The Swedes were proud of Sven and they may be again. But, as Marcus Christenson explains, the fake sheikh has put one love affair on hold – till England win the World Cup

There was a time when Sven-Göran Eriksson could do no wrong in the eyes of the Swedes. His achievements made them immensely proud. Svennis, as they prefer to call him, was proof that a quiet, timid man from Värmland could conquer the football world with traditional Swedish values such as democracy, humility and hard work.

There was never a sense that he had betrayed the country by going to bed with England. Swedes saw themselves as the spotty, insecure teenager who had been forced to realise that they were never going to catch their big love – and neither did they deserve to. They were simply not good enough for him.

But then something extraordinary happened. Someone better came along. In fact, two of them. Lars Lagerbäck and Tommy Söderberg were appointed national coaches and the pair turned Sweden into one of the best teams in Europe, qualifying for four consecutive tournaments, topping England’s group in the 2002 World Cup and coming within a penalty shootout of reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2004.

In the meantime, Eriksson’s stock has fallen. Initially, the Swedish press was on his side, lambasting the English media for not allowing him to have even a smidgen of a private life. At the time of the Ulrika Jonsson and Faria Alam revelations there was bemusement as to why English people were interested in reading about this 58-year-old’s love life. Why do they want to know that he wore blue pyjamas on a weekend away with Alam, as the News of the World had revealed, the Swedes asked.

Last year, there was a play about “an unnamed England manager” at the Dramaten theatre in Stockholm and the producer Janine Ulfane was asked to explain the main differences between Sweden and England. “The English seem incredibly interested in people’s sex lives,” she said, “whereas in Sweden there is outrage if a minister uses the tax payers’ money to buy a Toblerone, which happened recently.”

“I think it is just interesting to see the differences in attitudes between the two countries’ press,” the artistic director Stefan Larsson added. “I can’t understand why the English are so incredibly interested in people’s sex life. It must be their Victorian past that makes them so excited as soon as there is a mention of genitals or a breast.”

So the blame was solely on the English press – until the fake sheikh incident. What Swedes took exception to was not his comments about the corruption within the game, which ultimately led to his fall, but that he revealed what his players had told him in private conversations.

“Once upon a time I wanted Svennis as Swedish national coach,” wrote one blogger. “But now I don’t know. What would he add to a Swedish national team nowadays? I don’t think Swedish players need to be taught what he has taught Portuguese, Italian and English individualists. You can’t deny what he did at the start of the Eighties, but the picture of a secure and level-headed Värmlänning [a person from his home county, Värmland] has come apart since he became English national coach.”

“What were you thinking, Sven?” asked one of Sweden’s best football writers, Robert Laul, in Aftonbladet. “Did you have too much champagne? Whatever one might think about the methods of News of the World, they did at least prove that Svennis’s judgment is not the best any more.”

Eriksson, meanwhile, has tired of the Swedish press – or at least the tabloids – after a recent trip home when an Expressen photographer tried to take photos of him and his family at a restaurant through a cigarette packet. His son Johan had to ask them to leave but Sven was not impressed. “I don’t know which press is the worst any more: the Swedish or the English,” he said.

The Swedish media seem to have lost their total respect and utter admiration for Eriksson in recent months. It has become more critical of him after the Dubai revelations, as proved by Simon Bank’s piece in Aftonbladet after Eriksson had presented his World Cup squad: “Sven and Tord have picked a squad less balanced than a dropped Paul Gascoigne,” he wrote. “Picking Theo Walcott… is like being locked out of the house in the middle of night with only two quid in your pocket – and spending them on a lottery ticket. Sure, you can become a millionaire, but it would have been cleverer to buy a telephone card.”

The sentiment will, of course, change if Eriksson wins the World Cup. Then he will once again be the unassuming and clever Swede who conquered the world. And everyone will be deliriously proud of him.

From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month

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