Asia · Managers · World Cup 2010

The Swedish Mercenary goes East

Surprise or controversial managerial appointments are nothing new. We’ve certainly seen plenty of them recently. It seems at times that the decisions are made less on track records and suitability and more on just being able to get your team on the front page around the world. Some teams even believe that all it takes to do well is a high-profile manager.

That certainly seemed the case when Sven-Goran Eriksson signed up to manage Mexico in the World Cup qualifiers. Everyone but the FMF, the Mexican football federation, saw it as a disaster in waiting. Eriksson hadcome from a decent, if not spectacular, record with England for 8 years and a very streaky season with Manchester City. He had no experience outside Europe and little understanding of the enormously complex, yet highly fragile, Mexican footballing mindset.

Predictably, Sven didn’t even make it to the end of the qualifiers, leaving Mexico in a very precarious position. A timely return by Javier Aguirre got El Tri back on the right course and into the World Cup.

Sven followed this with a headlines-grabbing appoinment as President of Notts County. He’s already fired a manager there, but at least he’s managed to secure the services of Sol Campbell for the League Two side — for a week anyway, before Campbell realized the ridiculous nature of the situation and promptly quit. No such realization for Sven, though.

What possible crazy decision could Sven make next? Surely nothing could top Notts County? Nothing would surprise us now. At this point, he’d have to take the job managing North Korea in the World Cup to shock me.

And so he has. (Or seemingly is about to: http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2009/oct/13/sven-goran-eriksson-north-korea)

After the Mexican debacle, what could possibly possess the North Koreans to make such a spectacularly ill-conceived decision? Especially after the team had just managed to secure qualification to the World Cup for only the second time in their history?

Delusions of grandeur (from North Korea? Surely not!) seem to be at the heart of this. The team management apparently felt that manager Kim Jong-hun’s tactics were needlessly defensive (he was fielding a 4-5-1) and a lack of goals they felt signalled a poor run in the World Cup.

No doubt, the North Koreans were looking to replicate the performance of their southern brothers from the 2002 World Cup. Like the South Koreans, who were managed by Dutch manager Guus Hiddink (now with Russia) in that Cup, they feel they need an experienced, European manager. Enter Sven. This is the man, the North Koreans will feel will make them a “world-class team”.

Let’s not even delve into the comparison of Guus vs. Sven, which I think would be greatly favorable to the dutchman, Sven’s latest experience in Mexico should be a huge red alert to the Koreans. The inability of the press and the fans to relate to him, coupled with the fact that he did not adapt his tactics to the local game are two key issues that will affect him in Asia as well as the Americas.

Add to that the fact that North Korea is not a world-class team. You don’t build that overnight and it’s an open question whether anyone can truly do so now. It’s always the same teams at the top: Italy, Germany and Brazil; with France, Argentina, the Netherlands, Spain and a few other breaking in every once in a while. If England struggles to have a good World Cup run (with Sven!), what could possibly make the North Koreans think that they can do it with a simple managerial hire?

Further complicating the situation is that Notts County is involved in the negotiation. Sven would remain at the head of the League Two club while steering the North Koreans through the groups stage mine field in South Africa. Needless to say, there is some hand-wringing over a British/Western sporting organization collaborating with a national team from the “axis of evil”. (I was rooting for Iraq in the Axis League myself …)

To those who criticize any support given to North Korean institutions, I’d say that they should consider what is being provided. We’re talking abou Sven here. It’s not like they’re actually being helped …

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