- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

There are two plum jobs in England: prime minister and coach of the national soccer team.

In many British minds, the latter is more important and maybe even tougher. Just ask Sven Goran Eriksson, who remains England’s coach after surviving a major sex scandal this week.

A sordid saga of sleaze worthy of the Clinton White House has engulfed the England coach and the Football Association (FA). It’s a tale even Hollywood couldn’t conjure.

It began last month when a tabloid got wind that the 56-year-old Eriksson had been involved romantically with 38-year-old secretary Faria Alam, who worked at the FA. The 140-year-old FA governs English soccer and more importantly hires the national team coach.

Eriksson, whose high-profile dating habits have been media fodder for years, denied the affair at first and was backed by his bosses. Then the truth came out. The Swedish coach was accused of lying and looked certain to lose his job.

Then the story, now dubbed “Svengate,” got even more bizarre. Eriksson’s boss, FA chief executive Mark Palios, also had an affair with the secretary. The FA’s director of communications, Colin Gibson, approached a newspaper, willing to tell “chapter and verse” about Eriksson’s affair as long as Palios’ name was kept out of the story. The newspaper refused, and Palios resigned Sunday. The leading tabloids used a soccer-like score line as a headline: “Sven 1, FA 0.”

Some critics suggested the scandal broke as a result of back-stabbing after England was knocked out in the quarterfinals of Euro 2004 this summer. Eriksson, who was hired in 2000, renewed his contract just before the tournament in Portugal, making him one of the best paid coaches in the world.

Eriksson was labeled a “quarter-final” coach, an underachiever who couldn’t get his team to build on a 1-0 lead in an important match. The implication was that some at the FA secretly hoped the unemotional Swede, nicknamed the “Ice Man,” would be forced out and not allowed to walk away with the remainder of his $25.5million contract.

England’s previous coaches — Glenn Hoddle and Terry Venables — were both forced out because of off-field problems. But Eriksson was cleared of any wrong doing by the FA on Thursday. Eriksson kept his job, but it remains to be seen whether he can survive the media blitz that will come when Alam, who resigned from the FA this week, sells her salacious story to the tabloids.

The English players say they stand behind Eriksson, who led the team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup and begins key 2006 World Cup qualifying games next month against Austria and Poland.

Meantime, Eriksson is facing another problem — finding a replacement for star midfielder Paul Scholes, 29, who retired from the national team this week.

Olympic team — After finishing its preparation for the Athens Olympics with a 3-1 win over Australia before 15,093 fans in Hartford, Conn., on Sunday, the U.S. women’s Olympic team headed for Greece this week. The Americans, who recorded a 15-1-2 record in 2004, will play Greece on Crete Wednesday in their first Olympic match. Each of the U.S. team’s six possible games will be televised.

Asian Cup — China takes on defending champion Japan in the Asian Cup final in Beijing today. China beat Iran on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie to reach the final, while Japan beat the tournament’s surprise team, Bahrain, 4-3 after extra time. This is Japan’s third finals appearance in four tournaments.

Bobby starts — Midfielder Bobby Convey will make his debut today for Reading, England, as the first division outfit plays host to Brighton.

The former D.C. United midfielder is one of the Royals’ most expensive signings at $1.5million, and the left-sided winger will have a lot to prove.

The Royals finished ninth in the league last season and never have played in England’s top-flight soccer division in their 133-year history. The 21-year-old Convey hopes to change that.

“I have come here to have an effect on the team and help them go up this season,” Convey said.

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