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Offside, 13 October

On the waning fortunes of Sven and Becks.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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I walked into the pub five minutes before England v Austria kicked off, fully expecting the joint to be jumping. But the place was eerily quiet. No queues at the bar and plenty of empty chairs. Last summer, when I watched England v Portugal in Euro 2004, the same pub was heaving. Perhaps those rumours of football’s demise were true after all. Maybe football has gone the way of other Nineties fads like Britpop, tamagotchi and micro-scooters, and is now chronically uncool.

What a contrast to the euphoria that greeted England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals. Then, David Beckham was crowned the nation’s saviour after his last-minute goal salvaged a point against Greece. Beckham’s rehabilitation after his red card against Argentina in 1998 was complete. The Sun begged the Queen to ‘lay her ceremonial sword upon the shoulder of the England football captain at the first available opportunity’ and bookmakers started offering odds on when Becks would be knighted.

However, in the intervening four years Beckham’s public stock has fallen considerably. His insipid performances at Euro 2004 and comical penalty misses led many to ask whether his best footballing years were behind him. His England captaincy has also been called into question: 71 percent of Sun readers wanted John Terry to replace Becks as captain in a poll this week. Coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has been accused of pandering to his captain’s vanity by playing Beckham in central midfield against Wales and Northern Ireland – a tactical decision that backfired disastrously at Windsor Park. Beckham actually played reasonably well against Austria and was even given a standing ovation after he was sent off; that’s a far cry from sarong-clad effigies hanging from pubs in 1998. But, unlike 2002, when a mega-tsunami of foot fetishism swept the nation after that famous metatarsal injury, Beckham is no longer seen as indispensable.

The erosion of Beckham’s iconic status mirrors the demystification of coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. Four years ago, after England’s 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich, Svenmania was at its peak. Even the subsequent revelations that the saucy Swede was a philandering love rat in stack-heeled shoes did nothing to dent his reputation. He was foreign, multilingual and bespectacled, ergo he must be a tactical genius – or so we thought at the time. More damaging was the charge that, while Sven was passionate in the bedroom, he showed no passion at all on the touchline. In particular he was blamed for failing to rouse his team at half-time against Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. As one anonymous England player put it: ‘We needed Churchill and we got Iain Duncan Smith.’

Although the first murmurings of discontent surfaced in 2002, Sven silenced his critics by successfully steering England through the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign. However, doubts about Eriksson’s tactical acumen were voiced again after defeats against France and the hosts Portugal at Euro 2004. In both games, England had taken an early lead but thereafter sat back and allowed their opponents to dominate possession and eventually win the game.

It is a measure of our limited footballing ambitions that, whereas an underachieving coach would have lost his job in most other countries, there was no clamour for Eriksson’s head after England’s elimination from the European Championships. However, the ‘Make Sven History’ campaign has gathered momentum after the 1-0 humiliation against Northern Ireland. ‘Are you Scotland in disguise?’ chanted the Northern Ireland fans. ‘Taxi for Eriksson’, declared the Sun – sentiments which were echoed by all the tabloids.

He might not have lost the dressing room but he has certainly lost the press room. The man once affectionately known as ‘Sven’ was now being referred to contemptuously by the press as ‘The Swede’ (usually in the same sentence as the word ‘sack’). Yet, much like New Labour, Eriksson remains in office, not because the public still believes in him – only 51 per cent think he should remain as manager according to a recent Guardian poll – but because there is no credible alternative.

The waning fortunes of Sven and Becks, the two dominant figures in the English national team, have certainly contributed to the current absence of football-related euphoria. Even Rooneymania, which flourished at Euro 204, has abated because the Boy Wonder’s disciplinary problems are making more headlines than his football. The downbeat mood appears to have been transmitted to those nouveau fans who attached themselves to football after Italia ’90. On Saturday, for example, women were notable by their absence in the pub where I watched the game (not necessarily a bad thing – at least there was no high-pitched squealing whenever there was goalmouth action). This may all change next summer when the World Cup finals begin, but, for the time being at least, England expects very little and moans an awful lot.

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Topics Politics

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