €100m (£80m). Suffice it to say apple carts were upset. Denisov spoke his mind. There was talk of demands for pay rises for the Russian players, and contract disputes, which remain unresolved.
Denisov's protest was enough to see him effectively sent to the naughty step. He has been out of the picture on the domestic scene but Capello ignored the furore and merely stuck out his chin to pick exactly whom he wanted to pick for a vital game in the qualification campaign. "I disclosed my decision in advance to the club and to the coach that I would call Igor Denisov into the national team because I think that he is a very important and necessary player for the team," Capello said. "I have complete freedom in this department." Doesn't that old chestnut resonate all the way to London and the Football Association?
This is not the first time Denisov has confronted authority. In 2008, he was so put out at being omitted from Guus Hiddink's original squad for the European Championship, he refused to go when the call came to replace an injury casualty. Two years later, he was on the verge of landing a punch on a coach when team-mates pulled him away, and on another occasion he instigated a brawl between Zenit and Spartak Moscow when he abused the opposing manager.
Denisov has needed individual tests to assess his fitness for the national team, but as far as Capello is concerned all is well. The player is motivated and declared himself 100% ready for the games against Portugal and Azerbaijan. "I want to thank the head coach for keeping faith and calling me into the national team for these games," he said. "I'll do everything I can to repay the trust."
After wins against Northern Ireland and Israel, this is Capello's first major test since becoming Russia's coach. They are hoping for a sell-out in the Luzhniki Stadium for one of the games of the international weekend, with both Russia and Portugal intent on making a big statement towards qualification. Paulo Bento is determined to make the most of an opportunity to stake a clear advantage. "Our main goal is to earn automatic qualification for the World Cup," says the Portugal coach. "A win in Moscow will greatly boost our chances to clinch a direct pass to Brazil."
Capello faced the inevitable inquiry about how he plans for Russia to deal with Cristiano Ronaldo, and replied by suggesting the Real Madrid luminary is in the form of his life. "He is closer to winning the Ballon d'Or than he ever has been," said Capello, before throwing in a joke to relieve some of the pressure around this contest. "To be honest, I was hoping that his injury from the Barcelona match was more serious than it really is." With a glint in his eye, and his captain by his side, he feels ready to push the Russians on.