The Quiet Man
Sven-Göran Eriksson on England, tactics and the rise of China
Sven-Göran Eriksson has not won a trophy since 2000, when he did the double with Lazio, and when his time with England came to an end in 2006, he took a series of low-profile high-paying jobs around the world. But in the last four years he has begun to make an impact again, first with Guangzhou R&F, whom he led to third place in the Chinese Super League (CSL), and then with Shanghai SIPG, whom he took to second and the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League. Now he is with the Chinese second-division side Shenzhen, looking for promotion to the CSL.
When you joined Shenzhen, you said that “it’s the right time to be in China”. What exactly did you mean?
Yes, it’s the right time to be in China, because football in China is growing more than in any other country, I think. Clubs, football schools, infrastructure, the interest for the game, media, everything is growing. So, it feels right to be in China.
When do you think the sleeping giant will finally wake up? Can China make the same climb Japan has?
I am sure they can. I am 100% sure. And that will happen. It will take some years, but it will happen. And it will come through in the future with a lot of good Chinese players. I am absolutely optimistic about that. I’m not saying it because I live and work here, but because I am convinced about it.
Once you told me that in China you never saw kids playing football on the streets or in parks. So, obviously grassroots football is a problem. Are there any signs that this will change in the near future?
Well, you know that the president of China said that he wants to see boys and girls playing football. So he wants football to come into more or less every school. And when that happens – and it’s already happening – you will find a lot of boys and girls who are talented for football. That’s for sure.
If you compare the mentality of European and Chinese players, what can you say about the Chinese?
I think the biggest difference between Chinese players and players from Europe and South America is the physique. Players from Europe and South America, also Africa, are physically stronger than Chinese players. Technically I’m not sure that there is a big difference. But there is also the fact that many Chinese players of today started too late to play football. They lost many years. If we talk about football in parks and in the street, there you learn a lot about the game. In Europe and South America kids play football every day. That’s what China lacks a lot. But now when children start to play football much earlier, they will be better than the previous generations.
What about the mentality? I have the impression that Chinese footballers do not have enough self-confidence, let alone winner’s mentality.
I didn’t have that problem in the clubs I worked at here in China. We want to win. We want to win every game. We want to go up. And everybody in the club, Chinese and foreign players, are focused on that.
Chinese women’s football is on a much higher level than men’s football. The national team always qualifies for major tournaments, once they even reached the World Cup final and they are usually in the top 10 of the Fifa ranking. Do you have an explanation why the gap between Chinese women’s and men’s football is so big?
No, I don’t have an explanation for that. I have thought about it, but frankly speaking I don’t know how it comes that Chinese women’s football has a much higher rating than men’s football.
What was your strangest experience during your work with Chinese players and coaches?
What surprised me when I came to China was the discipline the players have. They are very keen to try to be better. And you more or less never have a problem with a Chinese player about discipline or that they don’t work hard enough. And that’s very nice. Of course, the handicap you have as a foreign coach is that you have to work with an interpreter. Although they are very good, it will never be yourself. It’s always via another person. But after a while the players understand exactly what I wanted to say and what I want them to do.
Chinese clubs have paid crazy money for foreign players, but the government recently introduced new rules, reducing the contingent of foreign players per club. What did you think about that? Were you surprised? Especially as it was believed that the president of China was fully behind football.
Well, I think I reacted like everybody else in my position. I was not happy with it, I was surprised, because we were not prepared for it. I think that the rule is right, but the timing was the problem, because it came as a surprise for all of us. Everybody said, “Hey, what’s going on?” It would have been better, of course, if we had more time to prepare for this new rule. But as for the rule itself, I think it’s okay, it’s right. There will be benefits for Chinese football for the future.
China recently beat South Korea in a World Cup qualifier for the first time in 39 years. I had the impression that you could see the influence of Marcello Lippi. Do you believe that he can lift the national team further if they give him the time and patience?
If they give him the time, yes, I’m quite sure he can. Lippi is the right man for that job. He has experience from the World Cup, he won the World Cup [with Italy in 2006], he has experience with Chinese football from his time at Guangzhou Evergrande. It’s perfect. But, of course, the national team had a poor start in the World Cup qualifiers, before Lippi took over, and it’s difficult to take them to the next World Cup, but it’s still possible. So, give it a go at least. But, even if they don’t qualify, Lippi should stay by all means, because he is the right man for that job.
Luiz Felipe Scolari beat you three times at major tournaments while you were England manager. He too works now in China. Have you spoken to him much?
We are football friends and colleagues, but I have never ever had a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with him. It was not like with Lippi with whom I often had dinner. But Lippi and I lived in the same city, so it was easy [in Guangzhou, while Eriksson coached Guangzhou R&F and Lippi was manager at Guangzhou Evergrande]. When you don’t live in the same city it’s different. But of course I know Scolari and I respect him very much. He is doing a great job with Guangzhou Evergrande, who are one of the favourites to win the league title again this season.
You had a great time in European football. You were highly successful with IFK Göteborg, Benfica and Lazio. With Benfica you reached the 1990 European Cup Final. However, now Benfica and many other big clubs have practically no chance of reaching the Champions League final. What do you think of the domination of a handful of super-clubs?
Well, whether you like it or not, to make a winning team you need money. One could argue that Leicester has won the Premier League title even though they invested far less money than, for example, Manchester United or other clubs, but that was an exception. Fact is, in the long run, if you want to be a big club, you need money. Bayern Munich is Bayern Munich, Barcelona is Barcelona, Real Madrid is Real Madrid and so on. You cannot build a great team without money. I think you have a good example with Lazio. When I was at Lazio, Sergio Cragnotti was the chairman and owner of the club, and he invested a lot of money. And then, after he left, all changed. Lazio are still a big club. Maybe they have the chance to win the Serie A title now and then, but they are not Juventus.
Do you think that at one point – possibly in the near future – in European club football there will be a competition like the NBA? Would you be disappointed with such a European Super League, where many big clubs from other countries would be shut out?
I hope it will never happen. I’m a little bit conservative about that, because I think that would not be good for football. It would be good only for a handful of clubs. I don’t think it’s right.
Many say that international football is in a decline. What do you think?
No, I don’t think so. Just take England, for example. You can’t speak about a decline when Wembley is sold out even when England play against small teams. The whole nation stands still when England plays a qualifier or a match at a major tournament. And it’s the same with Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, China and most other countries. International football is great and taking part at a World Cup is something you can dream about, you are proud and it’s like a big party. The whole atmosphere at a World Cup is just great, it’s an unforgettable experience.
And what about the quality of international football?
The quality is always good; big teams, big players, normally the best players in the world. It’s great. Also the last Euros were great, when Portugal won the title, well, due to their quality. They had a little bit of luck as well, just like Greece winning the title in 2004. Also such surprises speak for the appeal of international football.
You had a successful time as England manager. When you look back now to those times – now that more than a decade has passed by – what are the good and the bad memories?
I have many good memories. I mean, we qualified for three big tournaments and in all three we went to the quarter-finals. And of course, some games I remember with great pleasure. Beating Germany away was one of those games which I will always remember [the 5-1 in Munich in 2001]. I remember a game when we beat Argentina at a World Cup [1-0 in Sapporo in 2002], and I think that it was a great game from our side. I think it was voted as best tactical game of the whole tournament. There were also bad memories. We lost a qualification game against Northern Ireland, away. Losing against Northern Ireland, for the England national team, that’s not good. And the press reminded me of that for a long time.
In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently with England?
The only thing I regret I didn’t do was to hire a sports psychologist for taking penalty kicks. If that would have helped or not I don’t know.
England have won nothing since 1966. Is there a reason for that? What would you change about the English game to make it more successful at international level?
I think that sooner or later the English Premier League will have to take a break in winter. It doesn’t have to be a long break, but you must give the players time off, let’s say one week. England is one of the few countries that go on playing without any break during the long season. And that means that the chances for injuries are getting bigger. That’s not something I say. Science has proved that in a Fifa study. Secondly, when you prepare to go to a major tournament, you have a bunch of tired players. And it’s understandable. They have played football since July, August the previous year. The players who play for England, normally they play for big clubs. So they play Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. It’s too much for them – if you want to win a World Cup. So, sooner or later the English will have to make a break in the league season. It must not be in winter, because at Boxing Day there must be football in England. It can be also a bit later. I was fighting four years for that. Everybody agreed, but at the end the Premier League says no.
Is there anything else?
Sometimes the English press, also the fans, think that only England exist and that all the other countries are worse than England. And of course, that’s not true. There are many good countries, many good national teams. So, to win a World Cup is great, but it’s not that easy.
Have you followed the England national team since your time there? What did you think when they lost to Iceland?
Of course I follow them in the big tournaments. I haven’t seen all qualification games, but I always follow them at Euros and World Cups. Yes, if you are England, losing to Iceland it’s bad. Even if Iceland had a very good team, but no one in England will accept losing to Iceland.
Back in 2004 you described Wayne Rooney as being like Pelé. What do you make of his career since? Would you agree he’s never quite delivered on the promise he showed before the injury versus Portugal in 2004?
Yes, unfortunately he got injured then and later he was also sent off in a game at another tournament. Still, I think that Rooney had a great career. Maybe he didn’t become like Pelé, but he is a great player and he had a great career, for Everton, for Manchester United and for England. I mean he is the best goalscorer for Manchester United and for England. People forget that sometimes. And he is still going. I think he has an incredible career.
Given what has happened since, do you think your time as England manager was underappreciated?
[He smiles] Well, you won’t get an objective answer from me. I would say that during my time we did rather well, but it’s true that we didn’t succeed in winning any titles. In Germany 2006 I was sure that we could reach the final and even win the World Cup. I didn’t see any teams better than us. But, it went as it went [a quarter-final defeat to Portugal on penalties].
In hindsight, how do you look at the Gerrard-Lampard dilemma? Would it have been better to try to use a holding midfielder behind them and play a 4-3-3 or would that have been difficult because Beckham, Rooney and Owen all were better in a 4-4-2?
It became a big problem for the press. But I always said that of course they could play together. If you are the coach of a national team, you try to select the 11 best players to start a game. You don’t put Lampard, Gerrard, Owen, Beckham or Rooney on the bench. Not a chance. And I think they played well together.
Would you have liked at one point to become Sweden manager? Was there a chance? Why it didn’t happen? Only because of the relatively small salary?
No, it never went to money talks. A couple of times I got the question if I wanted to do it, but I always was under contract at other clubs. So it never happened and now for sure it’s too late.
You grew up with pressing in Sweden through Houghton and Hodgson. How different is the modern pressing of Guardiola and Klopp?
Take for example Malmö, who in 1979 went to the European Cup Final and 1982 Göteborg in the Uefa Cup Final. Both teams played with very aggressive pressing and it paid off very well, because it was relatively new. Liverpool had played like that for many years. For many other teams it was rather new. Maybe it didn’t look nice, but for opponents it was very difficult to handle. That was one of the reasons why Göteborg won the Uefa Cup. Other teams, like Valencia, Hamburg, they didn’t understand what was going on. Today, to answer your question, more or less all teams play with pressing. So today it will not pay off as much as it did back then, because it has become common. So I think there is no difference between modern pressing and the pressing from then.
Do you think football has changed fundamentally over the last twenty years, from a tactical point of view?
Tactically, I’m not so sure. But, no doubt, football is changing all the time. You now have quicker players, technically more skilful players all over. Once a central defender was big and strong, and normally slow, and he just kicked away the ball. Today you have central defenders who know how to play football, with good passing and things like that. So that has changed. And of course, tactically you can say once a centre-forward was just a centre-forward. Give me the ball and I will try to score. Today a centre-forward is an attacking player but also a defending player. You have to attack with 11 and to defend with 11 players today. You can’t afford to have one or two players who do not come back and help the team to defend.
Over the past twenty years, English football has looked to the Dutch, French, Spanish and German models for inspiration. Now we have Jürgen Klopp telling us his football is based in the English style of the 1980s. Do you think English football suffered an identity crisis in the early 1990s? Do you think it would have been better evolving from the model that brought Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Everton… European success in the late 1970s and 80s, rather than constantly seeking panaceas abroad?
I’m a Liverpool fan, so it’s easy for me to say that Liverpool was one of the greatest teams ever. Once I played with Benfica against Liverpool. We lost against them in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. They gave us a lesson in football. And they played modern. They played one touch, two touches. They played very simple and very aggressive in their pressing. So I think that English football should build on that model, on that great Liverpool team.
Would you have liked a club job in England? How close did you come to Manchester United or Chelsea?
I had an offer from Manchester United and more or less I had already an agreement with them. It didn’t happen because Sir Alex Ferguson changed his mind [having announced his retirement] and decided to continue. And you don’t compete with Sir Alex Ferguson [laughs]. At Chelsea I was offered the job twice, but I rejected it because I was England manager.
Obviously video technology will become part of football too, as it already is in many other sports. Not only goal line video, but also for other vital penalty box situations like offside positions, fouls, dives etc. What do you think about it? Is it good for football or not?
I welcome it. I am absolutely in favour of it. It should be like that, that the referee can go to the touchline and look at the video – if he wants.
You probably know that quote of the late Johan Cruyff, “Quality without results is pointless, but results without quality is boring.” What do you make of it? Especially at times when coaches are inevitably sacked after a string of poor results.
I’d never heard it, but I like it. It’s a very good sentence. I totally agree with it. But today the results are more or less everything. If you don’t get the right results as a coach you will get in danger. But, of course, there are many big teams who manage to achieve both – quality and results. Still, in football there is only one who can win.
Is there a formation which you prefer to use? Or does it always depend on the players you have at your disposal?
When I was a young coach, I always played with a 4-4-2. Today I am a little bit different. It depends on what kind of players I have in my roster and I put the players in the positions where they can give their best performance for the team. It can be a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2, whatever. Put the players in the right positions and let them play.
Never a back three?
Actually I have to say that personally I don’t like it. I always like a four back line. But, of course, Antonio Conte is doing extremely well with Chelsea with that system. Obviously you can play different systems. If you have the right players and the right instructions to them, it will function well.
The late Sir Bobby Robson told me once that he never read what the press wrote about him and his teams. He said “they don’t know our job better than we do, I never read it.” How about you?
I never ever followed what media reported about my teams and about me. I did it only if it was something I had to read because of my job with England. Then the press officer would come to me and he would tell me, “Sven, you have to read this.” But otherwise, I never read the papers. It only makes you depressed. The English press is not a mirror of the English people. The English are very polite. Usually they are supportive of the England manager, no matter who he is, and they are not at all as critical as the press is. The press can kill you for whatever reason, for a red card or for your private affairs. And very seldom it has to do with the actual football. It’s important to say that it’s a part of the press. There are also many serious football writers in the country, but many not serious as well.
You are now 69 years of age. Are there moments when you think enough is enough? As for example last autumn when Shanghai SIPG decided to sack you?
Absolutely not. Such a thought never crossed my mind. Not a chance. I am still eager to work and I enjoy it.