English soccer fans cry foul over import of foreign coach

A Swedish coach hired this week is the latest foreigner entrusted with sports and cultural entities.

If asked, any English fan will tell you that soccer is an English invention.

In fact, historical evidence shows Chinese youths kicking around a piece of leather stuffed with hair as far back as the 2nd century BC. But the idea that association football, England's national game, is a homegrown sport is difficult to dislodge.

That is why the name Sven Goran Eriksson is causing hackles to rise throughout the land. Mr. Eriksson is a Swede, and this week he exploded into British newspapers' sports pages by becoming the first foreigner ever chosen to coach England's national team.

The appointment has been greeted with consternation by die-hard fans, who consider the team a part of their national heritage and support a patriotic duty.

Sir Bobby Charlton, who led England to victory against Germany in the soccer World Cup 34 years ago (the last time the national side won an international competition), called the appointment "ludicrous." Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association, declared, "I just can't see it working out for England."

The tabloid Daily Mail declared, "We've sold our birthright ... to a nation of 7 million skiers and hammer-throwers who spend half their time in darkness."

Editors reported a flood of complaints from readers affronted that England had to look to continental Europe for a coach with the qualities needed to redeem the nation's plummeting soccer fortunes.

Eriksson was hired a month after England coach Kevin Keegan abruptly resigned following a string of losses against European teams.

For much of the past two decades, the British have played "blood and guts" soccer - a style more closely resembling a goal-bound cattle stampede than the tantalizing dance of what Brazilian superstar Pele once called "the beautiful game." Delicate passing and calm presence were replaced by booming shots and full-bodied shoulder charges. There were bright spots - England's trip to the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championships - but each time, the team was found deficient in those most precious of soccer commodities: patience and sophistication.

Mr. Keegan's brief reign marked a move back toward emotion and heart - a damn-the-torpedoes mentality that makes English soccer so delightfully frustrating. But seeking something more than national pride in gallant losses, the British Football Association brought in Eriksson, a coach whose teams have exhibited the tactical awareness so often missing from English shores.

Currently coach of the Italian champions Lazio, Eriksson reportedly signed a five-year contract worth 2 million ($2,900,00).

People outside Britain find it hard to understand the passions that soccer can stir in a country whose football fans are among the most violent in the world. Racist insults are common when they feel their side is being outplayed by foreign teams. Columnist Anne McElvoy, herself a soccer enthusiast, says there is "a real and dangerous xenophobia" latent among England supporters. "Too much boorishness is tolerated," she says. The angry reactions to Eriksson's appointment are "part of the same syndrome."

Others, however, note that Eriksson's appearance on the English scene typifies a trend sweeping across large swathes of life in Britain.

At the Sydney Olympics, the country's Gold Medal rowing team was trained by a German. The performance director of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association is French.

England's team in cricket - another sport invented here but dominated by teams from former British colonies - depends heavily on a coach born in Zimbabwe and a fast bowler from New Zealand.

Beyond sports, the common practice of reaching out to foreigners to run troubled businesses and organizations has triggered considerable hand-wringing. An American supervisor is taking over the capital's antiquated metro system, the London Underground. Harrods department store is owned by an Egyptian. The new Tate Modern museum has a Danish curator, and the Royal Ballet's next director will be an Australian.

Much to the consternation of local financiers, a Stockholm-based consortium is bidding to buy the London Stock Exchange. The overbudget, underattended Millennium Dome has been handed over to a French chief executive.

Amid the uproar caused by his appointment, Eriksson is displaying what might be called "Nordic cool," limiting his comments to saying he is "honored" by the appointment. Sports journalist Philip Shaw describes him as "typically Scandinavian, laid-back, polite, articulate, and affable," but adds that his "mild manner masks a tough streak."

He is likely to need it.

England players, says James Lawton, another soccer writer, tend to have a lax lifestyle compared with their Continental counterparts. Welcoming the advent of Eriksson as "an inevitable development," Mr. Lawson says "the English way of football has been exposed as a battered remnant of an old way of life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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