Eriksson must take on big brother role in televised reality show

The long road to the 2006 World Cup began with the Netherlands' defeat of the Czech Republic on Saturday night, a moment the England coach admitted he toasted with a glass of champagne. There will be precious few extravagances once England establish their base in Germany - with the Bavarian region bordering Eriksson's beloved Italy thought to be favourite - as the great dysfunctional family of footballers that the Swede has nursed through with his policy of consensus management approach their day of destiny.

Living together for such a long period of time, this England squad, which is, like any place of work, a temporary community founded upon such human elements as influence, suspicion and thwarted ambition, will be tested by how well the players endure one another. By then, Eriksson's art of compromise will be well into its fifth year with England and the players will be aware that the Swede is distinctly unlikely to carry on with the job beyond that summer. This is a team whose members love to tell us that they have an unbreakable spirit, but never will the conditions be more ripe for mutiny.

Beginning with the now academic World Cup qualifier against Poland on Wednesday - and continuing, in the case of Rio Ferdinand, his policy of dropping off-form players - Eriksson has to convince his squad that there is some scope for change in the selection of his team. In a squad particularly rich in centre-backs, a squad that is blessed with more than four first-class midfielders, he will have to send a sign to even the very fringes of his squad that they have some chance of playing.

After the defeat of Austria, Eriksson touched briefly upon his desire to have "more than one system" and the injury to Steven Gerrard means that he can alter his central midfield against Poland to include, without forcing David Beckham into the role, a genuine holding midfielder alongside Frank Lampard. Owen Hargreaves, currently injured, will be cursing his luck and in his absence it now seems that Ledley King, who performed the role well on Saturday after Beckham's dismissal, could start.

When Sir Clive Woodward took his World Cup-winning England rugby union side to Australia in 2003, he warned the senior players that it was not intended to be a "retirement party" and told them to keep their plans beyond the tournament to themselves. No such problems are likely to beset Eriksson, with those past the age of 30 - Beckham and Gary Neville in particular - showing little sign yet of wishing to step from the stage before the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

What those two cannot deny is that the distribution of influence in the England team - who have a friendly against Argentina in Geneva on 12 November - is starting to shift. The cabal of Manchester United past and present that included Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes at the last World Cup has now been augmented by Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Alan Smith but they are not quite the bloc that the original Ferguson generation represented. The voices of John Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Michael Owen are just as relevant now and they are unlikely to accept without question everything their captain proclaims to be so.

The road to the World Cup is not just a preparation for the most eagerly awaited tournament in a generation, it is also a preparation for life after Eriksson. His is an era that will doubtless one day be looked back upon with some little pride and a great deal of bafflement. Once he is gone, the certainties that existed for one generation will disappear with him and those younger than them will seize their chance. Even with Germany on their minds, the prospect of what lies beyond will be something that none of the current squad can ignore.

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