Who cares if Sven plays the field?

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

When Sven-Goran Eriksson loses his job as England coach, it should be as a result of messing about with Emile Heskey on the field, not with Ulrika Jonsson off it. The question of whether or not he plays a flat back four is an issue of national concern. But the Sunday newspaper suggestion that he ‘longed’ to play three-at-the-back with Ms Jonsson and another woman should be kept between them and the bedpost.

As both Eriksson and the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson could testify this week, the football season now seems to mean the same as the grouse season – an excuse for shooting at easy targets. Ms Jonsson’s autobiography, Honest, hardly lives up to the hype about ‘sensational revelations’. To judge by the first extracts, it is a case of kiss-and-nothing-much-to-tell, delivered in a style that makes the prison diaries of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare look like a literary classic.

Here is a taste: ‘After the game the phone rang in my room. It was him. The man I knew I would spend the night with. The man I knew I would take from, so long as I had the power to hold my own. And I did.’ How many of us have the strength to read such stuff remains to be seen.

Yet we are told that the media frenzy over these tacky stories now threatens to drive Eriksson out of the England job. If so, it would not be the first time that an England manager lost his position for non-football reasons.

Glenn Hoddle was forced out (with Tony Blair applying the final touch) after he told The Times that disabled people were paying the price for their sins in a previous life. Hoddle was effectively sacked for his religious convictions. Now Eriksson is under fire for not living like a monk.

We seem to find it increasingly difficult to know where to draw the line between public and private life. Managers and coaches like Hoddle and Eriksson are not hired for their attitudes towards reincarnation or monogamy, and nor should they be fired for them. A clear distinction can be drawn between, say, football people and politicians. No doubt there are more important criticisms to be made of John Major’s Government than his taste in mistresses and underwear. But there is an obvious public interest (as well as a good laugh) in Edwina Currie’s revelation of her long affair with a Prime Minister who stood for election on a platform of moral rearmament. The same cannot be said about Eriksson. He is not supposed to be a vicar. He was not engaged to act as a righteous role model (and nor, we might note, are his players). A Swedish Lutheran upbringing is unlikely to have clinched his appointment.

What counts is a coach’s ability to deploy and motivate players in a football setting. So what the Ireland manager Mick McCarthy says to Roy Keane in front of the rest of the team matters. But what Sven allegedly told Ulrika about David Beckham during their pillow talk is just idle (or idol) gossip.

Ms Jonsson herself is an admirable symbol of our confessional culture. Far from being a public figure with a personal life, she has kept her talents well hidden while making a career out of publicising her private affairs.

It is her string of dodgy relationships with minor royals, television ‘personalities’ and footballers that has kept her in the tabloid newspapers and lad mags, and on our TV screens.

But perhaps we should not be too sniffy about kiss-and-sell celebrities. The obsession with private affairs is not their fault. It is a consequence of there being such widespread indifference to public affairs. When a political conference season is so dull that the news can be dominated by daily reports of what they wore on their feet, it is little wonder that some looking for a headline prefer to ring up Max Clifford for frontline reports from the scandal wars. The high profile of football and men such as Eriksson today is part of the same process. The game has been inflated to fill the gap where our public life should be, becoming a sort of cross between religion, rock ‘n roll and royalty. Everybody from Downing Street downwards cultivates a football-friendly image. Perhaps Ms Jonsson’s least surprising revelation is that she was introduced to Sven-Goran Eriksson at a party by Alastair Campbell. She writes of her delight, ‘what with being a diehard football fan and all that’.

So we reach the point where a football coach’s brief fling with a weather girl can become the biggest story in celebrity-bonkers Britain. ‘I,’ responded Eriksson’s girlfriend, Nancy Dell’Olio, ‘am on another planet.’

You and me both, Nancy. Now get me out of here.

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Topics Politics


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