THE QUIET MAN: SVEN GORAN-ERIKSSON INTERVIEW
FIRST PUBLISHED: Four Four Two, June 2004
By Chris Hunt
Sven Goran-Eriksson doesn’t like having his picture taken and almost never does in depth interviews outside of the press conference environment, but this isn’t apparent as he follows the directions of the photographer with a joke and a smile. He seems relaxed and chats between shots. Smart-suited but tie-less, he is seated on a small replica football stand in front of a backdrop of flag-waving England fans. We are in the basement of the FA’s Soho Square headquarters and the seats, we are told, are the exact kind that will furnish the new Wembley Stadium. They are bright red, comfortable-looking and seem to offer plenty of legroom. “Are all the seats in the stadium going to be the same as these?” asks Sven, obviously wondering, like any football fan, if the cheap seats outside of the royal box are going to be like the old plastic blue ones.
As we make our way up to his fourth floor office, he talks through the games that he will be going to see that week. We chat about the passion of the old firm derby, the quality of the Champions League and the relegation prospects of Cambridge United. It seems that even this far into a long and successful career in management, he stills enjoys going to matches and talking football.
Apparently Sven spends more time at his desk than any previous England manager, but you would never be able to tell that from his office – it is spacious, modern and quite impersonal. On the wall there is a map of the world, a tactics board, and a large framed England montage showing the scoreboard at Munich’s Olimpiastadion. It reads Germany 1 England 5.
Sven has a glass-fronted office, his desk in full view of the open-plan administration department outside. Trevor Brooking’s office is also on this floor and as the two men pass in the corridor they excitedly chat, as if they haven’t seen each other for a while. Elsewhere on the floor are the offices of all of the national coaches, including David Platt of the Under 21s, national goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence, and national women’s coach Hope Powell. But only Sven has an office big enough to house a small meeting table and chairs in addition to his desk.
Seated at the meeting table, he is impeccably turned-out, softly spoken and affable. There appears to be a slight air of unease when the questioning begins, an inbuilt caution, and he comes across as a man bemused to have been trapped by the kind of intense media scrutiny that comes with ‘the second hardest job in the country’. But as the conversation continues, he warms to the task and begins to open up – as much as Sven can open up.
Here, in the first in depth interviews that he has granted since becoming England manager, he discusses his three and a half years in the job, his passion for the game, and his hopes and his regrets.
When you first arrived at Lazio you said the club had a ‘losing mentality’. What was the mentality you found within the England squad?
“Well, not a losing one I must say. It was quite different when I took Lazio as they thought that they were an unlucky team, but I never felt that with England. We won the first game – even if it was a friendly, we won it and we played rather well.”
You are a big believer in the psychology of football – when you took over how did work with the England players to develop their mental attitude?
“Well, I think today the biggest job for a manager, whether it’s with a club or a country, is to create a good atmosphere within the squad – and maybe not only the squad, but the coaches and everybody. And that, many times, is more important than having the right tactic, because if you don’t have a good atmosphere, especially when you have a lot of famous football players, you will never have a good result. So it is important that everyone in the group, even the kit man, shall feel important for the final results.”
But how do you actually work individually with each player to make him mentally stronger?
“When I work with people, first of all I have to explain to them what I want them to do on the pitch. Then I must be sure that they understand it and I do that by explaining, by training and so on. And the third thing is that they have to accept it. They have to believe that this is the right thing, to play, to do the work and so on. If you don’t have those three components, they will never do good work for you out on the pitch. Then of course, mentally, you have to tell them how strong they are, [laughs] how beautiful they are and so on, so they feel that they can go out and beat the opposition.”
How do you do that? Do you pick them off individually?
“Not necessarily. Of course, if I’m starting Wayne Rooney for the first time I speak to him individually to see how he is, how he feels, but it depends. There are no rules that you can do the same thing all the time and achieve a good result. It depends on the atmosphere – some of the players could be disturbed, they could be nervous, they play badly, so you have to take every situation as it comes.”
Is it hard to sacrifice a gifted player if you can’t get his mental attitude right? Are you prepared to lose talent for the improvement of overall squad morale?
“Yes. Whether it’s on the pitch or off it, if you are at a club and you have players disturbing more than helping, then it’s better to sell him, even if he’s a good player, because if you don’t have the right atmosphere, the right spirit, you will never win anything. Of course, with England it’s more easy than to sell, you just don’t pick him next time if that should happen.”
What is the difference in mental approach of, say, David Beckham and Emile Heskey?
“Well, confidence in football is very important. Sometimes you have to talk to players because you can see how they play, you can see it in their bodies, on their minds, and you can see it in practice – they have a chance to take a shot on goal and they don’t do it. Normally that’s a lack of confidence, and you have to talk more to those players individually. A football player must feel when he is in the team that he is important for the team, that the manager will not kill him if he misses a shot on goal or if he makes an own goal. If you are afraid to make a wrong pass out there, then I have done a very bad job. They must feel confident that I – we coaches – believe in them, that we believe that they can do it. That goes on from when you first see them to when you leave them. You give them confidence by not shouting at them.”
Can you name one England player who has really benefited from your approach, that you have helped to refocus mentally and made a better player?
“I’m not sure about that. First of all with England you have them so little together, so it’s easier as a club manager to achieve that. Hopefully I helped someone, but it’s very difficult to know.”
Is it harder to improve internationals or do they arrive with a greater mental strength already?
“I’m very lucky because I pick the best 23 English players in this country – and of course they are very good. They are mentally strong normally because almost all of them play in the Champions League in important games. And even if the squad is young, many of them have 10, 15, 30, 40 caps.”
You once said you want to have at least three players in your team in whom you can have complete faith.
“It should be very good to have 11 [laughs], but normally you don’t have that. But if you have one or two centre-halves who normally play for you, they can be some sort of leaders. If you have one in the midfield who is a leader and one up front that is a lot. If you take those three positions, Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand have been important for us. Beckham of course is the midfielder and Michael Owen is our best goalscorer. So it is very important that those players are fit, although one of them we can not have now.”
Did it take you long to come to the conclusion that those were the players you could trust?
“No, it didn’t take me long at all because it is natural I think.”
You said that you aren’t really a ‘shouter’ and the players say you rarely talk – is it a case of less is more?
“I’ve always been like that and for me to be a manager today it’s not just about me telling them what to do. It’s difficult to explain – make them talk, make them take decisions, make them involved in all the processes that we’re doing, because if you can involve them, not only with the body and the feet, but with the head, then I think we can achieve better results. And you should never be afraid of taking opinions from a player, because we managers are stupid sometimes. We think we know everything about football and that is not always the case. You can have a very good opinion from a player who has played 50 caps for England, for sure. So don’t be afraid to listen to that and think about it – ‘wow, that’s a good idea’ – because if I have 20 players like that who want to have opinions, who want to think about the tactics, who want to think about everything we do, then that’s perfect, absolutely fantastic. But it’s very difficult to achieve that.”
In your early days in the job you read ‘The Second Hardest Job In the Country’, the history of the England manager. Did that give you the idea of listening to players, because the history of the job is littered with examples of coaches who didn’t listen?
“Well, it was an interesting book. I don’t think it was really a nice book [laughs], but interesting.”
Do you think you should have read it before you took the job, or would that have scared you off?
“No, I was not scared about it, absolutely not.”
If you’re not that vocal as a coach, who fills the vacuum when you’re not talking? Which players are influential within the squad?
“There are a lot of personalities but I must say it’s a quiet team. David Beckham is our captain and of course he is very important for us, but he is not that kind of a man running around shouting and kicking people. When he talks people listen to him and that’s the most important thing.”
Is it a squad built in the image of its manager and captain – you’re both quiet men?
“I don’t know, I’ve never thought about that. You’re talking about style as a manager and style as a person. You have your own personality and I think you have to live with that. Don’t try to play another person. I can never be Trapattoni – Trapattoni has his style and it’s been very successful, so I think you can never tell what’s wrong and what’s right. Do it your own way, don’t try to be another person.”
How can England win Euro 2004?
“[laughs] Firstly by having fit players – that’s my only concern because I can’t do anything about it. Absolutely nothing. We are very strong, we have a very good team – if we have all available and not two knocked down after a very tough Premier League. The Premier League is very tough, ooh, every game.”
Are you looking forward to the first game with France?
“Yes [laughs]. That’s a big one. I look forward to it of course.”
How do you stop players of the caliber of Zidane, Henri and Pires? I want the Four-Four-Two exclusive here.
“Exclusive? Well if you give Henry and Pires space then you’re in big, big trouble, so you have to play very tight to them and all the team must be very compact when we go out. If we are – what you say? – long, they kill any opponents.”
Does it worry you that the French have so much to prove after their disastrous World Cup?
“I’m sure that they are, inside their bodies, angry on themselves for what happened in the World Cup. Of course they want revenge because of what happened in Japan – that was not France, not the real France. They were a little bit unlucky as well, so I’m sure they look forward to do a very good duel. But in one way they might be the favourites for that first game so that is good, because we don’t have anything to lose and you take maybe the strongest team in the first match. It will give us confidence if we can do well in the first game.”
Why is it that England play well against the strong teams but less well against the weaker sides?
“Well, that’s true what you said because if you look at all our qualification games when we have those big, difficult games, we do very well. But we struggled against Macedonia at home, we struggled against Greece at home, we struggled against Albania at home even if we won. There are two explanations. There are no small teams today – all teams are prepared tactically, physically. And when they play England they want to beat us – they are very motivated. We have to be mentally even stronger when we play those teams, because it’s easy when you go to Germany and play – then you know that everybody has been thinking about this game for days, for weeks and everybody wants to be on the pitch. But when you play Macedonia at home it’s not the same mentally, so we have to be better prepared in the future.”
We don’t often see very much emotion from you. How will you feel leading England out for that first game against France in the Estádio da Luz?
“I’ll be very tense of course. Before the game you’re always thinking ‘have I said everything?’ because as soon as it starts there is very little to do. You can do it in half-time if you have to do something. But yes, I will be nervous – in the right way though. I am not trembling, but of course my adrenaline is up here.”
Do you know your final 22?
“[laughs] Well, if I should pick the squad today, yes, even if I haven’t thought about it exactly. But unfortunately there can be injuries, and someone can still pop up and show that he is better than one of the others that I have thought about.
“I think it would be interesting if you took 100 England fans and they should pick their squad today with everyone available – I think there would be no big surprises. I’m quite sure about that.”
The amount of substitutes used in international matches has been a talking point. You’ve used a great many substitutes, but we only occasionally see a new player tried out.
“Well now and then comes a new player. Ledley King has played and did it very well. I think it was a surprise for me – I knew he is a good player, but I think he had a marvelous game against Portugal. Also when you play the friendly game I always want to start at least for 45 minutes with the best possible team for that moment, and then do experiments in the second half, because those first 45 minutes are important for us because we don’t have that many games.”
Can you tell me your thoughts about the games with Croatia and Switzerland?
“One danger should be if we do well against France and then we think it’s easy to play Switzerland and Croatia. That would be a very big mistake because Switzerland are not easy, and Croatia is not easy at all. Many times the group stage is more difficult in the European Championship than in the World Cup because you know the 16 teams playing in Europe are all good and they can beat each other easily.”
You seem fairly settled on your midfield four, but with each one comes a headache: are you worried about Nicky Butt’s lack of games at Manchester United, about Paul Scholes’ lack of goals for England, and about Steven Gerrard’s injury problems?
“But I can’t do very much about any of them. I hope Steven Gerrard will be fit this time, because we missed him in the World Cup and he is important for us. That Paul Scholes is not scoring goals for us, I’m not worried about that at all. He is an extremely important player for us, he makes things happen around him, and he will score goals, no doubt about that. And Nicky Butt? He’s clever and he’s doing that job for us well. If a player never plays for his club, of course I’m concerned, but if he plays one game yes and one game no, that’s not a problem for me, because I should be happy about that. That means he is fresh at the end of the season. But of course he has to play now and then or he will never be match fit.”
What about David Beckham’s form in central middle for Real Madrid? Raul and Thierry Henry have both told Four-Four-Two recently that they think he’s a far bigger threat in that position. Can you accommodate him there or does that present a right-sided problem to go with the left-sided one?
“As we played recently the diamond formation, he is very much in the middle and I talked a lot to him about that. He is very happy to play inside, but in the diamond system he is inside as well. And to be fair, normally when we play 4-4-2, many times he was not on the right flank, he always likes to go inside and take the ball.
“So, although we just talked about four midfielders, I will not say those four are going to play.”
I won’t pick your team for you.
“[laughs] No, no, no!”
What would you do if Michael Owen gets injured?
“That would be a big blow for us, because he is our best goalscorer and in big games, in big tournaments, Michael Owen will always score – if he is fit. So fingers crossed, I really hope he will not be injured.”
You have other good strikers but you don’t necessarily have another world-class striker?
“Well at least we don’t have another one with Michael Owen’s experience. Michael Owen is young but his experience in big games and big tournaments is incredible. And mentally he’s extremely strong, ice cold in those big games when he gets the chance. So we don’t have another one like him, no.”
And one player who you are definitely going to be without is Rio Ferdinand?
“That’s a great pity for us. He was maybe – maybe, I say – the best central defender in the World Cup. He did extremely well: experienced, quick, strong, good on the ball, good header. But we are lucky because we normally have a lot of central defenders. In the game against Portugal four of them were out but I hope that four of them are not out the next time we go to Portugal.”
As a football fan, who are you most excited about watching in the tournament?
“Thierry Henry for sure. I think if you are a football fan, even if you are not an Arsenal fan, today you have to say Henri. He is coming from another world, because he has everything: strength, pace, technique, he can use two feet if he wants and he is a very good header.”
Who do you think will be the surprise package of the tournament?
“I hope Wayne Rooney, but if we are not talking about the English, Spain has some good young players – there’s the guy who signed for Arsenal, and there’s Joaquin who plays for Betis. Players with flair and pace.”
When you accepted the job as England manager did you have any doubts?
“I couldn’t say no when England came and offered me to be the manager. That would have been impossible, because that I would have regretted all my life. If you go around the world there are a lot of managers jealous of me today because I have the job. I knew it was full of prestige but once I came here I think it was bigger than I even thought before. With the England team, if we are successful, the popularity we have in this country is incredible. You can never have that in any club you work – 20 or 30 million fans.”
How did you feel at the World Cup to see the huge numbers of fans who travelled so far to see the team play?
“Before the game, when they were singing and playing the national hymn, I’m freezing – what do you say? The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up? Yes, even today, and ever since my first game against Spain. Incredible.”
There was a lot of media talk at your first game about whether you knew the words to the national anthem. Do you know them now? Can you sing both verses?
“I am not a very good singer but I know the words. I learned them.”
Did you come to the job with a list of aims that you wanted to achieve?
“Of course. The first aim was to try and qualify for the World Cup. But when I came to the job – I must say when I said ‘yes, thank you’ to the job – I was not a specialist on English football. Now and then I saw games on TV on Saturday afternoon, but many times I played with Lazio on Saturday, or we were traveling if it was either an away game or if we were playing Sunday. So I have never studied things like that. But of course I knew about Michael Owen and David Beckham and the famous players, so I came to it with open eyes. I really didn’t know how strong we could be – or not be – until a couple of months later when we beat Spain.”
At that point did you think reaching the World Cup finals was a realistic and achievable aim?
“I didn’t know that of course. Even if you have to say that ‘yes, we are going to play in the World Cup’, but inside yourself, before we started playing, I didn’t know that. I had no idea whether we could do it or not.”
In your short career as England manager, what has been your most satisfying moment?
[Points to a picture on the wall of the Munich scoreboard that reads Germany 1 England 5] “Well, that was not bad I must say. That’s one of those games where you go up from the bench when the game is over and you think this is really not real. You can’t beat Germany 5-1 away. But it happened.”
You’ve had several amazing moments – beating Argentina at the World Cup, and that rollercoaster qualifier against Greece must also rank highly.
“That free-kick I will always remember – the last one, of course. Then you knew that now the ticket was sure.”
You have quite a passive demeanor on the bench. Will we see an emotional response from you if England win the European Championship?
“Yes. You can be sure on that.”
Running on the pitch and hugging the players?
“[laughs] I don’t know – I’ve never been winning the European Championship before.”
At the World Cup do you regret that the team didn’t beat Nigeria to set up the easy route to the final?
“Well, of course, if we could have done that who knows, it might have been easier. Regrets? What I regret is that we… but regret is not the right word. I think we were poor in every second-half, almost. At least we dropped every second-half. We never scored a goal in the second-half in all the World Cup and we struggled, even against Argentina. In the last 15 minutes, if you see the amount of their possession of the ball, we were in big problems, even if we defended extremely well.
“Some regrets you always have – I could have said five minutes from the end of the half against Brazil to my four defenders, ‘don’t move’, then maybe they wouldn’t have scored 1-1. But when you lose football games you always think ‘if I could do this again’. But you can never do it, you can never know if things could have been better. So when you lose a football game, you have to try to analyze why you lost and then leave it.”
During your reign as England manager players have almost universally spoken about you and your calm manner with high praise. The one exception was regarding the half-time team-talk during the game with Brazil. An England player later said: “we needed Winston Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith”.
“[laughs] Everyone has his own opinion about that but I didn’t do anything different at half-time against Brazil than I did in half-time against Argentina. I tried to talk to them as a group. I tried to talk to them individually because mentally it’s a big, big blow – you’re in the World Cup quarter-final and you’re playing Brazil, you’re doing very well and there is a counter attack and they score just one minute before half-time. So of course you see players coming down, down with their heads. I think I tried to… I don’t know what I should have done different if I had the chance to do it again.”
You took players who weren’t fit to the World Cup. Would you do that again at the European Championship if the same situation arose?
“I should have taken David Beckham and Michael Owen, yes. You must almost be sure 100 per cent that they can’t give you anything if you don’t take them. But both of them scored goals for us even though they weren’t 100 per cent fit.”
During the Rio Ferdinand drugs row you were criticised in some newspapers for not standing up to the players.
“I was criticized for what?”
For not making a stand against the threat of a players’ strike.
“I can have one comment about that. The players were very strong there – some might say they took the wrong decision. I will leave that. What I said at an early stage was that whatever happens here, we are going to Turkey and we are going to make a result, and even if I have to go by myself we are going, but I hope that I have 11 players. There were never any doubts that they were going to Turkey to play, never ever.”
Did you ever expect the job to bring you this degree of fame and recognition?
“Mostly I enjoy it. Everybody is telling me ‘you’re doing a great job’ and sometimes ‘we’re proud of you’. And that goes directly to the heart – I never ever in three years met an impolite person, saying stupid things, never.”
And how do you feel about your coverage in the British newspapers?
“Well, to be a little bit healthy it’s better not to read everything – that’s maybe the only bad thing in this job. Yesterday I was followed from home to the office and then followed when I was calling from the office to another place – to be followed all the time. Your private life is your own.”
You’ve been linked to various club sides in the last year – Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid – but after you’ve been Prime Minister, wouldn’t that have been like accepting a job on the back benches?
“I have never thought about it like that, but you are right. I’m not a Prime Minister and I don’t want to be. But of course the job that I have in this moment is maybe the biggest job you can find – in the world. So I’m happy where I am.”
Has there ever been a point, in the privacy of your own home and with the curtains closed and the lights down low, when you’ve try on a Chelsea tracksuit, just to see what it might have looked like?
“[laughs] I don’t have a Chelsea tracksuit. I have a lot of England tracksuits – I don’t have any other tracksuits.”
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007