Sven Goran Eriksson: My debut was a win over Spain – but national anthem beat me
Saturday 12 November 2011
It's a long time ago. A decade ago! But there are certain memories of that Wednesday night in Birmingham – up against Spain for my first game in charge of England – that will always stay with me.
The cold is one of them. I thought I knew a bit about cold but I can say it was absolutely freezing at Villa Park. The national anthem is another. I'm not sure I ever entirely mastered "God Save the Queen" but there I was, a Swede, standing in front of the bench and trying to sing it a bit. People don't think of me as emotional but, inside, I was that night. It was emotional – very emotional – for me.
Above all that, though, there is the memory of a good win – a 3-0 win – and some good football and good goals to go with it. The Spain side that England will face at Wembley tonight is on a different level from the team that we faced back then and there is a different approach today, but Spain of that time were technically a very good team, too. Any side with Raul and Ivan Helguera in it will be.
In the circumstances I suppose you could say that my decision to select six uncapped players against Jose Antonio Camacho's team was risky, considering the discussion in the media in the days leading up to my first game. I was aware that some of the press hadn't wanted a foreign manager and that was all the talk. I'd been interviewed by the FA, they decided to take me and I was very proud. I've always said that if you win games you will be accepted and if you don't you will get criticism, whether you're English or Swedish. But some were looking for a negative sign – and for a bad result – so I guess my choice of Charlton left-back Chris Powell, the Sunderland midfielder Gavin McCann, Michael Ball of Everton – all were uncapped – and Middlesbrough's Uho Ehiogu, who hadn't played for England for five years, was a little unexpected.
The truth is that when my assistant, Tord Grip, and I arrived in England we didn't have any strong opinions about which players were best and it was from that position that I selected my rather large squad of 31. Tord and I had started to travel around the country – someone worked out that I had watched 25 league games in 41 days, though I think Tord saw nearer to 50 – and we selected on the basis of what we saw. We had a problem with left-back – we had to find one quickly – and at that time, Chris Powell was a very good option. Ashley Cole was coming through at Arsenal but I didn't know much about him.
Powell did well and so, I remember, did Ehiogu. He didn't play many more times for me but he was a very good defender at that time and was absolutely in the picture for my 2002 World Cup squad before he was injured playing for his club. I've not forgotten Ehiogu's goal against Spain: a header from a corner.
My advice to my players that night was simple and I don't recall making a special point about Raul or any others. "Defend," I told my team. "And do it together. Be very compact, as technically they are very good." I also wanted them to be ambitious. "Make the attacking simple. Pass the ball," I said. It worked.
How things have changed in the 10 years since. England have always been a very, very strong nation, one of the best in the world, but it's Spain who have really taken off and become No 1 in the world. They are not unbeatable but they have been the best for four years now. Some of that is down to having Barcelona. One very, very strong club side with a core of its country's internationals in it will help any nation. The psychological benefits of winning a tournament – as Spain finally did at Euro 2008 – also make a huge difference. Spain didn't know in 2001 that if they worked and played together they could beat anyone. They do today.
Is Spain's success simply a result of fate – a generation of footballers who turned up at the same time? No one will really know until Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the others get older and when Spain need a new generation to come through as well. It will be interesting to see, though I suspect that others will follow.
Spain are not the only good side heading to Wembley. I'll be there on Tuesday to see Sweden, who have a wonderful player in the captain Zlatan Ibrahimovich – a team man as well as an outstanding individual. Don't underestimate Sweden, who beat Holland 3-2 to qualify for Euro 2012 and are a very good team. But it is Vicente del Bosque's team which will bring the memories back for me of all those occasions, standing in front of the bench, listening to the anthem. Yes, it certainly made me proud.
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