We need to talk about Sven
This might be slightly unconventional, but bear with me. I want you to find somewhere quiet and make yourself comfortable. That’s great. Now, for the next minute or so, I want you to close your eyes, breathe deeply and think about Sven-Göran Eriksson…what do you see? I honestly don’t make this a habit of mine, but every time I contemplate Sven I picture the same scene…
…I see Eriksson, all minimalist glasses and maximum forehead, at the champagne bar of an early-noughties corporate event. He’s flirting with a mid-tier celebrity but the Swede can’t be heard over Fat Man Scoop’s ‘Be Faithful’. With a half-filled glass in one hand, Sven gestures to the object of his affections; he wants to whisper something in her ear. I try to eavesdrop but the music crescendos as the model acquiesces; Eriksson’s honey-dipped words are muffled.
While infinitely out of Sven’s league the celebrity is spellbound. Taking her hand in his, the former England manager leads her to a stretch limousine bedecked in the colours of the Swedish flag, its engine running in anticipation. Sven opens one of the limo’s many doors for his conquest, but as he clambers in after her Eriksson turns to the camera and *ping!* knowingly breaks the fourth wall, Deadpool style. I smirk to myself; oh Sven, how do you do it?
Granted, my personal experience is probably unique, but the struggle to recall Eriksson without the attendant themes of decadence and sleaze can’t be mine alone. Armed with intimate knowledge of Sven’s excesses and failures, his past accomplishments and contemporary career choices conform to our impression of him as louche. While his previous achievements now seem like flukes, the “quick cash-grabs” he’s taken of late seem calculated, after all, the papers did warn us he was a mercenary.
And yet, buried beneath the lurid headlines, persistent facts wriggle to the surface and challenge Eriksson’s negative narrative. Didn’t he win the UEFA Cup with IFK Göteborg? Didn’t he coach in Sweden, Portugal and Italy; winning trophies in all three? Beyond the back-page bile and the bloggers who now reheat it, there lies a different version of Sven; a better, more nuanced one. Unfortunately for Eriksson, he not only had the temerity to manage England, he dared to excel before the internet era, and his legacy still suffers for it.
If Eriksson won a European cup with a team of part-timers today, the internet would rumble as a fleet of journalists scrambled to laud his achievement. When Andre-Villas Boas displaced Eriksson as the youngest coach to win the UEFA Cup he was heralded as “exceptional” and “Mourinho Mark II”. But while the Portuguese’s accomplishments have been captured, catalogued and indexed online, Eriksson’s earliest feats, the ones that might contextualise his failures, have not been preserved in the same fashion.
Subsequently, those who review Eriksson’s career often draw from an accessible but shallow pool of toxic source material. Cruelly, the resulting articles are then thrown back into the pool that informed them, perpetuating the caricature of ‘Svennis’ the “sex addicted” coach who’s “hungry for money”. We can readily access the ‘Top Five Surprises from Sven’s Autobiography’ (all of which concern his love-life) but there is no corresponding ‘You Won’t BELIEVE Which Swede Rejected Barcelona!’ or ‘Which 32-year-old manager won the UEFA cup with PLUMBERS?!?’ to balance the adverse clickbait.
A lone, divergent opinion won’t reverse this trend, but evidence suggests that Eriksson is a better manager, and perhaps a better man than his modern critics cyclically assert. So, for the sake of objectivity (or perhaps just to be contrary), it’s worth acknowledging both his less-credited triumphs and the manner in which he secured them.
Even by today’s standards, with Villas-Boas and Eddie Howe proving that youth is no barrier to success, Eriksson can still be considered a managerial prodigy. The Swede began learning his trade at 27, calling time on a career as an “average right-back” with the brutally honest assessment that his dreams “would … probably not come true”. Given an opportunity to work under Tord Grip, the man who would later become his assistant with England, Eriksson became a coach at Degerfors IF in Sweden’s third division.
Undeterred by resistance from the club’s hierarchy, Eriksson assumed the role of manager in 1977 after Grip became assistant manager to the Swedish national team. From the humblest of beginnings, Sven’s star would then ascend with remarkable momentum. First, he took Degerfors from third to second division; his calm stewardship and then-revolutionary employment of a sports psychologist broke a run of successive play-off meltdowns. Impressed with Eriksson’s potential, IFK Gothenburg swooped at the end of his first season as a manager; he was now in charge of one of Sweden’s biggest clubs.
During four seasons at Gothenburg, Eriksson won the league and two domestic cups while also taking ‘The Angels’ semi-professional assemblage of “plumbers and chefs” to European glory; beating Valencia, Kaiserslautern and Hamburg en-route to the UEFA Cup. With a growing reputation as a progressive and confident young coach, Eriksson was snaffled by Benfica; assuming control of a bonafide European giant at the tender age of 34.
Despite losing in the UEFA Cup final in his maiden season, Eriksson won successive league titles and a domestic cup in two years at Estádio da Luz; a decent return for a young coach with no experience outside Sweden. With his stock never-higher, Eriksson turned down Barcelona and Spurs to manage Roma; the realisation of a romantic dream and the first in a series of Italian jobs. Between 1984 and 1994, Eriksson endured his first barren spells, failing to win trophies in Rome or with Fiorentina, but tempering these disappointments by winning the Coppa Italia twice and enjoying a brief but successful return to Benfica.
By the time he turned 50, Erikkson had acquired four league titles, five domestic cups, a UEFA Cup, a Super Cup, reached the finals of the Champions League and taken Roma agonisingly close to the title. The likes of Mourinho and Guardiola may have delivered more spectacular results, but the former, now 53, has endured his first significant setback and the latter, 45, is about to face his greatest challenge. Regardless, it is not just the volume of Eriksson’s achievements that deserves more attention; in light of his testing time with England, so too is the manner in which he succeeded.
During his formative coaching years, Eriksson had watched with interest as Bob Houghton, then Roy Hodgson, deployed a 4-4-2 formation with great success in Sweden, winning the title with Malmö and Halmstad respectively. As a limited footballer, Eriksson admired the utilitarian principles espoused by ‘the English way’; tactical rigour, discipline, teamwork. As he recalls in his autobiography; “(4-4-2) was built on organisation and team thinking … it was a revolution against individualism, perhaps that’s why it appealed to me.”
Eriksson’s preference for 4-4-2, an inherently English product, tests two of the more cynical (but popular) theories maintained by his laziest critics. Firstly, given an annual salary of £3m, Eriksson’s motives for taking the England job were regularly questioned. Secondly, it was often suggested that a foreigner could never appreciate unique requirements of the England job or navigate the cultural idiosyncrasies that only a Venables or a Redknapp (media darlings both) could.
But the Swede’s connection with his favoured formation was as genuine as any Englishman’s, perhaps more-so. It was not driven by narrow-mindedness or cultural conditioning; it was informed by evidence, experience and a deeply personal preference; Eriksson was a tactical anglophile by choice. His modern-day critics may prefer to focus on his ‘otherness’ but England arguably possessed a manager whose footballing values aligned perfectly with England’s own.
This genuine affection for the English game was complemented by attributes that, in a more forgiving time, might have been ideal for England. From his experiences with Gothenburg, and to a lesser extent Fiorentina, Eriksson was familiar with getting results from relatively limited squads; a descriptor that, in the face of Spain and Germany’s technical superiority, could arguably be applied to the England team for some twenty years.
However, while England’s expectations now correspond with the national team’s potential, under Eriksson they remained disproportionately high. The Swede’s tactical conservatism was not seen as pragmatic or justifiable, it was an unforgivable waste of a ‘Golden Generation’. The critics who rehash this viewpoint arguably fail to accept that a record of sustained underachievement cannot be linked to a lone causal factor. A broken metatarsal, a disallowed goal, an act of petulance or a foreign manager cannot explain such a worrying trend.
Many of Eriksson’s qualities have since been retooled as weaknesses but the Swede’s willingness to treat his players (and their WAGs) as adults has been grossly misinterpreted. Tactically and emotionally rigid, the autonomy Eriksson afforded to his players was surprising but also forward-thinking. At Gothenburg and Benfica, Eriksson would ignore the impulse to intervene, keeping his distance because his players “knew exactly what to do”. Yet an approach that worked so well with semi-professional Swedes failed to connect with England’s greatest talents; his players were instead reported to be “over-indulged” or “pampered.”
But rather than blaming Hoddle (too patronising), Keegan (too…Keegan), Eriksson (too indulgent) McClaren (too pally) and Capello (too controlling) what of the factors that unite all five managers; the players and a hostile press. Both demand a ‘Goldilocks’ manager; a coach who’s not too harsh but not too distant, not too foreign but not too familiar. But despite a growing understanding that the England job is footballs’ Kobayashi Maru, Eriksson is still considered a failure and a fraud.
Eriksson was not perfect, but a career that spans 40 years and 18 roles (at time of writing) should not be defined by the receipt and loss of the England job. However, such is the disparity in Eriksson’s online appraisals that a complex character is reduced to caricature. He was not just the man who fell afoul of a fake sheik; he was the coach who recognised Dunga’s (a former forward) destructive abilities and Ancelloti’s (“(a) quiet but great guy”) leadership potential. Yet these insights are not found within ‘Top Ten’ lists or lazy biographies; they are found through a modicum of effort. Regrettably, at a time when accessibility trumps accuracy, a public figure who achieved too soon is doomed to be defined by his most recent actions.