Focus: Sven - The end of the affair

How we once loved him. The tall, dapper figure. The gnomic statements of huge significance. The unflappable calm. We could forgive him Ulrika, even Faria. The man had balls, after all. But then came Belfast. And now the Swede's become a turnip. Cole Moreton chronicles the story of a love gone sour
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Most of England loved Sven when he became coach to its football team in 2001. After years of failure and mediocrity, our confidence was low. We felt ugly and charmless as a footballing nation. We needed the company of a sophisticated foreigner to revive us. Think Shirley Valentine: a brow-beaten housewife is rejuvenated by the attentions of a Greek she meets on holiday, who tells her that she is beautiful and her stretch marks are signs of life. Sven did something similar for us: he reminded England that its past could be a source of pride, not a burden, and made us feel good again. He seduced us with his expensive Italian suits, groovy rimless glasses and fancy Continental ways. The Swede had won five titles in three countries including Italy, so he knew his way around a football pitch; he knew how to tickle the erogenous zones of a team until the crowd moaned with ecstasy. "Thank you, Sweden," oozed one esteemed football writer, "for lending us Sven."

The first moment of deep pleasure may turn out to have been the greatest: the 5-1 demolition of Germany in Munich in September 2001. Sven was impassive throughout, and it was suggested that he had even left the pre-match pep talk to his deputies. "We don't know what he's doing," was the gist of the reports, "but let's hope he doesn't stop." Businesses wanted him to share his secrets with their executives. The most he shared was that he liked Tibetan poetry and classical music. (A CD of his favourites sold well.) The London Business School examined Swedish management techniques and said they involved removing hierarchies, encouraging everyone to have their say and reaching decisions by consensus.

Ironic, then, that player power has helped to bring Sven low. Some of the team apparently asked for the formation to be changed ahead of last Wednesday's game against Northern Ireland, among the lowliest of opponents. The result was a dreadful performance and a 1-0 loss, the worst England defeat in decades. Suddenly a naturally gifted side might not qualify for next year's World Cup, which would be a national disaster. Sven once made English footballers and their fans feel special - now they are utterly humiliated.

The captain, David Beckham, appeared ashamed last week. He has always been close to the coach - in the beginning the most famous player on the planet felt he was finally being treated like an adult, by a man of the world. They both had flamboyant partners: Posh, who had given her footballer a proper makeover, and Nancy dell'Olio, the Italian lawyer who was the fire to Sven's ice. Except when he was playing away. Or was it a home fixture when he started an affair with Ulrika Jonsson, the television star who was our other favourite Swede? When they met at a party, Sven asked for her telephone number. In Swedish. While Nancy was on his arm.

England charmed their way to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup but were bamboozled by Brazil. That confused us. We had thought that Sven knew what he was doing. Now, for the first (but not the last) time he looked clueless. Still, it earned him an approach from the newly enriched Chelsea. Sven flirted: he was seen coming out of a meeting with the owner, Roman Abramovich. "Forget what he did to Nancy with Ulrika," said one commentator at the time. "The real treachery was entering a relationship with England's fans on the understanding that it was serious, only to fool around as if it were no more than a casual fling."

Sven said no to Chelsea, but Real Madrid and Manchester United also fluttered their eyelashes. So the FA did what every besotted lover would: bought him a nice present, a new contract worth £4m a year. In return he took England to the European Championships in the summer of last year. Beckham was a flop and the team crashed out. There was no passion, a watchword in English football, and the same was true again last week in Belfast. Steve McClaren, the assistant, paced the touchline but Sven just looked on, inscrutable. "He could be just some official in a blazer from the FA," said the former England star Ian Wright.

We know the Iceman has hot blood in his veins, though, because his girlfriends keep telling us so. The most high-profile of these has been Faria Alam, who was a personal assistant at the FA when she started an affair with Sven in February 2004. After speaking to him, the Football Association denied that its coach was involved with her. But a week later the FA had to admit it was wrong - and that it had tried to cover up the fact that Faria had also slept with its then chief executive, Mark Palios. The result was an employment tribunal - although it was announced on Friday that all Ms Alam's claims of sexual harassment and unfair dismissal had been rejected.

Sven was a "generous lover" with a "great body" according to Faria, who appears to have believed that Sven intended to leave Nancy for her (but then so did Ulrika). The secret of his attraction - given his receding chin and hairline, and crooked teeth - appears to be the ability to make a woman believe she is the most important and desirable person in the world. For a while.

And what of Nancy? Plates have been thrown and voices raised inside their expensive home in Regent's Park, but the couple are still together. Nancy is now held in more affection by the English than her partner, thanks to her feistiness and operatic glamour: last week she was pictured in a magazine in black ballgown on the back of a gleaming, rearing stallion.

That impressive sight was magicked up by computers. So was the offensive image of her partner with his head in a noose that appeared in The Sun on Friday. Baiting the England manager has been a tabloid sport for years. Bobby Robson said he was "the victim of a tabloid war". Graham Taylor was pictured as a turnip, and Terry Venables portrayed as a spiv. Glenn Hoddle was crucified for unfortunate comments about karma and Kevin Keegan lampooned. But The Sun took it to a vicious and violent level two days ago. It just wasn't funny. But then that's what happens when a love affair goes bad: it gets nasty.

The country is considering other suitors already - from the resolutely English Alan Curbishley and Sam Allardyce to our new favourite foreigner, the slick Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho. The debate is whether Sven should go immediately, or stay on for the two remaining World Cup qualifiers, or even limp on through next year's tournament (if his team gets there). The FA would have to pay more than £10m to get rid of him, as his contract runs to 2008. He may quit, of course. But the divorce papers will be signed sooner or later - there is no longer any doubt about that. When the love is gone, it's gone.

Six reasons why we loved Sven

He was cool and aloof

He was foreign and exotic

He was rich and successful

He was not burdened by our traditions

He had a feisty girlfriend

He seemed to know what he was doing

Six reasons why we don't any more

He is cool and aloof

He is foreign and strange

He is even richer. So where's the success?

He doesn't understand our traditions - including cricket

He has too many girlfriends

He doesn't seem to know what he's doing

Comments