Where hostilities between England and Germany are concerned, you do not expect a Swede to adopt anything other than a neutral stance. Or, to be more precise in the case of Sven Goran Eriksson, to be politely non-committal.
"Oh, '66 maybe; it was..." he struggled for an adjective "...very good", the England coach responded, with that toothy smile of his, in the manner of a man humouring his audience but essentially finding the question irrelevant, when asked to list his memories of footballing confrontations between the nations.
What procured him the job was his own history, not any profound knowledge of England's. It is Eriksson's personal experience of contests on German soil which convinces him that it is quite possible to puncture that Germanic self-belief which has permeated meetings between the countries down the years.
Eriksson recalls the night in 1982 when he took his Gothenburg team to face Hamburg, the 1980 European Cup finalists, in the second leg of the Uefa Cup final. Gothenburg had won their home game 1-0, but nobody expected them to survive. They won 3-0.
"Nobody had given us a chance," he said. "Hamburg supporters already had their flags ready, with the words: 'Hamburg, winners of Uefa Cup, 1982'. You could buy them before the game." Eriksson paused before adding: "I still have one at home."
Perhaps he should unfurl it in front of his England squad, whom he will reveal today, and use it as a motivational tool. Where England-Germany meetings are concerned, the normal rules of engagement do not apply. Even those players for whom the 1966 World Cup triumph predates their birth by a decade or more will be aware that England have not defeated Saturday's rivals on German soil since 1965 in Nuremberg, when Terry Paine scored the only goal.
Eriksson's task will be as much one of instilling the correct mental approach as the most appropriate tactics and selection before this most climactic of occasions. "If you are frightened to go into a game, it's already one-nil to your opponents, maybe even two-nil," he said. "Talking about what happens if we draw the game, if we lose, I never like that. That's only a question which I want to answer after the game – and hopefully not even then."
The coach added: "The danger is that, when you run out at that big stadium in Munich, in front of 80,000, knowing the importance of the game, you're too tense to play. My job is to try to get the players to be relaxed."
England, of course, have not only to confront rivals undergoing a renaissance since their elimination from Euro 2000, but their own self-doubts, which despite the denials of David Beckham and Co, may well afflict them following the defeat by Holland.
The probable return of the talismanic Steven Gerrard, without whom, statistically as well as apparently, England just are not so convincing in midfield, and the central defensive pairing of Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand, together with Nicky Barmby or Steve McManaman in the left midfield "hell" hole, will give England a stronger, more resourceful look than the team who started against the Dutch. Also, only injury will prevent Michael Owen, second- half substitute against Holland, being named in the starting XI.
Eriksson was asked if he believed that the team he hoped to field next Saturday would have achieved a different result against Holland. "I think so, even if I don't like to talk about the people not playing," he agreed. "It's always cheap to hide behind saying things like 'If we had all the players available we could have won the game'. I don't like to talk like that."
Which begs the question, should he have exerted more pressure on the club managers to acquire the players he wanted and be permitted to deploy them in the game for as long as he deemed necessary, rather than agree to a maximum of 45 minutes for those who did play? "It would never be my way to go out and push people, to look for a fight with the club managers," Eriksson retorted.
"I think you must try to be as diplomatic as possible. Even if you lose some friendly games, OK. Let's do it, then. I don't think we should risk people who are important to the clubs and the national team in friendly games."
How much effect on the confidence of the squad that first defeat under Eriksson's stewardship will have remains to be seen. For the moment, it has not disturbed him, nor apparently produced fissures in that image of supreme competence he has created of himself ahead of the Germany match and the one against Albania at St James' Park the following Wednesday. "If it had been a qualification game and we'd played like that I would have expected the critics to be much harder on me," Eriksson said. "And that's fair. We had a poor game. We lost it and that's it. I will speak to the team about it when we meet up on Tuesday, then we will forget it."
Though his team will be constructed with victory as the principal design theme, avoiding defeat will run it a close second, and the England architect's first priority will be to negate the effectiveness of Germany's talented attacking midfielders, Mehmet Scholl, now 30, who missed the 5-2 "friendly" defeat of Hungary, and the influential 21-year-old Sebastian Deisler. To achieve that, the England coach could ask Paul Scholes to operate in a five-man midfield, but also to break when the chance comes to supplement a lone striker.
Germany, whom the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, described after the Hungary game as playing "at times like a South American team", are buoyant at present, but if England do detect a weakness it is in their opponents' lack of guile in attack, epitomised by the hulking Carsten Jancker.
Should the Bayern Munich striker penetrate their rearguard, England will be reliant on David Seaman, who, despite every forecast by his critics of impending international retirement, maintains a steely grasp on the goalkeeping gloves. He does so in part because of the absence of a sustained challenge from Nigel Martyn, who did not exactly enhance his claims against Holland.
However, neither will the watching Eriksson have been amused by the manner in which Seaman failed to organise his rearguard in time to prevent Ian Harte's swiftly-taken free-kick opener for Leeds at Highbury on Tuesday night. In truth, you would not place utmost faith in either man.
Leeds' Paul Robinson and Arsenal's Richard Wright look to be England's long-term future in the position; yet that will not occur until they appear on regular first-team club duty, a position denied them by Martyn and Seaman respectively. Eriksson believes the young goalkeepers will get their chance in time. "I saw Robinson play Under-21 and some games for Leeds when Martyn was injured last season, and I think he's a very good prospect," the coach said.
For the moment, Seaman will not be usurped. "He's very professional and a good goalkeeper," Eriksson insisted. "He's still as good as he was five, 10 years ago."
He will need to be at his most agile and aware, faced with an opposition requiring just a draw to win Group Nine. Eriksson, though, remains undaunted. "You're at a level where it's very equal," he said. "There is little to separate England, Germany, France, Holland and so on. It depends a lot on your attitude and whether you have all your players available. If you have that you can compete with anyone."
It was the Germans whose 1-0 victory nearly 11 months ago at Wembley compelled Kevin Keegan to resign, with England looking in need of a demolition and reconstruction similar to that facing the old stadium they were vacating. On Saturday, we will determine whether, under his successor, England have been truly repaired or whether the cracks have been merely papered over.Reuse content