| The Eriksson-Abramovich summit was hardly a shock
Sven-Goran Eriksson wrote his England contract in ink, not blood. He is a classy hired gun from a foreign country: the Clint Eastwood of management.
In the wild west town of modern football politics, you can see why he considers it prudent to be thinking one move ahead. Roman Abramovich, the new Russian owner of ‘Chelski’, is believed to have offered Eriksson an immense salary to replace Claudio Ranieri as coach.
Eriksson said no, for any one or more of the following reasons:
F He got bad vibes from Abramovich, whose motives for annexing a Premiership club for £140 million remain unclear. F Being an essentially honourable man, he recoiled at the thought of breaking his contract with the Football Association.
F The timing was wrong (England are approaching the end of their European Championship qualifying campaign).
F There might be even better offers along the road from Real Madrid, Barcelona or a top Italian club.
Those who know him intimately say that loyalty is a major component in his professional make-up. There will be others inside the FA who feel he has jeopardised that reputation by meeting Abramovich, in concert with Pini Zahavi, the so-called super-agent who brought the Russian billionaire to Stamford Bridge. But this is to attach moral criteria to the England job that are absent in almost every footballing post.
Eriksson’s problem is that the FA and England supporters think the national team manager should treat the office as some kind of religious calling, and be pristine in his devotion to the task.
Quite why anyone thinks Eriksson would want to adhere to this optimistic view of the world is probably beyond him and his advisers. In football, the top people are constantly chatting each other up. It is a mistake to think that he is immune to simple human vanity. In sport you would travel a long way to find someone who was willing to slam the door in a billionaire’s face.
Nor do elite football coaches tend to call-screen Real Madrid, say they are in a meeting to Manchester United, or dead-bat Barcelona. The natural, human impulse is to hear what they have to say.
One of the most persistent misapprehensions meanwhile is to think that Eriksson is privileged to be looking after England, who, lest we forget, have not reached the final of a major competition since 1966. John Bull might still see the England tracksuit as the world’s most precious garment, but to Eriksson it’s one of life’s skins that will be shed one day. The job is a sometimes glamorous and sometimes irksome sabbatical from the Champions League.
It was a new challenge, a chance to immerse himself in the culture of English football, which he always revered, and an opportunity to earn a lot for doing less than he had to do at Benfica or Lazio.
In essence, he was probably flattered and excited by the thought that he was top of ‘Chelski’s’ list, just as he was by the idea of taking over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford or following David Beckham to Madrid (still his most likely long-term destination now that Ferguson has shredded his plan to retire).
Eriksson can see perilous trips to Macedonia and Turkey ahead. Failure to win the Euro 2004 qualifying group will plunge England into a play-off. By now he understands the volatility of international management. England managers are always one ordeal away from moving on — either of their own volition (Kevin Keegan) or as a product of internal FA or dressing-room politics (Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables).
So the Eriksson-Abramovich summit was hardly a shock. The only surprise is that Eriksson continues to underestimate the range of the photographer’s lens in British life.
This was another risky assignation which will make many at Soho Square question again his willingness to see out his contract up to the 2006 World Cup. “It was a social meeting, nothing more,” Zahavi claimed on Wednesday. The gathering said nothing new about Eriksson but told us plenty about Abramovich.
The tsar means business, even if it means rolling over Ranieri, who, we are now told, is “safe” in his job as coach. Wonder if he thinks that.