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Saturday, April 3, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

F.A. gives Eriksson new deal, but how long will he stay?


LONDON -- "Ladies and gentlemen, we got him."

Christopher Davies

The never to be forgotten words by Paul Bremer when he announced Saddam Hussein had been captured were repeated under rather different circumstances when the Football Association "captured" England head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson on a new contract that runs until 2008.

OK, I've used a little journalistic license, but the similarity was irresistible. What the F.A. spin doctor actually said was: "You mustn't forget Sven is one of the most sought after coaches in the world and we've got him."

The bounty on the former Iraqi leader's head was $25 million, by coincidence roughly how much Eriksson will be paid by the F.A. over the next four years. The Swede wanted a lucrative contract and ladies and gentlemen . . . he got it, even if doubts remain about whether he will actually see it through.

Had Eriksson not been captured by a photographer sneaking into the flat of Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, then the contract on the table from the F.A. would have remained unsigned.

"The Sun Made Me Sign" claimed the red-top's headline when they reprinted the pictures of Eriksson's midnight run to Chez Kenyon.

It is not the first time Eriksson has been caught out and there is still a deep suspicion that despite agreeing to a new contract, it could turn out to be a non-tract and not just because of the escape clauses for both parties, which operate from 2006.

The blond Swede had an illicit affair with a blonde Swede -- Ulrika Jonsson -- who now seems famous for being famous but is, in fact, a television presenter.

Eriksson's Italian partner Nancy Dell'Olio, unsurprisingly, was not best pleased when she found out about blond and blonde. I am reliably informed she had the England head coach in the coldest of cold sweats when she told him she had just got jewelry worth £1.5 million for a forthcoming wedding the couple were scheduled to attend.

My contact tells me the telephone conversation went something like -- Eriksson: "You have some jewelry . . . that is good. What is it like? . . . excellent . . . sounds lovely . . . HOW MUCH?"

Ms. Dell'Olio kept Eriksson sweating for a full two minutes before telling him the jewelry was rented. Eriksson charmed his way back into Ms. Dell'Olio's bedroom and did the same with the F.A., after playing away from home with Chelsea, but can we trust a man with a track record that includes accepting the job as manager of Blackburn Rovers only to change his mind a few days later?

Or, who last month categorically denied he had spoken to Chelsea only for agent Pini Zahavi to reveal last week that contact had been "going on for months."

Eriksson was photographed entering the home of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich eight months ago but insisted it was purely social.

Last Friday, Kenyon insisted the photographs in the Sun were "old" (he has only been in the apartment a few weeks so they couldn't have been that "old") though two days later he admitted that yes, Eriksson had been to see him but there was never any offer of a job, which brought Bill Clinton's "I did not inhale" line to mind.

Eriksson was asked "why do you think you always get caught out?" Which had the F.A. power brokers and media alike laughing.

A great question, though the weakness of the journalist who asked it is that he once had an affair with a German girl to whom he wrote a number of love letters and when the relationship ended she faxed the letters to the reporter's wife with a note "Did you know I've been having an affair with your husband?"

The England head coach joined in the laughter before defending "my human rights," adding that he had been "listening" rather than "talking" to Kenyon, a line that Clinton would have been proud of and which is already in football folklore.

Eriksson, who admitted to chatting with other clubs, said: "I have difficulties in understanding this England job, how you should be a saint, you should not earn a lot of money or have a private life and should not absolutely listen to other possibilities in life. If I have ambition in life. I will listen to other jobs as well. I have been made to feel like a criminal but I have done nothing criminal."

Eriksson has already been paid millions by the F.A. with plenty more in the pipeline, so maybe his current employers could expect a higher degree of honesty than their head coach listening to what other clubs have to say behind their backs.

A penny for the thoughts of Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri would be a good investment. In most walks of life people would object to a colleague conspiring to taking our job like this.

Maybe, as F.A. chief executive Mark Palios said: "We have to be realistic. Sven is a top manager but we are pleased a man wanted by some top clubs with lots of money has signed for us until 2008."

There is also a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole matter. When Kevin Keegan threw his rattle out of the pram and quit four years ago, the F.A. effectively poached Eriksson from Lazio where the Swede broke his contract to take the England job.

That is what Chelsea tried to do, and while it was OK for Eriksson to speak to England while under contract to Lazio, it is wrong he should talk to the London clubs while employed by the F.A.

Eriksson can claim with justification to having done the job he is employed to do. England has lost only one of 19 competitive games under him, the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal to eventual winner Brazil, while qualification for Euro 2004 was achieved with few worries.

On the other hand, England is now managed by a man who was forced into signing a new contract only by the embarrassment of being caught "listening" to Chelsea. The suspicion that Eriksson was waiting to jump ship to Stamford Bridge -- after this summer's European Championship-- remains, though Palios said: "I can guarantee Sven will be manager until the end of the 2006 [World Cup] campaign."

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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