Farewell Sven. You seemed to prefer women to trophies

After three failed bids to win a tournament for England, Sven Goran Eriksson's era ended with yesterday's defeat. Stan Hey reviews the Swede's reign as coach and celebrity
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The Independent Online

At the end of the day, he left us as he had left his lovers, with a sense of anti-climax. Sven Goran Eriksson's five-and-a-half year managerial career with the England football team faded away with defeat in a penalty shoot-out yesterday to Portugal in Gelsenkirchen in the quarter-finals of the 2006 World Cup. The Swedish manager on whom the Football Association, if not the country, had staked so much, once again found winning an international tournament beyond his coaching and motivational skills. Three exits at the last-eight stage were all he could leave us with, none of them in any way heroic, except yesterday's.

Surely a case of Three Lions led by a Donkey? Yet when the svelte Svennis was introduced to the nation in the autumn of 2000 by Adam Crozier, then the FA's slick chief executive, who had headhunted him from the Italian club Lazio, there were many people ready to hail the appointment of England's first foreign coach as a progressive step.

Before Sven, Kevin Keegan had flapped his arms like a stranded penguin as he watched England flounder out of a charmless Euro 2000 tournament, before resigning in the aftermath of a 1-0 defeat to Germany in the last game at the old Wembley Stadium. "I'm not up to the job," Keegan confessed in the players' tunnel as the autumn darkness fell.

Before that, his predecessor Glenn Hoddle had decided that the hapless David Batty should take part in a futile penalty shoot-out against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France. Hoddle, a born-again Christian who brought a faith-healer, Eileen Drewery, to England's training camps, later dished himself when he told a reporter that the disabled were just paying for their sins in previous lives. There was even a brief, bizarre spell under the lugubrious, long-ball mystic Howard Wilkinson, the FA's so-called director of football.

This was the world that Sven walked into - chaotic, demoralised, ridiculed and repeatedly unsuccessful, the world of the England football team. The bigots bayed disapproval while the progressives hailed a polyglot coach with outstanding club success in four European countries who had begun his career by studying the English game.

He arrived with no religious baggage and with no apparent skeletons in his IKEA cupboard. He was divorced but had a steady partner in the dramatic shape of Nancy Dell'Olio, an Italian lawyer. He was media-savvy, calm, and confident that he could do a good job. The first year of Sven's reign won the doubters over, culminating in a resounding 5-1 win in Munich against Germany in the return leg of the 2002 World Cup qualifying group. But in the run-up to the tournament itself, it was revealed that this fan of Tibetan poetry enjoyed a rumbustious inner life. Tony Blair's spin-master Alastair Campbell had introduced Sven to Ulrika Jonsson, fellow Swede and weather-girl turned game-show stalwart, and within a few weeks the Daily Mirror's socialite "investigators" - the "3am Girls" - were reporting Sven and Ulrika's affair.

Jonsson was soon involved, not just in a tabloid feeding frenzy, but in a battle with Nancy akin to one of the Gladiator games she had hosted. When Sven scuttled back to Nancy, Ulrika posted her revenge in a book and in the newspapers. She detailed how Sven used to skip away after England training sessions for a quickie at Ulrika's Cookham home; how he would leave his stack-heeled shoes outside the bedroom to stop the Jonsson nanny from interrupting Sweden's national sport.

Eriksson hid behind the usual "my private life is private" barricade but by then the FA had realised that he was as likely to cause them trouble off the pitch than on it. For while shagging Ulrika was a "lad mag" dream, and hardly damaging to Sven's dull image, the affair had set the tabloid hounds on his trail. But the next kicking came from the sports writers. In the 2002 World Cup, there was smooth progress to the quarter-finals, where England ran into the favourites, Brazil. Michael Owen gave England a lead which was squandered by half-time after David Beckham, rushed back from a metatarsal injury, jumped out of a vital tackle, allowing Brazil to equalise.

Brazil took the lead in the second half as David Seaman, the goalkeeper, misjudged Ronaldinho's free kick, but the scorer was soon sent off. England had a golden chance, it seemed. But Sven dithered over substitutes and the momentum was lost. Afterwards the first dissenting voices were heard about the coach's ability under pressure. It was reported that the players were expecting "a Winston Churchill-style speech" at half-time - but that all they had got was "the equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith".

A year later, the Quiet Man of Football was photographed with Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's chief executive, the obvious conclusion being that he was about to jump England's ship and board Roman Abramovich's mega-yacht.

Eriksson brazened out the crisis, claiming that he was entitled to talk to other prospective employers. The FA panicked, thought they might lose him, and offered him an improved and extended contract to 2008 at £5m a year. Another quarter-final failure, at the 2004 European Championships, brought that valuation into question but Sven was now so protected by his contract that a redundancy payment was too large to contemplate.

The FA's dilemma was made worse when it emerged that their new chief executive, Mark Palios, and Sven had been sharing the favours of an FA secretary, Faria Alam. Palios lost his job, as did Alam, but Eriksson clung to his despite being seen as an increasingly ridiculous figure. The absence of passion on the touchline during England matches was contrasted with his readiness for off-stage action. And it was clear that fidelity was an alien concept to him, both in terms of his partner and his employer.

The final exasperation came earlier this year when Eriksson walked into a trap set by the News of the World's "Fake Sheikh" reporter, flying to Dubai to be wined and dined and to trade confidences about players, clubs and managers. The FA's latest chief executive, Brian Barwick, a former head of BBC sport and accustomed to tough, gloves-off negotiations, called an early end to Sven's England contract, with a reduced pay-off, and the Swede was told to knuckle down to the business of winning the World Cup. The England team, apart from an abysmal defeat to Northern Ireland, qualified successfully and Eriksson was given a warm-ish farewell from the Old Trafford crowd after last month's 6-0 win in a friendly against Jamaica. He is, statistically, the most successful England manager ever but these clearly lie through their rotten teeth.

This failed World Cup campaign has again revealed the caution of Eriksson's tactical style and his innate cupidity, with sterile football and an apparent eagerness to do a book deal as his departing images. His legacy may be even more damaging, as the best generation of English footballers for 40 years come to terms with his inability to turn them into a coherent team. Meanwhile, he will walk away to another lucrative coaching job, possibly at Real Madrid. The American film business has a cute phrase for this phenomenon - "failing upwards".

What he said: 'I'm not married to Beckham'

On Rooney

"I spend a lot of energy taking the aggression out of my players. All a player has to do is play dirty andtheir performance will sink like a stone"

On his reliance on Beckham in the squad of 2006

"I am not married to David Beckham, even if you think I am. I am not even engaged to him"

On a 'News of the World' sting in which he criticised his players

"I have spoken with the players concerned and am confident my relationship with them has not been damaged"

On media pressure after his affair with Faria Alam

"In this job it seems you should be a saint, you shouldn't earn much and you should win every football game"

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