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Football: A Modern Morality Tale

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The dramatic resignation of Fabio Capello as England manager illustrates that leadership and management are complex issues and can be combustible if people at the top of an organisation have different priorities.

The catalyst for Capello's resignation was the decision of the FA to strip John Terry of the England captaincy pending his trial on charges relating to alleged racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand. Two questions arise at once. First, was it a sound decision, given that Terry protests his innocence, and must be presumed innocent unless found guilty? Second, was Capello's objection to the decision handled sensibly?

The judgment on the captaincy is inevitably subjective -- but most people, surely, will applaud the FA's stance. Terry's innocence is not the central issue. Nor is it proposed that he should be stopped from playing either for England or his club Chelsea. The key question is whether it is right for someone facing such a charge to captain his country at the European championships, just four months away.

The case of Chris Huhne from the previous week raised comparable questions. Huhne was not only an MP, but a Cabinet Minister. Once he was charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice - and again, he insists he is innocent and expects to be acquitted -- it was surely impossible for him to continue within Cabinet. It was right for him to resign.

To express this view is not in any way to suggest that he has done anything illegal. But some high profile public roles are surely incompatible with fighting a serious criminal charge -- and with Huhne, as with Terry, the charges are undeniably serious -- these are not minor alleged offences, but matters which raise fundamental questions of integrity and decency.

Cabinet ministers, and even captains of national sports teams, are exemplars of behaviour. They should be role models. Their conduct therefore needs to be judged by the highest (realistic) standards. It must be right for a person in such a position to do the honourable thing and step down until they have cleared their name. If they do not do so voluntarily, there is a strong case for taking the decision out of their hands.

Take the case of Harry Redknapp, cleared of alleged tax evasion a day after Capello's departure. Redknapp has had to endure years of waiting for his name to be cleared, as he always insisted would happen. It must have been a wretched ordeal. But it would surely have been wrong to appoint him to the role of England manager at any time when there was a vacancy when such serious matters remained outstanding. The role enjoys national prominence, and a person who holds it needs to command unreserved public confidence. When serious charges remain live against such a person, it is unfair to expect them to command such confidence, and it would be unreasonable for them to persuade themselves that they can do so.

The FA's judgment over John Terry seems sound. One presumes that they gave careful consideration to Capello's reasons for wishing to keep Terry in the captaincy. But it is hardly surprising that they thought those reasons - whatever they were - were outweighed by the need to make sure that the England captain is not facing an unresolved and major challenge to his integrity during the European championships.

What is surprising is that Capello thought this a resigning matter. As England manager, he is bound to prioritise footballing issues, but he should also have realised that there were wider issues in play than skill on the pitch. It is disappointing that he reached a judgment based on the player's presumed innocence, rather than the responsibilities and standards that are associated with the England captaincy. One can understand why the FA seem not to have fought to persuade him to stay.

As for Redknapp, he is now the people's choice as Capello's replacement. And if he is chosen, it will not only be because he has the necessary skills and experience, but because, after a long and painful battle in the public spotlight, he has kept his good name. In a sense, the Terry/Capello/Redknapp story is a modern morality tale.