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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Liew

Heady days of Sven Göran-Eriksson’s England sit in contrast to flag furore

The cross stuff. Has it gone yet? Is it safe to open the curtains? Will the people of England once again be free to go about their business without being harassed by purple-faced flag-botherers waggling their purple-flag outrage? Purple – infamously – being the wokest of all the colours, never more so than when displayed on the woke crown jewels worn by the disdainfully woke Queen Elizabeth II.

The first thing to say about the England flag controversy – and don’t worry, we shan’t dwell long – is that it is so evidently and unapologetically a fuss about nothing, an object lesson in how right-leaning media can basically conjure a whirlpool of feverish anger out of thin air. Play a tune loudly enough and eventually all the usual suspects will get up and boogie: Crumpled of Ashfield, the guy who got out-jumped by Diego Maradona, some frowning factotum from the Daily Telegraph who suddenly seems to care an awful lot about preserving Plantagenet heritage and is definitely not being triggered by a piece of breathable fabric for money.

The other thing to note is that clearly this stuff works, at least on the right sort of targets. Because out there on the frontline, the barbed-wire borders of This England, there really does seem to be a bottomless well of unhappiness out there: a lot of sad, frightened men (mostly men) whose sense of self and security is so fragile that even the tiniest microaggressions can rattle it to the bone. A purple cross. A council leaflet translated into Bengali. Young people enjoying themselves. And so in febrile and curdled times, the national men’s football team naturally becomes a kind of last castle, a muster point for nationalist rage of all hues, a bell jar filled entirely with Tory screaming.

All of which is a shamefully circuitous way of getting to the actual subject of this article: a former England coach also permeating our thoughts of late, albeit for entirely different reasons. Sven-Göran Eriksson was at Anfield at the weekend, crossing off one of the last items on his bucket list. A Liverpool fan in his youth, the dream of managing his beloved club had always eluded him during his career. But now, at the age of 76, suffering from terminal cancer and with just months to live, he was finally striding down that narrow tunnel, taking his seat in the dugout, leading a team of former Liverpool legends to a 4-2 comeback win over Ajax in a charity fixture.

Ahead of that game, as part of their England v Brazil coverage, Channel 4 conducted an interview with Eriksson in which they played him video tributes from some of his best-known players. There was Joe Cole, fondly recounting how Eriksson had come to him after a game against Northern Ireland, glass of wine in hand, telling him that he had finally become the complete player. There was Paul Scholes and Gary Neville, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, the warmth and tenderness still apparent after all those years. There was Owen Hargreaves, explaining how Eriksson’s belief in his talent had changed his life. “He was good,” a visibly moved Eriksson confides as Hargreaves’s face appears on screen.

Regrettably, posterity largely seems to have made up its mind on Eriksson’s time with England. In the popular retelling of the Sven era, these were years of gilded failure and wasted talent, a generation of extraordinary English footballers with all the means to end the famous trophy drought only to be undone by club tribalism, their own fattened celebrity egos and the crushing yoke of 4-4-2.

And look, it’s not all wrong. Probably that group of players should have got to a semi-final at least, and yet the view that England had a team of unimpeachable world-beaters seems to have passed largely unchallenged into fact. Was the 2002 team of Danny Mills, Nicky Butt and Trevor Sinclair really a match for Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho? Was the 2004-06 generation any more golden than their French contemporaries; Zidane, Henry, Vieira, Thuram, Makélélé, Pires, Ribéry and Malouda? And in any case, how harshly should we judge a side that, for all their frustrations and inefficiencies, only actually lost one knockout game, in normal time, in three tournaments?

But we digress. The point here is not to relitigate the record, but reassess the vibes. Because I think what gets largely forgotten about Sven’s England is the swell of hedonism and hope it generated in its wildest moments, the unimaginable buzz of brilliant footballers on the verge of doing brilliant things. Beating Germany 5-1 away from home. David Beckham against Greece. Argentina in 2002. Wayne Rooney in 2004. Frank Lampard’s extra-time equaliser against Portugal. Joe Cole from 40 yards against Sweden in 2006. Eriksson’s England may be short of measurable achievement but it may be unsurpassed as a generator of great moments.

And at its hub, perhaps the most apostate and countercultural England coach of them all. The first foreign custodian of the England team, Eriksson instinctively grasped what Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson and Graham Taylor and Glenn Hoddle did not, what Terry Venables did and what Gareth Southgate used to: that this thing is supposed to be fun. For all the anger and nonsense swirling around him, for all the unforgivable intrusions into his private life by the tabloid press, Eriksson never forgot that getting to manage some of the world’s best footballers in international tournaments is – actually – quite good. Often his calm demeanour was recast as treachery, an absence of authentic English passion. Instead, in hindsight, it feels like a kind of refusal: a refusal of gratuitous anger, a refusal to see this job as calvary or chore or poisoned chalice, a refusal ever to stop enjoying himself.

And there he was at Anfield, still enjoying himself, still soaking up every glorious moment, even as death flexes its icy fingers. Is there anything more simply, admirably defiant than this?

Perhaps, in his final days, Sven still has something to teach us all. Let us not supplicate ourselves to petty rage. Let us not squander away time that matters on things that do not. Let us not fixate on how things end, lest we forget how they made us feel while they lasted.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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