The Ivory Coast – sorry, Côte d’Ivoire – have appointed Sven Göran Eriksson as their coach for this summer’s World Cup. Presumably, they were impressed by the smartness of his suit and amiability of his manner, as it is hard to find a footballing reason for his appointment.
Eriksson has no experience coaching outside Europe save a short and unsuccessful spell managing Mexico, by whom he was jettisoned once it became dangerously possible that they would have to negotiate a play-off to qualify for the finals.
The Ivory Coast are battling with Brazil and Portugal – we can surely write off North Korea – in Group G for a place in the knock-out stages. Brazil and Portugal, you will recall, habitually ended Eriksson’s involvements in international tournaments at the quarter final stage while he was in charge of England.
Even when Ronaldinho had been sent off, Eriksson could not stir England from their collective lethargy in the quarter final of the 2002 World Cup and come back from 2-1 down. Against Portugal in Euro 2004, England spent 80 minutes trying to defend a 1-0 lead with all the composure of a bolting horse before scraping a 2-2 draw in extra time and losing on penalties.
That defeat was deserved. Portugal had dominated the game from the moment Wayne Rooney limped off with a broken foot in the 27th minute. Luiz Felipe Scolari – hardly a managerial genius, as Chelsea discovered to their cost last season – outwitted Eriksson with his expansive approach and brave substitutions. The Brazilian – responsible for his native side’s win two years earlier – cheerfully withdrew star player Luís Figo to introduce the Tottenham Hotspur misfit who would score the equalizer. Rui Costa, scorer of Portugal’s second in extra time, had been thrown on for a fullback, Miguel.
Eriksson, by comparison, had withdrawn Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard, bringing on Owen Hargreaves and Phil Neville in their place. Ever cautious and incapable of teaching his side how to keep the ball, Eriksson was once again defeated by Scolari’s Portugal in the 2006 World Cup, again on penalties.
On that occasion, Portugal, short of the suspended midfielders Deco and Costinha, played poorly but were helped by Rooney’s red card after 62 minutes. Rooney – isolated in his role as lone striker after Eriksson had stupidly picked a squad with only three strikers, of whom only Peter Crouch was fit – became frustrated and was sent off for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho. Though England battled hard and should have had a penalty after Nuno Valente handled, they went out cast as ever as ‘gallant losers’. Their performances in earlier matches had been such that they weren’t missed.
The Ivory Coast are a team who consist of very talented individuals who too often fail to add up to the sum of their parts. Plus ça change. In that respect, Eriksson might be forgiven a sense of déjà vu. But if Eriksson has shown himself incapable of one thing, it is getting players to replicate the good form they show for their clubs on the big international stage. When the Ivory Coast returned from the Cup of Nations in January, there was a sense that their big players, particularly Didier Drogba, had let the side down. It was not nerves, the Achilles heel (sorry David) of England’s excursions every other summer, that proved their undoing but the individual egos of their star players.
Eriksson, perhaps more than any other major coach currently in work, employs sycophancy under the disguise of ‘man management’. The Ivory Coast needed a Capello, not an Eriksson.
Another veteran Swedish coach, Lars Lagerbäck, has taken over Nigeria, where the same problems exist. Lagerbäck, like Eriksson, is not commonly mistaken for a dictatorial despot and, again like Eriksson, is very much a 4-4-2 man. Nigeria, like many of the sub-Saharan sides at Angola 2010, seemed obsessed with 4-3-3. They do not have wingers, just a plethora of ‘box-to-box’ midfielders such as Dickson Etuhu, Mikel John Obi and Seyi Olofinjana.
Lagerbäck’s challenge is to rid the Nigerian side of their collective neurosis that was so apparent in their Cup of Nations campaign. Having been outclassed by Egypt in their first match, the Super Eagles inched out the most unconvincing of 1-0 wins against Benin through a Yakubu penalty. With the team nervous, bedraggled and incohesive, you might say Shaibu Amodu did well to take them to an eventual bronze medal and was unlucky to be fired.
Still, Sven will give us all a point of interest during the World Cup, such is his status as a Z-list celebrity among the tabloid media. What would he and Didier Drogba have to say to each other?