James Lawton: Caught out again, the serial opportunist with a roving eye

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The Independent Football

Even though some would say catching Sven Goran Eriksson with his trousers down, philosophically or otherwise, is merely to operate the law of averages, the picture of him which emerges from a News of the World "sting'"at the weekend could not have been sketched more passionately by his most ferocious critic.

It is a portrait of opportunism that might bring pause to a huckster with an ounce of reflection. But, then, maybe not Eriksson.

For the "Iceman" Swede there seems to be one unyielding priority. It is the best deal, the best terms that might just be out there. No matter that his salary - for what many in his "industry" believe is essentially a part-time job, and certainly in the way he operates - pays a net £3m a year with bonuses on top, the quest for improvement is apparently unending.

The latest account of his style and ambitions certainly reek not of his sparse upbringing in a small town in Sweden but la dolce vita he adopted in his years in Rome with Lazio.

One moment he is devouring crab and lobster and drinking vintage wine in a five-star Dubai restaurant while coolly proposing to an undercover reporter, decked out as an oil-rich Sheikh, a £25m takeover of Aston Villa and his own installation - while still under contract to the Football Association - as club manager at a £5m-plus salary which would carry him beyond even the earning power of football's best-rewarded coach, Chelsea's Jose Mourinho.

Then, flanked by his agent and a lawyer, he is on the top deck of a luxury yacht, swigging back "bottle after bottle" of champagne and white wine and throwing a juicy titbit into his takeover suggestion - the guaranteed signing of his England captain, David Beckham, of Real Madrid.

After confirming that his FA contract runs until 2008, Eriksson is quoted on his responsibilities to the England team, saying: "After five-and-a-half years, it's a long time to be manager. Anyhow, if we win the World Cup I will leave and say goodbye."

Touchingly, much of the nation apparently sees Eriksson - despite his background as a serial chaser of new opportunities of enrichment - as a crusader on behalf of English football, a man in pursuit of the Holy Grail of the World Cup. Yet on his flying, luxury-filled trip to Dubai he resembled nothing so much as a fervent salesman of his own shopworn goods, a man on the prodigious make.

None of this adds much fuel for any fresh assessment of Eriksson as someone quite perfectly fitted to the role of coach and guardian of the nation's most talented young footballers. He is, we surely know well enough by now, a man underburdened by the sense of duty and sober commitment that marked the style of the only coach in English football history to win the World Cup, Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966.

Ramsey retired to a modest house in Ipswich after being fired by the FA. Eriksson has always made it clear that his own departure would be to a new and even more lucrative horizon. Since his appointment in 2001, he has been three times caught out in negotiations with prospective employers, Chelsea twice and Manchester United. His commitment to his partner, Nancy Dell'Olio, complicated by hugely publicised flings with the television presenter Ulrika Jonsson and the former FA secretary Faria Alam, has similarly been irresolute.

However, are these grounds for firing a man whose job is to deliver results on the football field? Hardly so in an age when results, and the profits which flow from them, have long become all important and it is here that the Swede retains some strength. He has a perfect record in qualifying for major tournaments, the World Cups of 2002 and this coming summer in Germany, and the European Championships of 2004.

Certainly the FA retain gratitude for Eriksson's ability to avoid the disaster of 1994, when England failed to qualify for the World Cup in America under Graham Taylor - and the one that was looming in 2000 when Eriksson's predecessor, Kevin Keegan, walked away with the team in confusion after a World Cup qualifying defeat by Germany in the last competitive game played at the old Wembley stadium.

Eriksson's practical streak - he picks the best players and then makes himself their friend - has always guarded against the worst fate of a football coach, a loss of support in the dressing-room. But then, even here, the weekend "sting" has not exactly helped his position.

The News of the World also revealed tittle-tattle from Eriksson on key players like Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand. He told the undercover reporter that Owen had joined his new club Newcastle United "only for the money" and that at the time of his recent exclusion from the team, Ferdinand was "not in good shape".

Eriksson named Shaun Wright-Phillips - who earlier in the season was shaping up as one of England's most promising young players - as the object of the most extravagant transfer fee paid in English football when Chelsea outlayed £24m. He also talked about the "rough background" of England's best player, Wayne Rooney.

None of these indiscretions are likely to hole Eriksson beneath the waterline. However, his confident declaration that he could deliver the signing of Beckham goes to the heart of the most severe criticism of his regime as England coach. It implicitly supports the idea that he has accorded his captain Beckham a special status within the team.

This impression has always been strong with Eriksson's constant refusal to criticise Beckham for lapses of discipline, which have led to him being dismissed from the field - against Austria in a World Cup qualifying game earlier this season - and missing three important qualifying matches while serving suspensions over the past three years.

When Beckham admitted to deliberately fouling a Wales player in 2004 so that he would be suspended - and serve the ban while injured - Eriksson dismissed it as a trivial matter unworthy of his serious attention.

Yet at the time England's 1966 World Cup hero Sir Geoff Hurst talked about a "national disgrace". He said that his old manager, Ramsey, would not have countenanced such behaviour from his own captain, Bobby Moore. Said Hurst: "Even Bobby wouldn't have lasted a minute if he had owned up to something like that."

More recently, the leadership qualities of Chelsea's centre-half John Terry have glowed in performances for both his club and his country - and during a period when Beckham was dismissed from the field three times - but Eriksson brushed aside suggestions that he had become a legitimate contender for the captaincy on the approach to the World Cup finals.

Beckham, said Eriksson in so many words, was the coach's man. The extent of this reality is perhaps a little clearer now. Certainly it throws up grave questions about Eriksson's approach to selection during the course of the coming World Cup finals. Would Eriksson's interest in Beckham as a viable bargaining tool in his own future affect his thinking about who would best serve England on the right of midfield? Here, inevitably, you are reminded of Beckham's dismal form in England's last major tournament, the European Championships in Portugal, when Eriksson was emphatic that his captain's place in the team was not in jeopardy.

Also self-evident is the preoccupation of the coach. At no time in his talks with somebody he believed was capable of investing more than £25m into an English football club, did he suggest that his own immediate future was utterly dominated by the challenge of delivering the World Cup to his adopted country. Did he have time to think about - and perhaps get physically involved - in the strategy necessary to pull off a takeover of Aston Villa, and persuade the ageing, ailing chairman Doug Ellis that it was a good course? Plainly he did. It was, after all, his idea.

Meanwhile, Eriksson will lead England to the greatest challenge in world football. At the very least, it is something to pass the time... and who knows, there may just be a nice little bonus.

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