On the walk to the Cafe Royal from London's Oxford Circus tube, you pass several advertisements for one of the England coach's less controversial extra-curricular interests, Sven Goran Eriksson's Classical Collection. The CD set is designed for catholic tastes, from the stirring "Dambusters' March" to Scandinavian works by Larsson (the composer Lars-Erik, not the goalscorer Henrik).
When, a few minutes later, you enter the West End hotel to be handed the Swede's World Cup squad, you wonder whether, in six weeks' time, this will be regarded as a classic compilation of contrasting styles; full of power, imagination and youthful vibrancy, or whether it will come to be perceived as sheer naïveté. Remove the "father" figures to which Eriksson refers, Martin Keown, Teddy Sheringham and Gareth Southgate, none of whom would be necessarily first-choice starters, and the three goalkeepers, including the daddy of them all David Seaman, and there is not a player over 27. The average age is less than 24.
In essence, Eriksson is entrusting the country's World Cup expectations to a quartet of white knights of international distinction, praying that they remain sound in wind and limb and hoping that there are sufficient lusty, young broad-swordsmen to see England through in what are likely to be the most adverse conditions for Europeans at the culmination of an arduous season. The closer it all approaches, the more it appears a hugely daunting examination ahead.
When asked to name his key personnel, England's potential match-winners, Eriksson unhesitatingly nominates David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, but adds: "Hopefully, after the World Cup, people around the world will know more names."
Climate conditions, players' fitness and on-field temperament will all be crucial to England's success or otherwise and one suspects that if Eriksson's men are to progress beyond the group stage the world will have to know considerably more about Owen Hargreaves, Kieron Dyer, Darius Vassell and Joe Cole. They all merit inclusion, but doubts persist at international level.
Two of Eriksson's principal four, Owen and Gerrard, are particularly susceptible to injuries; one, Paul Scholes, is prone to a referee's wrath, as he demonstrated against Arsenal on Wednesday; and Beckham, though the recipient of positive bulletins, is still recovering from that foot fracture. One player, quite possibly more, may well have to make as spectacular an entrance as Owen's in 1998 if England are to flourish.
There are many from whom to choose. Half of the 23 have not played before at a major tournament and if there is a common feature among this squad which bears the now distinctive Eriksson stamp, it is the number of players blessed with pace and flair, a comment which applies particularly to Dyer and Vassell.
Though one can debate the individual qualities of those discarded at this stage – the naturally left-sided Trevor Sinclair, the industrious midfielder with goalscoring potential Danny Murphy (on standby), the mercurial Steve McManaman or the classy, left-footed Matt Jansen, not to mention Phil Neville and Frank Lampard – few would argue with the overall content of a squad which contains a high proportion of flexible performers.
The inclusion of Keown has made the squad appear bottom-heavy, with eight defenders, five of them centre-backs. But Wes Brown can cover for Danny Mills at right-back; Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge could both be deployed as left midfielders; Hargreaves' versatility will be valued, with the Bayern Munich player possibly even moving to right-back.
Gerrard, Dyer and Scholes are relat-ively interchangeable, and their roles will largely depend on the fitness of Beckham. Joe Cole relishes freedom to roam, although he may have to accept being restricted to the left. Of the five forwards, Heskey has performed more than adequately when switching to left midfield, while Sheringham provides an alternative option, even though he is one of the few personnel who lack acceleration.
But Eriksson is acutely aware that factors beyond his control, climate and fitness, could heavily influence England's destiny. Japan is hot and humid from the start of June, a fact that has led Arsène Wenger and Glenn Hoddle to suggest that it is virtually impossible for a European team to win the tournament in those conditions. "I think it's difficult, but because of that we will be testing the players for their fitness, carrying out blood tests, trying to find out how much they need to drink before the games, how much weight they will lose," says Eriksson. We're trying to do everything possible."
That will include special dietary supplements. Those, Eriksson explained, are "extremely important when you lose a lot of weight. How quickly you recover is extremely crucial to the results. Sport has become more and more sophisticated and medicine plays an increasingly large part. You need a lot of professors around you today. Everything we do with the players, we report to their clubs. We are not trying to hide anything. We tell them if a player is given vitamin A or B, or whatever."
Though there may well be some players who never get to raise an England shirt over their heads, let alone raise a sweat in World Cup games, the understudies appear, at first glance, barely sufficient in number. "It would be very good to have 12 [of the 23] who never get a kick, although that would be very sad for them," says Eriksson. "That means that you are very successful and that you never have any problems. But football is not like that. You have injured players, booked players, banned players, players in form and out of form. I think you need 23 players."
The odds on the existing contingent making it intact to the first game against Sweden in three week's time must be extremely long. "I think it's one of the biggest concerns you have in this World Cup," agrees Eriksson. "Injuries are a very big enemy from now until the tournament starts." Any players injured before next Sunday would probably be replaced by one of the senior players omitted from Eriksson's squad. After that, reinforcements will be hailed from David Platt's Under-21 squad who depart this week for their own tournament in Switzerland. West Ham's Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe, for instance, would not be amiss in the World Cup set-up.
It was almost certainly the verdict of Tord Grip, Eriksson's assistant, on Keown that earned the abrasive Arsenal defender the final place in the squad. Keown and Campbell frustrated Manchester United with formidable demonstrations of the art of defending at Old Trafford, Yet, both Keown and Scholes will have raised concerns regarding their self-discipline.
While neither Eriksson's vocabulary nor his inclination leads him to suggest that Scholes should go round "dropping bombs", as Kevin Keegan once exhorted the midfielder, neither does he want pacifists in his team. "When you go to a World Cup, you don't take choirboys to meet Sweden and Argentina, but you always hope the players can control their temperament. At Sampdoria I had a defender who could kill a centre-forward, more or less, but he was an extremely good player and I always believed it was better to have him on your side than play against him. I think every team needs those kind of players."
Tomorrow, Eriksson and his men fly out to Dubai, with partners. To sun themselves, relax and prepare for the adventure ahead in the Far East. Not Eriksson, though. He will be watching videos of Sweden's recent games, and plotting and planning. Maybe listening to a little classical music from his own CD? "The Pomp and Circumstance March" would be most appropriate.Reuse content