- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

HANNOVER, Germany — The colorful reign of Sven-Goran Eriksson as England’s national team coach is drawing to a close.

The most notable Swede in the world right now, Eriksson begins what he hopes will be his long goodbye to English fans as he leads their national team against Paraguay in the opening game of Group B in Frankfurt today. Along with Brazil, Germany and Argentina, England is one of the favorites to reach the final game on July 9. Winning the Cup certainly would silence Eriksson’s many critics in England, who have attacked him viciously since he became the first foreigner to take on the role in January 2001.

Coaching the national soccer team is said to be the second most important job in England after that of the prime minister, and the svelte Eriksson certainly has taken his share of abuse. Every aspect of his life has been scrutinized by the media and he didn’t help his cause by handing fodder to the tabloids.

The English Football Association, which signed him to a contract worth more than $30 million through 2008, supported the unmarried Eriksson through his much-publicized trysts with a television celebrity and a secretary working in the football association’s offices. But the final embarrassment came last year when a tabloid reporter posing as an Arab businessman, known in the British press as the “fake sheikh,” lured the coach into making embarrassing comments about players, after which Eriksson decided to step down following the World Cup.

Eriksson seemed determined to bow out in style and stunned the British media when he named 17-year-old Theo Walcott to his 23-man World Cup team. Walcott had not played for England before and has never played top-flight soccer with his Arsenal club.

“It’s a big gamble, I know it is,” Eriksson said of his choice of Walcott. “I’m excited to see him. He’s a big talent.”

Eriksson is part of a foreign revolution that has transformed English soccer. Known as the “Ice Man” because of his apparent lack of the “guts and glory” that the English love, Eriksson has helped change the national team’s style of play from a muscular, long-ball game to an intelligent passing game played by the big European clubs. Still, he has been criticized for his faith in midfielder David Beckham as the team captain and for the team’s failure to hold onto a lead, most notably in the 2-1 loss to 10-man Brazil in the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup.

Apart from U.S. coach Bruce Arena, Eriksson is the longest-tenured coach at these finals. His record with England is impressive. Under Eriksson, the Three Lions qualified for two World Cups and in the last five years were 37-10-15. His most notable triumph in that span came in 2001, when England beat host Germany 5-1 in a World Cup qualifier.

The pressure is always on the English, who boast one of the toughest domestic leagues in the world but have won the World Cup only once — in 1966 when the nation was host to the finals. As always an angst descends on the nation, so Eriksson knows he will be the fall guy if England fails to advance beyond the quarterfinals.

But with world renowned players like Beckham, Michael Owen, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and star striker Wayne Rooney at his disposal, Eriksson has what could be the best English team since the 1990 World Cup semifinal team.

“We are much better than we were two years ago, four years ago,” Eriksson told the Financial Times.

There will be plenty of people waiting to see if that’s the case, with 364 members of the media on a waiting list hoping to see England play Paraguay.

Beckham, known for his brilliant crosses, appears to be in fine form and had a hand in four of the team’s goals in the two warm-up games coming into the finals — a 3-1 victory against Hungary and a 6-0 drubbing of Jamaica.

“I’d like to think this could be my best-ever World Cup, but you can never tell what’s going to happen in football,” said Beckham, who will play his 90th game for England today.

The English camp is also buoyed by the news that Rooney has been cleared to play, although the Manchester United ace is unlikely to see action in the opening round as he recovers from a broken foot.

Even if England fails at this World Cup, Eriksson already has left his mark on the English game, and many say it’s for the better.

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