LONDON — Sven-Goran Eriksson, the England head coach whose press conferences can be an exercise in pulling teeth, was only too happy to reveal stories about his players to a bunch of strangers.
Mind you, it is amazing how staying in the finest hotel in Dubai, being feted on a huge yacht in the Persian Gulf and downing liberal lashings of Dom Perignon plus £900 bottles of wine can loosen a tongue. Oh, and maybe the prospect of a job paying £5 million a year after tax.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Eriksson’s latest foot-in-the-mouth escapade is that the Swede, his agent Athole Still and lawyer Richard des Voeux allowed themselves to become the latest victims of Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World’s investigations editor or fake sheik as he is known in Fleet Street.
Time after time well-known, respected and intelligent people in the public eye have been duped by Mahmood, posing as a rich Arab but wired for sound as he and his fellow News of the World reporters get personalities to “reveal all.”
Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd, jockey Kieren Fallon and even royalty — the Countess of Wessex and Princess Michael of Kent — have fallen for the plastic charm of the fake sheik.
Yet still the hapless victims, usually attracted by money for something and their booze for free, are attracted like moths to a light bulb.
The cost of Operation Sven to the NOTW was probably around £200,000 and one has to assume the newspaper was supremely confident of the Swede’s gullibility and that he would sing like a bird. The England head coach duly obliged.
It was, of course, entrapment which would not be allowed in English law to entice a suspected criminal to confess. But the sympathy vote goes out of the window when someone as experienced as Eriksson and his team are taken in hook line and sinker by the fake sheik of Fleet Street.
Putting aside the morals (or immorals depending on your viewpoint) of such a covert operation, the NOTW should receive dubious congratulations for the military-type planning behind Sven-gate.
Still was initially contacted some months ago by someone representing a company called AJ Sports, with the newspaper even setting up a fake Web site to back up its existence.
Eriksson was invited to Dubai in a consultancy role about a possible football academy and the Swede even cleared his trip to the Middle East with Brian Barwick, the Football Association’s chief executive who will face a grilling from F.A. blazers for giving England’s head coach the green light.
Team Eriksson duly arrived in Dubai where the NOTW somehow managed to ensure they bypassed immigration checks, the trio whisked away in a white Rolls-Royce to the seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel, where the cheapest room is £800 per night.
They did not have the cheapest rooms or the cheapest anything, two bottles of wine with dinner apparently each costing £900.
Fueled by good wine and “Dom Pom,” Eriksson gave the fake sheik what he wanted. The Swede revealed that Michael Owen told him he is not really happy with Newcastle but, economically, he had never earned that amount of money.
“Owen told me, ‘they gave me a house, a car, it’s incredible.’ They had to do it because in any other way he wouldn’t have gone there,” Erikkson said.
Eriksson then spoke about Aston Villa, whose 82-year-old chairman Doug Ellis was described as “an old man. He’s sick.”
Suggesting he would resign if England won the World Cup this summer and become manager of Villa at £5 million after tax as part of a takeover bid mentioned by “the consortium,” Eriksson intimated he could entice David Beckham to the Midlands club: “We have a special relationship.”
Quite why Eriksson thought Beckham would even consider joining an underachieving club like Villa is unknown.
MISSION accomplished by the News of the World and the inevitable mountain of criticism came Eriksson’s way.
The volume of hypocrisy was of Mount Everest proportions, too.
Talking about possible future employment while under contract?
Heaven forbid, even journalists do it.
Premiership managers who telephone reporters asking them to put them in for jobs that are still filled went public to criticize Eriksson for talking about a post at Villa Park currently held by David O’Leary.
Oh, and Eriksson was still employed by Lazio when the F.A. made its first approaches to him in the wake of Kevin Keegan’s resignation six years ago.
Eriksson’s biggest own goal was talking about his players, but this will not affect their commitment to England’s World Cup cause. They play for their country, not the Swedish head coach, anyway.
There seems little or no chance of Eriksson staying on whatever England’s World Cup fate, though, the most tedious aspect of it all is that he continues to raise his personal bar of naivete.
High profile affairs with Swedish television presenter Ulrika Jonsson and Faria Alam, an F.A. secretary, go alongside clandestine talks with Chelsea — where he maintained he only “listened” to what they had to say — make an ignominious CV.
Denials that Eriksson was lined up to replace Sir Alex Ferguson before the Manchester United manager’s U-turn fell on mainly deaf ears.
Despite — Eriksson may even argue because — of all this, he is statistically England’s most successful manager and three competitive defeats in five years is probably the best record among leading international coaches.
Eriksson is contracted to the F.A. until 2008 and Still said — he even managed to keep a straight face when he did so — his client wanted to stay until 2010.
Rest assured the power brokers at the F.A. will have had enough of Eriksson’s wanderings, both nocturnal and to the Middle East, come July. Their main problem is that there is no obvious English replacement, though Manchester City’s Stuart Pearce is probably top of the F.A.’s short list.
The F.A. has not covered themselves in glory in their handling of Sven-gate, adopting its usual barriers-up approach with a brief statement assuring everybody that everything is fine.
Eriksson’s press conferences at next Friday’s 2008 European Championship draw, and before the March 1 friendly against Uruguay, should make for interesting listening.