The acropolis stands proudly in the heat and the carbon monoxide. So too does Sven Goran Eriksson. It is a matter of knowing who and where you are, and if Eriksson has a long way to go before he can make any serious claim to the monumental in his management of England's football, the glorious old pile on the hill reminds us that staying power is only built on the most solid of foundations.
The basis of Eriksson's work, as it was always reasonable to expect after the most cursory glance at his successful record in the widely different football cultures of Sweden, Portugal and Italy, is that intelligence which puts a special emphasis on common sense.
Thus here tonight we have an England team picked along lines of pretty much impregnable logic. There are no fads and no tinkerings and no faith healers.
Most critically, it seems that after just a few months in the job Eriksson has a strong sense of his team. He has already identified the core of it: David Beckham's extraordinary ball-striking, Steven Gerrard's potential to grow into a play-maker of bite and a big vision, the relentless relevance of Paul Scholes, and the world-class finishing of Michael Owen.
With his remarkable gift from the shadow of the Rockies, the Canadian-bred Bayern Munich prodigy Owen Hargreaves, undergoing vital repairs and with Robbie Fowler getting the chance tonight to prove, once and for all, that his natural scoring gifts which have been likened to those of Jimmy Greaves by some weathered critics belong alongside the blinding pace of Owen in the colours of both Liverpool and England, already Eriksson has created an aura of expanding, albeit quietly pitched expectation. "Expectation is a good, positive thing as long as it is kept under control as long as it doesn't out-run performance," Eriksson was saying before the vital World Cup qualifier with Greece. "I think it is good that teams want to beat England, consider it a mark of achievement. That shows us we're making progress, tells us we are a good team. But anyone who thinks that we've already arrived is being foolish." The first significant benchmark comes later in the summer in Munich against Germany in a game England probably must win to qualify automatically for next summer's World Cup in Japan and Korea, and such a possibility has to be underpinned in the Olympic stadium here tonight. From Eriksson there is not a breath of complacency after a run of four straight victories, and his manner continues to evoke the sentiment he expressed when the players trooped out of the dressing-room and into a rainy night after their fiesta of an opening friendly victory against a distinguished but less then hellbent Spain at Villa Park. When all the players had gone, Eriksson turned to his assistants, Steve McClaren and Peter Taylor, and said: "Now the real work begins."
Some of his predecessors might have been already predicting a golden triumph in the Far East. Instead, Eriksson seeks to implant a sense of communal adventure. If some of its expression has recently hinted of dressing-room euphoria, if Beckham, for example, has shown a tendency to talk about his captaincy as if it amounts so far to more than a few small strides in the most formidable challenge of his career, no one should be too quick to mistake a genuine lifting of the spirit, a sense that all is possible again, for mere triumphalism. Beckham, partly through his fault but also, no doubt, through some outrageously insensitive management, came home from the last World Cup not a prospective young lion but a whipped cub. Eriksson, plainly, knows the value of making a player, any player of any age, feel good about himself.
He is certainly candid about the scale of his own challenge, and the pressure it has brought. He says: "It has been a year when a lot of things have happened to me personally. In July, when I was with Lazio, I had no idea that I would end up in Greece talking about the England team, but I'm happy and excited to be talking about "our" team. I think it is a huge situation. It is scary, but I'm not afraid, yet. England is big, really big, and that is one of the reasons I came here."
Another is a five-year, multi-million contract, a reward for his brilliant work as a club manager and the kind of security and widened horizon which permits a football man to work with a certainty and a freedom which some of the men who went before him found so elusive, perhaps not least because of their failure to step back from the frenzy of hope which was often inseparable from mere wishful thinking.
England should win, handily, tonight. This is not to dismiss the problems created by passionate support and heightened performance from teams operating in their own backyard. It is a statement of the relative strengths of the two teams.
Owen and Fowler, with reasonable service, have the potential to cut to pieces a Greek defence critically deficient in pace, an advantage Owen clinically exploited when he ran Newcastle's Nikos Dabizas dizzy on the way to a superb hat-trick at Anfield recently. Fowler's craft and eye for the jugular should compound the discomfort for Dabizas and his powerful but not notably mobile partner Ioannis Goumas.
Certainly Eriksson will expect no less tonight. He knows that the Acropolis wasn't built in a few months. But he does like the look of his own foundations.Reuse content