How very Sven to announce his illness so matter-of-factly
January 11, 2024 4:37 pm(Updated 5:15 pm)
How very Sven-Goran Eriksson to announce something so profound so matter-of-factly. “Everyone can see that I have a disease that’s not good, and everyone supposes that it’s cancer, and it is,” he told a Swedish radio station. Just like that.
Eriksson turns 76 next month. According to the prognosis he shared candidly with listeners, his next birthday is likely to be his last. He gives himself a year at most. There is in the Scandinavian stereotype, or at least how it presents itself to the English eye, a straightforward, no-frills element perhaps best expressed in the success of Swedish furniture giant Ikea, which specialises in functional architecture and design.
As a coach Eriksson was essentially this, coming quickly to an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his teams, and selling a practical, utilitarian vision. As Gareth Southgate famously observed, there was no soaring rhetoric or oration. “We wanted Winston Churchill and got Ian Duncan-Smith,” he remarked of the half-time team-talk during the finely-balanced 2002 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil, a match England had led before falling 2-1 against 10 men.
Eriksson built his reputation in Italy when Serie A was the world’s benchmark league. The amplification Italian football guaranteed made Eriksson the world’s most sought-after coach at the turn of the century following his success at Lazio, which returned seven trophies, a Scudetto and an audience with the Pope. That he should gain the kind of guru status afforded the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp today came as a surprise, however, to the people of Torsby, Eriksson’s deeply provincial hometown 250 miles east of Stockholm near the border with Norway.
His father was a bus conductor, his mother worked in a shop before becoming a nurse.
As a reporter at The Mirror in 2001, I was dispatched with an interpreter to speak to them as part of a “backgrounder” on the newly-appointed super coach, the first foreigner to manage England, who would end the mother country’s long wait for a second major trophy.
His parents flatly refused to engage, responding to the unannounced knock on the door with a polite no. Neither they, nor Torsby, were set up for stardom. The setting was achingly quiet, a small house set back off the road that stood in sharp contrast to the exotica of Eriksson’s coaching station.
The rejection rerouted the investigation through significant others, including a former schoolteacher and officials at the local football club in Torsby, for whom he turned out as a teenager.
The imprint he left proved incredibly small. He was unremarkable as both a student and a footballer. The idea among those distant peers that young “Svennis” might develop into a global phenomenon, international football coach and ladies’ man, met with avuncular chuckles.
Indeed, he was known more in his youth for his proficiency in ski jumping, the notion of which evoked our own Eddie the Eagle, a bespectacled Sven, arms strapped to his side as he speared headfirst through the air in a rubber suit.
Eriksson would later reveal that the England job was the only post in international management that could have persuaded him to quit la dolce vita in Rome, where he arrived in 1997 from Sampdoria having first accepted then reneged on a deal to join Blackburn Rovers, who, under the ownership of local steel magnate Jack Walker, were the Chelsea of the day.
Once in situ, Eriksson proved rather more prosaic than his reputation suggested, at least in football matters. He coached England to the quarter-finals in two World Cups and a European Championship and though there were some highlights, notably a 5-1 win during World Cup qualifying in Germany, he was no more able to crack the code than his predecessors, despite the golden nature of the generation under his command.
He did, however, light up the front pages with his appetite for relationships with glamorous women much younger than himself. In this regard he was, of course, fulfilling the fantasy of many an ageing lothario whilst making colourful headlines.
He had barely taken a training session when his dalliance with compatriot Ulrika Jonsson blew the bloody doors off the FA’s London headquarters at Soho Square.
In an interview with the History Channel Eriksson reflected on that moment and how he should deal with it in the England dressing room: “It had nothing to do with football but I was their manager and we were going into a World Cup. I told them ‘sorry’ but one of the players stood up and said: ‘Boss, welcome to England.’”
He would be apologising again two years later following an affair with FA secretary Faria Alam. His unlikely primal hinterland contrasted with a personality that seemed flat and featureless by comparison and ultimately created a different bond with the English public, one which informed our reaction to the sad news he has revealed. Thus it is with affection that Eriksson embarks on his final weeks and months, a kind of honorary Englishman, albeit more Duncan-Smith than Churchill.