Offside, 3 April
Englanders are learning that not every continental coach with spectacles is a tactical genius.
At first we thought he was the Messiah. But, after a series of unconvincing England performances, the nation’s favourite Swede was looking increasingly like a turnip.
When Sven-Göran Eriksson became the first foreign coach of the England football team in October 2000 there was a predictable chorus of dissent from the little Englander camp. ‘We’ve sold our birthright down the river to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their lives in darkness’, bristled the Daily Mail‘s Jeff Powell.
But far from striking a popular chord, Powell was widely derided for his antiquated chauvinism. We didn’t want another teacup-throwing ranter with no tactical nous. No, what we wanted was one of those sophisticated, multi-lingual continental coaches, preferably one with boffin-like spectacles. And, after England’s glorious 5-1 win over Germany in September 2001, it looked liked we’d landed a proper football guru.
But it was only a matter of time before the demystification of Sven commenced. First he was accused of profiting from his public position through commercial endorsements such as his classical CD collection. Did we care? Not really, even if the middle-brow naffness of his musical selection, which included ‘Rule Britannia’, the ‘Dambusters March’, and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, undermined his intellectual credentials.
More damagingly, on the eve of the World Cup, Sven was caught with his pants down. Admittedly we had a good old giggle when we discovered, courtesy of Ulrika’s nanny, that our Swedish saviour not only wore stack-heeled shoes to make him look taller but that he curiously left them outside the bedroom at night.
Ulrikagate was no doubt embarrassing for Sven, but did it really damage his public standing? Nobody I knew seemed particularly perturbed. I even overheard two old ladies in a pub insisting that Sven’s private life was his own business. Yeah, right on sisters! His agent Athole Still was quoted as saying that Sven ‘can’t resist a bird’, but his fling with Ulrika only raised his stock among red-blooded British males.
The bloke had two foxy ladies fighting over him, for God’s sake. Who wouldn’t want to be in his stack-heeled shoes? As far as we were concerned, it didn’t matter if he consorted with farmyard animals as long as he led England to World Cup glory (or even heroic defeat – we weren’t that fussy).
While Sven’s off-field antics didn’t bother us, what really damaged his messianic aura was England’s wretched second-half performance against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. Why had Sven so demonstrably failed to lift his team at half-time in Shizuoka? As one unnamed England defender supposedly put it: ‘We needed Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith.’
Ironically, Sven’s ice-cool, unflustered demeanour, which was once seen as an attribute, was now reinterpreted as a weakness. Eriksson has shrugged off the charge that he wasn’t sufficiently demonstrative. ‘If anyone can guarantee me that we would have done better in the second half if I’d spent half-time shouting then I will listen to them’, he said. ‘But I think it’s old-fashioned.’
If Shizuoka planted seeds of doubt about Eriksson’s infallibility as a coach, the faltering start to England’s Euro 2004 qualifying campaign has produced a veritable bumper harvest of scepticism. As England struggled to create chances against the journeymen of Macedonia and the butchers and bakers of Lichtenstein, Eriksson’s tactical acumen was called into question. ‘Most depressing of all…is that a side coached by a man once presumed to be Scandinavia’s equivalent of Arsene Wenger now has England playing with all the finesse of the Royal Engineers team of the late Victorian era’, bemoaned Steven Howard in the Sun after the Lichtenstein game (1).
Until recently, we had automatically assumed that a continental coach with spectacles must be a tactical genius. But now we are not so sure. Gerard Houllier has done his best to destroy this myth by turning Liverpool into a dull, negative, one-dimensional long-ball outfit. Eriksson’s England have also been accused of being one-trick ponies who can counter-attack but lack creativity against teams who defend deep.
England’s 2-0 win over Turkey has, for the time being, spared Sven’s reputation from being well and truly kebabed on that score. The truth is that Sven is neither turnip nor Messiah, but something in between. Mind you, that Wayne Rooney walks on water, doesn’t he?
(1) It’s Sicktenstein, Sun, 31 March 2003
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