Sweet FA

England manager Sven Goran Eriksson arrives back in London tomorrow to face questions from his employers about his tactics, his honesty and his sex life. They face questions over their competence. Is this the latest great scandal in the national game, or yet another case of sweet FA?
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Next Thursday 12 middle-aged men will walk into a room in Soho with sex uppermost on their minds. They are the board members of an organisation whose very name explains all: the Football Association, founded in 1863 to run the national game, but which now exists, seemingly, to preside over a high proportion of the nation's more diverting scandals.

On their agenda will be the results of an inquiry conducted by a team of lawyers into the sport's latest convulsion. It began simply enough as an everyday story of England manager Sven Goran Eriksson and an FA secretary. But it has now grown considerably more convoluted, involving affairs with the lady in question by two further FA executives, denials, withdrawn denials, non-denials, clarifications, a continuing debate over who said what and to whom, a former TV presenter, a fervent church-goer, and the ever-present figure of a Muslim part-time model. Thus, for the "Sven and Nancy Affair" now read the "Sven, Nancy, Faria, Mark, And Someone Else Who Remains Nameless Affairs", with the last word being very much the operative one. What last week's headline writers called an "England Love Triangle" had now developed more sides than a hexagon.

So how, as Gary Lineker puts it, did the England team get to this stage?

The story begins on Sunday 18 July, when the somewhat unconventional domestic life of Sven and his partner Nancy Dell'Olio was shattered, and not for the first time, by the soft plop of the News of the World as it hit their doormat in Regent's Park, London. There, on page one, was a story claiming the 56-year-old Swede was having an affair with Faria Alam, a 38-year-old PA at the FA - or, as the paper oddly described the Bangladesh-born but English-educated woman, "a sexy brunette of foreign extraction". In response, Nancy booted Sven out of their home, an FA spokesman denied the story, lawyers acting for them and Ms Alam contacted the paper, and much hot air was expended. There the matter reposed until seven days ago, when the NoW appeared with further intelligence, courtesy of a series of emails sent by Ms Alam to a "friend".

In them, she describes Sven's sexual prowess in terms more associated with motoring correspondents reviewing the latest Jaguar than girlie billets-doux. And there was more: Sven was not alone. Preceding him into the lady's favours (and bed), was FA chief executive Mark Palios, a man whose mission, it was said when he was appointed in 2003, was to "clean up the game". Apparently, Ms Alam called this former Crewe Alexandra midfielder-turned-accountant "The Big Man", which, if nothing else, showed a firm grasp of the sport's dressing room argot.

Her transactions with Sven were less clear cut. He phoned her constantly, or failed to stand by her; was a "generous lover" or a "flop in bed"; caroused with her in upscale restaurants, or dropped into her Tower Bridge flat after work. She, meanwhile, was "a huge flirt", or "not the sort of woman to throw herself at a man". It all depended on which of her anonymous, friends your paper believed. The great man himself, however, kept his opinions of the lady's charms to himself. Sven was still staying stum.

But in the light of the NoW story, the FA had no option but to cough, shuffle its feet and then issue a statement "confirming a relationship did take place". With Sven, and, er, Mr Palios, too - thus raising the question of upon what were the earlier denials based. As FA board members spluttered ("We're left looking like mugs," said one), their chairman - bearded, devout Christian Geoff Thompson - announced an inquiry and said that Mr Palios "had not misled or attempted to mislead the FA". His statement adroitly swerved around the question of whether Sven had done any misleading, thus raising tantalising questions. Just what, the press wanted to know, had passed between the manager and the FA before it summoned the men in wigs and issued denials?

After a day or so's probing, it emerged that when an unnamed FA official (said to be Mr David Davies, the executive director) raised the matter of Ms Alam with Sven, he was not best pleased. "This is nonsense," is what the manager, then holidaying at his lakeside home in Sweden, was said to have barked down the phone. And these three words were then endlessly deconstructed to detect if they referred to the central allegation, or merely to him being bothered while on leave with yet another hare set running by the tabloids. His assistant, Tord Grip, added to the confusion by saying that Sven "did not lie", without telling us about what precisely it was that he didn't fib.

Thursday brought clarification, of a distinctly Swedish sort. A statement from Sven said: "I have at no time either categorically confirmed or denied any relationship with Ms Faria Alam" - the "categorically" instantly raising the knowing eyebrows of the deconstructors. Fortunately for us all, he went on: "Neither I nor my advisers had any prior knowledge whatsoever of the statement authorised by the FA on behalf of Ms Alam on 19 July, nor of the press release issued by the FA 24 July, nor were either myself or my advisers consulted in any way about the contents of either statement." He also said that he was looking forward to Thursday's meeting with the FA board to discuss "these matters". All this on a day when a third FA executive was revealed to have dallied with Ms Alam.

But, since this was football, all this sex talk soon elided into speculation about large sums of money. Sven (salary £4m a year) was said to be looking at a possible £14m compensation if unfairly dismissed - which might go some way to footing the separation bill Nancy is likely to present him with. Ms Alam (£35,000 per) was also said to be anticipating a big pay-off, and, according to ubiquitous publicist Max Clifford (with whom she was not yet in cahoots), could ask up to £1m for her story.

It was only a matter of time before our old friend "human rights" was invoked. Sure enough, as yesterday dawned, up it popped. Sven, it was reported from Amsterdam, to which he had repaired on Friday, was adamant he would not resign. He was quoted as saying human rights legislation guaranteed his privacy, and that his employers were in breach of these rights by asking him about his social life.

The implications of this were not long lost on the players. They, Saturday papers said, were ready to strike if their manager was sacked. "The lads," said England defender John Terry, "are all behind Sven." You could understand their position. After all, if betraying your partner with a former model became a sackable offence in football, where would the game be?

The manager returns to London tomorrow for a meeting that could result in his dismissal, that of Mr Palios, Ms Alam's other, anonymous, immorata, the lady herself, the executive in charge when the apparently baseless denials were issued, or, conceivably, chairman Thompson himself for presiding over such a pretty kettle of fish. As for Nancy, she's been booked for a slot on Strictly Come Dancing.

Hard as it may seem to believe, this increasingly rococo matter may only have reached half-time. But already the insidious thought begins to occur: could it be that football's latest hullabaloo is all part of some fiendishly clever PR strategy. After all, with the England cricket team rampant, and the Olympics looming, there was some danger this high summer that football would lose its place on the front pages. Then, just at the right time, along comes SvenFariaMarkAndSomeoneElseGate.

It is almost as if some marketing genius inside the FA planned it all from the beginning, just to keep the replica shirt buying classes enthralled. Consider: in recent months there has been BecksGate (sex), RioGate (drugs), SonofFergusonGate (money), and RooneyGate (vice and jewellery), each rumpus exhibiting an unerring knack for constantly finding new ways to promote the FA brand and its USPs: sex and cash.

The spokesman for England supporters said the row was deflecting Sven et al from their true task of winning football matches. But the true purpose of the FA, one begins to think, is not actually to win anything, but to keep the nation rollickingly entertained. And they are doing very well at it. Football, once a winter sport, no longer has a close season, merely a permanently silly one.

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