You never really know until it starts, of course, but it feels as though this World Cup is going to be very different from the last one. Some of the differences are obvious, notably the fact that it is being held much further away from England. While you would not want to rule it out, it seems implausible that hooliganism will be as big a theme as it was in France. Perhaps more interestingly from England’s point of view is the way the culture of the team itself has changed, largely, though not entirely, due to the influence of Sven-Goran Eriksson.
It’s not so much what Eriksson has done that has made the difference, but what he has not done. With the press he has avoided the most obvious mistakes of Graham Taylor (tried to be their friend), Terry Venables (too close to his favourites), Glenn Hoddle (irritated everyone by messing them around) or Kevin Keegan (didn’t know when to shut up), though amazingly he shares with Bobby Robson the distinction of having his private life dragged through the tabloids in the run-up to a World Cup. But by saying very little, refusing to be provoked and not offering any ludicrous hostages to fortune, Eriksson has forced people to judge him solely on what happens on the pitch. And while his record has hardly been faultless, you can hardly argue that he hasn’t got the results that were necessary. So far.
Another thing he is not is English. While that may seem a statement of the obvious, it helps, especially during a World Cup. Whatever happens, he will not be drawn into any kind of unwise demonstrations of patriotism or any form of words that invokes the war. He will not tell us that Martin Keown is the kind of person you would like to have next to you in the trenches, nor that he is sending Paul Scholes out to drop a few hand grenades. He will not ascribe either victories or defeats to any alleged virtues or defects in the national character.
Third, Eriksson is not a controversial or idiosyncratic coach. His squad, with one or two possible exceptions around the fringes, is the same as the one almost every informed observer would have picked. That predictability is partly to do with a lack of quality alternatives in many positions (the goalkeepers spring alarmingly to mind), but also to the consistent way he has picked his squads and his teams. While he clearly has strong views about some players (such as Graeme Le Saux), there is no sense that he struggles to impose his ideas on the bulk of the squad, or that he suffers from a lack of respect from them. Quite the reverse, in fact. If England were to lose all three of their games, you sense that the players would blame themselves rather than him.
Something has changed, too, in the culture of the England squad, which is only partly due to Eriksson’s influence. It can be seen most obviously in the difference between the David Beckham of 2002 and of 1998. He’s still a bit of a twerp, but there’s a seriousness about the way he plays and in his demeanour on and off the pitch. It’s also a characteristic that he seems to share with most of the younger players in the squad.
It may not be the most inspiring collection of talent, but they do not look like a bunch of wasters, drinkers or bullies. If the spine of the 1998 team – Adams, Ince, Batty, Shearer – is compared to today’s equivalent, it is easy to make the case that the current crop are not only better players but they also play, on the whole, with a more attractive and more disciplined attitude.
If that is the result of growing up in the company of foreign players, the ever-increasing demands on fitness and technique, the gradual elimination of thuggery as a semi-legitimate tactic, or even sheer chance, it’s to be applauded.
For all these reasons it would be welcome if England do reasonably well in Japan and (perhaps) Korea – although that feeling may not last once the TV commentary starts and the nation’s streets are full of flags and ugly nationalism again. But the main reason for wishing England and Eriksson well is that it would upset a lot of people who are willing him to fail. (Not the Scots – that’s their privilege.) Jeff Powell and his ilk can’t bear the thought of a foreigner being in charge. If they are forced to write through gritted teeth about the good job Eriksson has done, then somehow whatever else happens can be tolerated.
From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month