The Zen Of Sven

What's going on in a player's head is as important as what's happening on the field, says the calmly passionate Sven-Göran Eriksson as he leads England to Portugal 2004

When he was appointed manager of England in January 2001, Sven-Göran Eriksson became the first foreigner to take on the second most important job in the country. Leaving Lazio, where he was adored by fans for winning the league and the UEFA Cup for the Roman club for the first time in years, the Swedish manager very quickly discovered that he had arrived in a suspicious and cynical country.

We learned how Eriksson would cope with old-fashioned football types and the tabloid press, who seemed to prefer the idea of Terry Venables having a second chance to manage his country. Sir Bobby Charlton led the dissent, saying: "Managing England is a huge honour, and it can never mean as much to someone who isn't English."

Veteran manager Harry Redknapp was equally vociferous and ignored Eriksson's success at clubs like Benfica, Sampdoria and Roma: "I've got a coaching badge. You can get them in cornflake packets. You can't tell me we have no one in this country capable of being in charge of England."

At his first press conference in early 2001, some journalists did their best to catch Eriksson out by asking if, for example, he could name the Leicester City goalkeeper. The calm and measured Swede smiled, his watchful blue eyes reserved but not quite icy, and said: "I assure you that when I come here, I will know everything about the English game... Yes, I am from Sweden, but I can't help that."

When someone asked about the reputed £15m he was to earn over five years as England coach, he shrugged: "I didn't take this job for the money, or for the weather, that is for sure. I could have earned more money if I'd stayed in Italy or Spain."

Since that first press conference, Eriksson has been praised for leading England to Japan/Korea 2002 and Portugal 2004, but he has also been endlessly scrutinised and criticised. For losing to Brazil in the semi-finals in Japan, for constantly rotating the squad, for having an affair with TV presenter Ulrika Johnsson. Making no secret of his wish to have daily contact with players, he has been accused of having secret talks with Manchester United and Chelsea. Yet, unlike other managers in this country, the 56-year-old has never been seen to lose control, to show flashes of temper or frustration. He knows the only way to silence his critics is to win.

In many ways, Sven Göran Eriksson is in stark contrast to his predecessor. Not only is he controlled and restrained, but where Kevin Keegan had been a motivator, the Swede also proved to be a tactician who relied on sports psychology. He had learned a very simple lesson early on in his career: in his first job as manager of the Swedish team Degerfors, he saw that his players were prone to pre-match anxiety on big occasions which affected their game. After working with a sports psychologist, Degerfors finally won promotion.

In 2001, in his first year as England manager, Eriksson's book The Inner Game - Improving Performance was published. Written with psychologist Willi Railo, it gives an insight into how Eriksson saved England in his first year as manager by taking a team languishing at the bottom of their group to automatic qualification for Japan/Korea 2002. The book is littered with self-help slogans and motivational mantra: "Negative thoughts spread more quickly than positive ones"; "Hate to lose but don't be afraid to lose"; "Mental differences decide who the winners are."

Eriksson sees mental strength as being of paramount importance, perhaps even as equalling physical fitness: witness David Beckham's exceptional concentration in scoring against Greece with a free kick in the last moments of the game, thus ensuring England's qualification for Japan/Korea 2002. "Beckham knew it was his last chance, his country's last chance. And to score at that moment shows he was very, very strong mentally."

Eriksson also believes it is essential to always stay calm. Spending some time with him for a rare interview at the FA in London's Soho Square, it quickly becomes clear the effect he has upon his players. His manner is never cold nor austere; he is warm, funny and passionate. He speaks carefully, doesn't waste words and is extraordinarily zen-like.

It's no surprise that Eriksson doesn't get nervous before big games. "In the beginning, when I first started coaching, I didn't sleep because I was always thinking about problems with this or that. But today I try to work out why my team is playing badly, if that is the case, and work out how to make them play better. By midnight, I put it out of my mind because I will not be more intelligent if I lie in bed all night worrying."

England players quizzed about the secret of Sven's success always say he doesn't speak much. Just enough to give them confidence and ease their anxiety. He doesn't see the point in losing his temper during training and he always maintains his self-discipline during games. "I don't shout, it's just not in my character. I'm not like, say (Italy coach) Giovanni Trappatoni who jumps up and down and shouts and screams throughout every game."

Sven-Göran Eriksson even extends his philosophical approach to tough draws. When England drew Sweden in the first round of Japan/Korea 2002, he laughed about it being destiny and said, "We have to kill Sweden!" Prior to the draw for Portugal 2004, he prayed England wouldn't draw tournament favourites France. Naturally, the opening game on 13 June is against France.

Did Sven panic? Of course not. He simply laughed and talked of the fixture as being "beautiful but very, very difficult". He knows his best option is to follow one of his own mantras: "Hate to lose but don't be afraid to lose."

By Amy Raphael

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