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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004

PREMIER REPORT

Naughty Sven prepares to meet his fate


LONDON -- A nun took up residence outside the Football Association's headquarters in Soho as the remains of English football's governing body prepared for Thursday's meeting of the board, which will decide the future of head coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and maybe one or two high-ranking executives.

Christopher Davies

"I have come to complain about Sven fornicating," said the nun. I kid you not.

There was a wicked temptation to ask if the Swede had spread his popularity to the nunnery, because for a man who hates his private life to be in the public spotlight, Eriksson does little to discourage the media bandwagon that ensures the head coach is on the front as often as the back pages of newspapers.

If you value your privacy, do not have a fling with Swedish television presenter Ulrika Jonsson or Faria Alam, the secretary of F.A. executive director and now temporary chief executive David Davies.

Eriksson is rather like his England team -- score early and then go on the defensive. Those who say he has broken no laws are correct -- he is a single man (though he was until recently in a long-term relationship with Nancy Dell'Olio) so he can do what he wants with whomever he wants.

What Eriksson does not seem to have grasped over the past four years is how English people prefer their head coach to behave.

Yes, we probably are hypocrites because in a society where sexual titillation is everywhere can you blame a man for sampling the goods?

At the same time, with rank comes responsibility. Rightly or wrongly, the English do not expect their national football coach to behave like a soap opera star or have clandestine talks with (allegedly) Manchester United and (definitely) Chelsea about alternative employment while under contract to the F.A.

There are just too many deceptions for the Swede to ever be trusted again.

Whether he will survive will be decided at the board meeting at Soho Square (unless the F.A. indulges in one of their favorite pastimes called "defer").

To recap, Eriksson and former chief executive Mark Palios both enjoyed the apparently considerable charms of Alam.

When the News of the World put this to the F.A., Davies asked Eriksson about the affair with Alam and the head coach's reply was said to be: "This is nonsense."

It is staggering that Davies, a former journalist, accepted such an ambiguous answer. Any half-decent hack would press for a definite answer -- "this is nonsense" can mean the question is nonsense, the accusation is nonsense or the fact that Eriksson is being asked is nonsense.

However, Davies -- whose catch phrase, ironically, is "I hear you" -- took it to be a denial, so the F.A.'s legal eagles wrote to the News of the World and put out a statement denying any affair between head coach and secretary which proved to be the first of many own-goals.

"A pal" of Alam, who had been sent e-mails by Faria which gave not only details of dates with Eriksson, but also with Palios, released (sold) the contents to the News of the World. This time there were no denials from Soho Square, only an embarrassing retraction of their previous statement.

Geoff Thompson, the F.A. chairman, called a board meeting to find out the truth, thus giving the media over a week to beat the F.A. to the tape. Thompson exonerated Palios saying "I believe him," when he asked his chief executive about Alam, but last Sunday the story took a different twist.

The News for the World had "more details" of Alam's nocturnal naughties with Eriksson and Palios and, in an effort to save his face and job, the chief executive instructed director of communications Colin Gibson to broker a deal with the newspaper.

The idea was to give the News of the World chapter and verse on Alam and Eriksson, but "leaving Palios out of it." In other words, a plot to place all the blame and shame on the Swede.

Gibson, a former sports editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Mail, is one of the best journalists I have known. It is impossible to believe Gibson would: (a) have been in favor of bending the truth to breaking point or (b) would not have done all he could to talk Palios (and others) out of the scheme.

But Gibson was told to do a deal -- not an unusual scenario in newspapers -- and contacted the News of the World.

It is equally as impossible to believe Gibson would have spoken so freely to someone he did not know, without the presumption of legal confidentiality protecting him, but the News of the World published what he said and the messenger was hung out to dry.

Some feel the News of the World has acted as badly as any party in printing what Gibson would have assumed was an off-the-record talk.

Palios, bang to rights, resigned last Sunday and Gibson also offered his resignation. There is sympathy for Gibson within the F.A., because he was little more than a middle-man carrying out orders -- his resignation will probably be decided Thursday, but he could never work with Eriksson again.

There is a stronger case for Eriksson, Davies and Thompson to be shown the red card than Gibson, as the F.A. faces probably the biggest crisis in its history.

Davies is a great survivor, but is on thin ice now. How could he not have known his secretary was having dinner and dessert with the England head coach and the F.A. chief executive?

As anyone who works in an office will be aware, there are few secrets in such places, but at least Palios did the decent thing and resigned.

If the chief executive of any company starts having meals, especially breakfast, with a secretary he is asking for trouble. Ditto the England head coach, though, Eriksson seems to think he can do what he likes in his private life -- not in a business conducted in the media spotlight he can't.

Instead of calling a board meeting, Thompson should have brought Davies and Eriksson together in a room and asked both men then and there what was said . . . what happened . . . with the chairman making a decision.

But English football loves a committee (not to mention a sub-committee), so Thompson, who could never be described as dynamic or charismatic, decided the 12-man F.A. board should be the jury.

Soon there may be nobody left at the F.A. to sack anyone. Soho Square is crying out for an NFL-style commissioner to run English football, an all-powerful man who can make crucial day-to-day decisions, but the F.A. will remain stuck in its committee-ridden time-warp.

In England we are 100 percent in favor of progress, but at the same time 100 percent against changes.

The F.A.'s hopefully decisive dozen will sit in judgment on Eriksson and others Thursday, though given the traditionally conservative nature of the organization, there may not be too much blood on the carpet at the end.

Ignore stories that the F.A. would have to pay Eriksson compensation of £6 million for the remainder of his four-year contract. If Eriksson is sacked and, as would almost certainly be the case, he gets another job quickly, the payoff would be scaled down to about £1 million, so compensation is not a major factor.

What should worry the F.A. are the secrets than Alam could tell. When (rather than "if") she is sacked upon her return from her conveniently timed holidays, Alam has two choices.

She can sign a confidentially clause, as is common practice for employees leaving the F.A. -- who are given a "sweetener" for keeping any secrets to themselves -- or make a million, possibly literally, from the tabloids.

The F.A. would have to pay Alam around £300,000 for her silence, surely a world-record golden (platinum?) goodbye for a secretary.

The last thing the F.A. needs is more lurid revelations about their employees' sex lives, but can they be seen to be rewarding Alam so generously for her out-of-office activities with Palios and Eriksson?

The one person who can't really lose in the whole sordid situation is the girl nicknamed Fire Alarm (you can draw your own conclusions why . . .).

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


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