4 JUNE 2001
SVEN GORAN ERIKSSON - MY COLOGNE? LET ME THINK
Sven-Goran Eriksson had ambitions to be a psychologist and a writer before he became the coach of England's football team. Christa D'Souza meets a suave Mr Motivator.
THERE is something about Sven-Goran Eriksson's body language that says "go away" when I approach him in the lobby of the London hotel where we have arranged to meet. Perhaps he thinks I want his autograph, or to urge him and the England team on to victory in the World Cup qualifier against Greece on Wednesday.
But when I explain that I have come to interview him about his new book, Sven-Goran Eriksson on Football, the famous ice-man fade thaws, noticeably. "Ah! It is you," he exclaims, in an accent that is recognisably Swedish but has a faint undertone of Italian. "You have read the book? You have? Ah, that is good." He suggests we talk about it over a drink in the hotel bar.
"You know, if I wasn't a football coach, I should like to have been a journalist. A journalist or a psychologist. It was very close, actually. Now, what do I have? A pot of tea, I think, because I hate the taste of coffee. . ." Eriksson, 53, is much slighter in the flesh than he appears to be on television - testimony, perhaps, to the fact that he almost always skips breakfast and lunch (if he wants to splurge, he tells me, he'll have a plate of spaghetti and a glass of red wine) and that he runs every morning. "I must," he says, pinching an imaginary layer of skin from his stomach. "Look! This is terrible."
Eriksson is dressed in an immaculate teal blue suit with tapered legs, handmade, as all his suits are, by his friend Franco Aldini - "It's very easy, because I always choose the same shape," he says. He is much more attractive in person than he appears in photographs: his tanned skin is incredibly smooth ("I use nothing. Just a little bit of cream in the sun"), and with his blow-dried, receding hair, he looks vaguely like a hybrid of Frasier Crane and Kevin Costner. He smells nice, too; the way European men often do. "My cologne? Let me think a minute. . . Rocabar by Hermes."
Most beguiling of all, there is a real intensity about his crystal blue eyes - barely obscured by his trademark, rimless spectacles - which suggests that, underneath that cool exterior, there might just be a man whose emotions absolutely rage. Eriksson, the man with perhaps the second most difficult job in the country, is as entitled as any party leader to feel a bit jittery about the next few days - they have an election to worry about; he needs England to win in Athens. But Eriksson seems never to suffer from nerves, nor does he buckle under stress, thanks to his unique self-help plan, a programme that has proved so successful on the pitch, he has decided to write it down.
His book is littered with motivational nuggets of wisdom, such as "Winners hate to lose, but are not afraid to lose", "Seriousness is a different thing to solemnity" and "Negative thoughts spread more quickly than positive ones", and is a strangely compelling read, partly because it has very little to do with football. William Hague could do a lot worse than go out and buy a copy.
An exercise designed to show how the mind controls the body is particularly interesting. It involves standing 10 centimetres away from a wall and chanting the words "I'm falling backwards, I'm falling backwards, I'm falling backwards" to yourself as you do it. "Note how your muscles react," the book explains. "Although you have not given them any orders, they tense up . . . 90 per cent of the time you also fall backwards."
"Ah, you tried that one?" Eriksson asks, his eyes lighting up. "It is very effective. But that is what is interesting about this book, no? It is not only for sport, it is for life." Do you mean, I ask, that it can even be applied to social situations? "Absolutely," he nods, emphatically.
One of Eriksson's prerequisites for the building of self-confidence is "a basic human love from our parents" and this he surely received as a young boy from his father (a truck driver) and mother (a hospital worker), growing up in the tiny village of Torsby in Sweden. But he was also a fanatically competitive child. He loved running, fishing, skiing and ice-hockey, but football (particularly English football) was his main passion. At the age of 27, he switched from playing professionally to coaching and, after successful spells in Sweden and Portugal, moved to Italy to coach Roma, and then Lazio, where he stayed until last year.
Eriksson met his girlfriend, Nancy Dell'Olio, an Italian-American lawyer, in 1998 at the luxurious Tuscan spa Terme di Montecatini. Although both were married at the time - he to his teenage sweetheart, Anne Kristin, by whom he has two children - they fell in love instantly. Sven decided to announce the news to Nancy's husband, Giancarla Mazza, in person, over lunch.
Talk about taking the path of most resistance. Eriksson may be football's answer to Anthony Robbins in print, but in real life he is much more diffident and it is difficult to imagine him driving up to Mazza's house in his state-of-the-art Volvo, chanting "I must, I should, I shall" (see the chapter "Keeping self-confidence high in adversity" in his book). "Yes, it's all true," says Eriksson, quietly, "but it's a long, long story, which I will tell you about later.
"It is very frustrating when they keep trying to find out about your private life," he says, of journalists. "But what do you do? After they found out about us going on holiday to Barbados, I thought, maybe I will take the photos myself and sell them. Heh, heh! I am only joking - I do not need the money." True. He has just bought a magnificent £3 million house in Regent's Park for himself and Nancy, and they do not seem to miss life in Rome. They dine at San Lorenzo, the old Knightsbridge haunt of the Princess of Wales; they are building up a wine cellar, just like the one Sven has at his villa on the Algarve, and they are preparing to take another tropical holiday at the end of this week (he made me promise not to reveal where but, suffice to say, it won't be Magaluf).
Eriksson confesses that his private ambition is one day to leave the world of football and write a novel - "Not on the football pitch," he promises, "more about things happening" - adding that he will apply exactly the same principles to writing that he does to coaching a football team. "You cannot be afraid of writing the wrong things, because then it stops you from trying. Many times you learn by losing."
Gallantly snatching away the modest drinks bill from me, Eriksson puts a couple of £20 notes down on the salver and rather sweetly asks the waitress if this is enough. Then he gives me his personal mobile number, in case I have any other questions, and suggests we have lunch together after the Greece game.
For the rest of the day, I find myself thinking in Sven-style motivational slogans. When I get a parking ticket, I'm tempted to chant: "Conflict kills mental energy!" A little later, when I am back on mother duty and faced with a long Lego-building session while yearning for a glass of chardonnay, I tell myself to: "Keep the fun of playing in mind!" and "Let the mind come before the performance!"
I had wanted to worm my way into the mind of Mr Eriksson - but it seems to have worked the other way round.