Football

The Sven We Knew Then and the Sven We Know Now

When he was appointed England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson seemed pitifully boring, but the image we had of him then is dramatically different from that of today.

by Jim Weeks
14 January 2016, 1:20pm

PA Images

When I think of Sven-Goran Eriksson, football forms only part of the complex tableau that assembles itself in my mind. Before the sport that made him famous, I see the tabloid scandals, the many women in his life, and the Fake Sheikh meeting that played a large part in his departure from the England job.

Above all, it is the excess of information we have about his sex life – first splashed across newspaper front-pages and later gleefully recounted by the Swede in his autobiography – that provides colour to the Eriksson story. Nancy Dell'Olio is part of the tableau, as are Ulrika Jonsson and Faria Alam. It's nothing sordid – they're just shouting at him while he stands there, calm and implacable, probably thinking of another woman altogether and how he's going to get into bed with her without the other three knowing.

And when the football aspect does crop up, I inevitably think of the increasingly strange jobs he's taken over the past decade: director of football at fourth-tier Notts County; leading Ivory Coast at the World Cup; short-term roles with vague titles in Bangkok and Dubai; and more recently, a succession of lucrative roles in China

And so the Sven-Goran Eriksson of today appears in my mind as a contorted mess of lurid jokes and mysteriously well-paid jobs in dubious football backwaters. Yet I can remember a time, more than 15 years ago, when none of the baggage existed. Back then Sven was simply the next England manager, controversial only for the fact that he was not born in the country.

On 7 October 2000, Kevin Keegan resigned as England boss following his side's 1-0 defeat to Germany; it was the opening game of qualifying for World Cup 2002, and the final match played at the old Wembley Stadium. Four days later, caretaker boss Peter Taylor led the side to a 0-0 draw away in Finland. England sat bottom of their qualifying group.

READ MORE: Full Time at Wembley Stadium

The domestic options to replace Keegan were uninspiring. In the previous season's Premier League, the best-placed English managers had been Aston Villa's John Gregory and Peter Reid at Sunderland, neither of whom were considered to be of international pedigree. Bobby Robson of Newcastle United and Southampton's Glenn Hoddle were both past England bosses, and weren't going back to the post.

The problem at the time – which is even worse today – was that foreign bosses were in charge at the Premier League's top clubs. Manchester United, Arsenal, Leeds United, Liverpool and Chelsea had made up the top-five in 1999-2000, but none were managed by an Englishman.

A solution would have to be found abroad. On 31 October, the FA confirmed that Eriksson had agreed a five-year contract and would officially start on 1 July 2001, when his contract with Lazio was set to end. It was an unpopular decision among fans, managers and commentators alike; the FA said he was the only man they had considered for the role.

Eriksson, pictured with Roberto Mancini, was a Scudetto winner with Lazio // PA Images

And there was very good reason for doing so. It is now 2017 and Sven hasn't won anything of genuine note for 16 years, but at the turn of the century he was hot property. He had won the Portuguese title with Benfica three times over two spells, led Lazio to the Serie A title in 2000, and won four Coppa Italias with three clubs. He had won the UEFA Cup at IFK Göteborg, the Cup Winners' Cup with Lazio, and took Benfica to the European Cup final in 1990. Were Sven 2000 on the market now, there'd be e-petitions from Arsenal supporters to have him forcibly installed in Wenger's stead .

And so, in the autumn of 2000, the name Sven-Goran Eriksson did not come with the multitude of baggage it does today. When you heard his name, you didn't instantly think "SEX SCANDAL", but instead pictured a calm, assured, cosmopolitan football manager. He was managing in Serie A which, in 2000, was still considered the best league in the world, with Zidane, Shevchenko and Batistuta on hand to prove it. This guy was elite.

And he also seemed pitifully boring. I know that time and a slew of affairs have made that seem naive, but at the time of his appointment Eriksson seemed like a dull technocrat who would get the job done with minimal fuss and then go back to his modest home and not pay any attention to his meaningless haircut. That strange little peak of hair at the front, and the rising tides at the back which served only to make him appear more bald, added to the aura of a sexless football droid. You got the feeling that he was first into work in the morning and last out at night, still poring over videos of next weekend's opposition when the janitor told him he was locking up. At no point did anyone suspect he might be stashing a TV personality under his desk as he politely waved goodnight.

Sven did not have to wait until July 2001 to start his new job. In an ominous twist, Lazio's form collapsed early in the 2000-2001 season, leading the Italian club to ask him to resign. As such he was able to take up his England role early. He began on 13 January 2001, attending Sunderland's 2-0 away win over West Ham. Stanislav Varga of Slovakia and Don Hutchison of Scotland got the goals, which was of little use to Sven.

READ MORE: The Rapid Transformation of UK Football Coverage

Over the next six years, Sven's reputation was transformed. Little by little, the blank canvas was filled with detail, small and large, that created the image we have today. We had been expecting a dutiful, plain wife named Hedvig, but instead we were confronted with 39-year-old Italian firebrand Nancy Dell'Olio. In 2002 we discovered that Sven had recently ended an affair with Ulrika Jonsson who, not being shy of publicity, confirmed as much. She later said: "Sex with Sven was as ordered and functional as an Ikea instruction manual," answering a question absolutely no one had asked.

Nancy stood by him, but another affair was revealed in 2004, this time with Faria Alam, a personal assistant at the FA who had recently concluded another affair with chief executive Mark Palios. Sven fought on, Nancy still at his side, but was finished off in 2006 when he spoke to an undercover News of the World reporter dubbed 'the Fake Sheikh'. Revealing he would be willing to move to Aston Villa if they were bought by Middle-Eastern investors was too much for the FA; it was announced he would leave after the 2006 World Cup.

Ah yes, the football. Between the scandals, Eriksson was also managing England's national football side. He achieved three quarter-final appearances on the bounce, being knocked out by eventual winners Brazil at the 2002 World Cup, and following penalty shootouts with Portugal at Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006. (On all three occasions, 'Big Phil' Scolari was the man in the opposite dugout).

Sven with his fellow England bosses. From left: Hodgson, Taylor, Venables, and Capello. Maybe McLaren lost his invite... // PA Images

That is by no means a poor record. His successor, Steve McLaren, failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and was quickly replaced; Fabio Capello's side was beaten 4-1 by Germany in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, before the Italian fell out with the FA and walked; Roy Hodgson presided over a quarter-final appearance at Euro 2012, a chastening group stage exit at World Cup 2014, and a humiliating Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland; and Sam Allardyce fucked it after one game.

Add to that the failures of Keegan and Hoddle before him, plus Gareth Southgate's quiet starts, and you're left with the conclusion that Sven was the best England manager of the past 20 years, at least in terms of on-the-pitch affairs.

He probably knows it, too.