Focus: Carry on kicking

Sex! Pomposity! Balls! The saga of Sven's trousers could be a comedy starring Sid James. And just like his movies, says novelist and football fan Dave Hill, the farcical state of play at the FA reveals so much about who the English really are
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The Independent Football

One view of the saga of Sven Goran Eriksson is that it's been a fuss about nothing. So what if he had a relationship with a secretary at the Football Association, the organisation that employs him? No marriage was broken up. No one got slapped around. These are grown-up people after all.

Many, too, will simply have been entertained by the FA's ineptitude in every aspect of its dealings with the Swedish coach. A series of fine misjudgements, unhappy resignations and bungled denials concluded with a "secret" meeting at a London hotel on Thursday - which only 100 or so journalists found out about, blocking a narrow street near Marble Arch with their cameras and tape recorders. The combination of sex, pomposity and farce was like a Carry On film.

There were strong rumours of the FA board being unable to remove Eriksson, even for football reasons, due to the bank-breaking compensation implications of his contract - the one the FA had given him only a few months before, in order to, er, make him stay.

What silly-season stuff, and so beautifully timed with the football season which began this weekend. But although the events were indeed gloriously daft, they also demonstrated once again football's extraordinary knack of reflecting the temper of the times.

Let's begin with the glacially inscrutable celebrity of Eriksson himself. The list of male public figures in England routinely referred to only by their forenames is short, and Eriksson's place on the list speaks volumes for the slightly bemused affection in which he was first held. His calm civility in press conferences proved an endearing novelty even among those with visceral suspicions of anyone who was not a true son of Albion. The soccer intelligentsia had long craved cosmopolitan sophistication to civilise the beer-and-bloodshed mentality which so often undid us against clever foreigners. Now we had a clever foreigner of our own.

Sven's love life further deepened his enigma. Swedes are supposed to be sexy but Sven didn't look like the sexy sort of Swede. So how come a dark-eyed Italian thing like Nancy Dell'Olio was his long-term love? The mystery became more compelling when it emerged he had been trysting torrid nights away with our other celebrity Swede, Ulrika Jonsson. What was the old billy goat's secret? What made such comely maidens fall for a fiftysomething with strong receding tendencies both of chin and hair?

These urgent questions are now being asked again, and answers of sorts are being offered today by the "flirtatious" and "stunning" Faria Alam herself. The half a million quid she is being paid for providing them (with the assistance of Max Clifford) to two Sunday papers and a television station will help her to get over the loss of the £30,000 a year she was paid by the FA before resigning.

So much for our lust for kiss and tell. What's the geezer done for our team? The upside is a record of just two competitive defeats in three and a half years. The downside is the way those games were lost. Doubts about Eriksson's incompatibility with gut English instinct resurfaced in the wake of the team's tame capitulation to Brazil in the quarter final of the 2002 World Cup after going ahead, especially when an unnamed player said that the half-time team talk was more meditation session than a Churchill speech. The recent undoing at the hands of Portugal at the same stage of Euro 2004, and in a similar manner, brought further complaints: why can't we keep the ball when we are leading in a game? Why do we retreat into a siege mentality instead of finishing opponents off?

All these criticisms have lowered the currency of Sven's Swedishness to dangerous levels, which may prove fatal if results are poor later this year. Not only is the clinical approach seen as lacking when he ought to be making our lions roar, but it hasn't addressed the old failings either. Technically, our native limitations linger. Temperamentally, we are still living in the Blitz. In terms of national characteristics, this leaves Eriksson in a tight spot: he's either far too Swedish or not Swedish enough.

There is a loyalty issue here as well. English football - like traditional Englishness at large - sets great store by grit and commitment. So Eriksson's receptiveness to job offers from elsewhere hasn't done him any favours. His now notorious contract, worth £4m a year, was offered after he was caught exploring options (as it were) at the home of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who has poured unheard-of millions into Chelsea. His detractors complain that plenty of good home-grown managers would be more than willing to take the England job for a queen's shilling.

It would be interesting to see if that were true. Managing England still carries great prestige, yet the pull of patriotism seems less strong than it was. Paul Scholes of Manchester United announced last week that, at the age of 29, he would no longer be available for England. The reason given was that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Scholes's decision will have pleased his club boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Like his Premier League rivals, Sir Alex has become increasingly reluctant to release players for international duties. As wealth has become more concentrated among the few clubs at the top, so has those clubs' power and desire to call the shots. This is partially moderated by the greater clout of the star players themselves who - just like managers - dishonour contracts as a matter of routine if they think it will be good for their careers. Nonetheless, the big boys always net the biggest fish. As their connections with the communities they still represent in name, if nothing else, have become more tenuous, so their global operations as private business interests have grown.

Not so long ago clubs of relatively modest means could challenge the top flight's giants. In the FA Cup, minnows could wound and even devour sharks. Now the consolidation of football wealth is epitomised by the so-called Champions League, the élite construct of the European rich gerrymandered to ensure that even a team finishing fourth in its domestic league can come to the party if it helps to maximise the income stream - and so prevent that income from trickling down to anybody else. Football's aspirations to meritocracy are mocked by such a model of capitalism's most undemocratic, not to say uncompetitive, not to say downright gluttonous, urges.

The FA's humiliations over Eriksson are all the more wounding given the organisation's already enfeebled condition in the face of these remorseless trends. As the governing body for all football in England, from the humblest junior league to the national team itself, it has a patrician remit befitting an entity that was formed in the 19th century. Its troubles reflect those of so many English institutions constructed in the days of empire and now struggling, pitifully, to come to terms with modern realities. It looks like a mutton-whiskered philanthropist being given a kicking by a bunch of big-business yobs.

A non-profit making concern, the FA nonetheless formed the Premier League in 1992 in concert with Sky TV and set out to modernise the game from top to bottom in keeping with the post-Hillsborough era. Like the hapless regulator of a privatised national asset, it has since flailed about trying to find a role. And even when it does, it fluffs its lines.

The saddest thing about the departure of chief executive Mark Palios was that under his leadership the FA had shown itself willing to insist that the privileged obeyed the rules. The result was that Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United and England centre back, was banned for forgetting to take a routine drug test. Of course, the FA made a great foaming Horlicks of it, but at least the principle seemed fair.

What should the guiding principles of the People's Game be? It is easy to wax lyrical about a lost era when shorts were baggier and balls soaked up muddy water like sponges. As well as public spectacles of venality and greed, the commercialisation of football has brought many benefits, including beautiful safe new stadiums, lots of television coverage, more women supporters and extravagant talents from overseas. The game's gift for showcasing both virtue and vice is part of its fascination; so is arguing about which is which.

At 3pm today at the Millennium Stadium, Arsenal and Manchester United compete for the Community Shield, the new season's traditional preliminary. Those spectating will range from men whose partisanship resembles a mental disorder to my eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, for whom the day's entertainment will include Daddy struggling to explain why the name of perhaps the finest player of his generation is pronounced Onree and not Henry. On the pitch artistry, imagination, teamwork, bravery will mingle freely with violence, deceit and skulduggery. Like all great drama, whether or not broadcast by the BBC, the English game gives us insights into the human condition while its values bring our moral landscape to life. Love or loathe the way the game has changed, its ability to show us the best and worst of ourselves remains the same.

Dave Hill's new novel 'Man Alive' is published by Hodder Headline