Offside, 30 July
Sven is going down because of his performance on the field rather than in the bedroom.
And so the deconstruction of the Sven myth is almost complete. This week, following revelations that the Swedish coach had been finding the back of the net so to speak with Faria Alam, a secretary at the Football Association, there were renewed calls for his head.
Whether Sven loses his job remains to be seen. However, the reaction to his latest bout of philandering indicates that Teflon Sven’s non-stick coating has worn very thin. When he became England coach in October 2000 a handful of true blue Englishmen railed against the appointment of a foreigner, but in general the Europhile soccerati, sick of the tea-cup throwing, tactics-lite style of British managers, embraced the urbane sophisticated Swede.
His relatively modest achievements as a club coach were overlooked because, well, the guy spoke several languages, enjoyed Tibetan poetry, and wore spectacles so he was clearly the right continental guru for the job, right? And when Sven presided over England’s 5-1 victory against Germany in Munich the whole nation was in his thrall.
Sven acquired his Teflon reputation by managing to survive a series of off-field scandals. He was criticised for profiting from his position as England coach through various commercial endorsements. Many of us didn’t much care whether he flogged arms to Saddam Hussein or rat-meat to fried chicken shops as long as the England team were doing well.
Nor were we bothered when, on the eve of the 2002 World Cup, it emerged that Svennis had been leaving his stack-heeled shoes outside Ulrika Jonsson’s bedroom door. We didn’t give a monkey’s with whom he’d been sleeping – Ulrika Jonsson or Boris Johnson, Faria Alam or the Dalai Lama…or even an actual four-legged llama. Whatever he did in his private life was his own goddamn business. If anything the affair served to enhance rather than damage Sven’s reputation. Men were quite impressed that a fiftysomething slaphead could still pull the birds while women found his unflappable Iceman persona alluring.
We were also willing to overlook the persistent rumours linking Sven with a return to club management. First, it was alleged that he had been in talks with Manchester United officials and would have taken the Old Trafford job had Fergie not decided to postpone his retirement. More recently there were strong rumours that Sven was on the verge of becoming the Chelsea manager. Cheating on Nancy was one thing – she was a bit scary anyway – but had Sven cheated on England then football fans might have been less forgiving. But, despite his incorrigibly roving eye, Sven has so far remained faithful to the English FA.
However, the real erosion of Sven’s reputation has been caused not by his off-field conduct but by his performances in the England dressing room. The first cracks appeared after England’s insipid second half performance in Shizuoka against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. For the first time Sven’s cool, passionless demeanour, which was hitherto seen as his greatest asset, was now held up as a failing. ‘We needed Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith’, complained an unnamed England defender. Perhaps he should have hurled a few isotonic sports drink bottles in the dressing room or performed the Peter Reid baboon dance on the touchline.
Unlike several fellow national coaches who fell on their swords after World Cup elimination, Sven kept his job. It is symptomatic of our lowered sporting expectations that we don’t regard the inability to create a meaningful scoring chance against a Brazil team reduced to 10 men as a national disaster. Despite being criticised for turning England friendlies into chaotic substitution-fests, Sven kept his detractors at bay by steering England to Euro 2004 qualification.
As his admirers never tired of reminding us, England’s record in competitive games was impressive – until Euro 2004 the World Cup quarter-final was his only defeat. Moreover, the players were fully behind their manager. Sven treated them as adults, allowing wives and girlfriends into the England camp during the tournament.
However, the defeats against France and Portugal in Euro 2004 have further damaged his reputation. This time it wasn’t his lack of passion but his tactics that have been slated. ‘We didn’t pass the ball well enough or keep possession’, said Sir Trevor Brooking who is preparing a technical report on England’s Euro 2004 campaign that is expected to be critical of Sven’s tactics. Now being slated for not effing and blinding like a demented gibbon is one thing, but having one’s tactics called into question is a much more serious charge for any self-respecting continental guru. Tactical acumen is an essential requirement of the job description for a foreign svengali, alongside professorial specs, multilingualism, new-age motivation techniques, and regimented diets.
So Sven, be warned: a continental coach without tactical nous is about as useful as a chocolate espresso pot.
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