Sven's Chinese football odyssey

After stints at Benfica, Lazio, Manchester City and England, Sven-Goran Eriksson is relishing a brand new challenge.

    Sven's Chinese football odyssey
    The Swede, who started his coaching career in 1977, took the helm at England in 2001 [EPA]

    Sven-Goran Eriksson's CV boasts some of the biggest managerial jobs in world football.

    He's been in charge of Benfica, Sampdoria, Lazio, Manchester City and, of course, England, and won lots of trophies along the way.

    For last few years the Swede has been popping up in some of the sport's remotest outposts though.

    In September 2012 he became technical director of BEC Toro in Thailand, then took up a similar role at Al Nasr in Dubai a few months later, and is now manager of Guangzhou R&F in the Chinese Super League.

    They are hardly names to conjure with, and the days of leading England at World Cups and finding himself on the front pages of the tabloids seem a long time ago. Yet the 65-year-old insists he is happy with life in south China's biggest city.

    "I like it here very much and am very happy," he tells Al Jazeera English.

    "Life in Guangzhou is fantastic. It's a city with 12-and-a-half million people and the amazing thing is that it's still growing. They are building everywhere.

    "The weather is good and it's a very international city. For example if you want to eat out there is Spanish, Japanese, Italian, whatever you want.

    "Life is getting better and better in China, regarding everything, and that includes football."

    He has also enjoyed donning his tracksuit again after two technical director jobs.

    "I am not really an office man, it's much better to be on the pitch," he says.

    Chinese ambitions

    Eriksson's side are sixth in the Chinese Super League, a whopping 31 points behind leaders Guangzhou Evergrande with just five games left to play.

    They will miss out on qualification for the Asian Champions League - only the top four qualify - but that is very much the objective for next season.

    R&F get their name from the massive construction company that took them over in June 2011 and are an ambitious club.

    "Football is quite new for the owners but they have been very, very good to me and the players," says Eriksson.

    "Of course they want success - to get into the Champions League and to win trophies in the future."

    The club have been in the shadow of city rivals Evergrande for the last few years.

    Under the charge of Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi, Evergrande are about to win their third straight Chinese Super League title and are on the verge of the Asian Champions League final.

    Lippi's side is made up of players from the Chinese national team, interspersed with a few star foreigners, such as the Argentine Dario Conca, who is reported to be on a salary of $10m a year.

    Eriksson and Lippi managed in Italy's Serie A in the 1990s and the Swede says he has enjoyed renewing acquaintances with his old pal.

    "Lippi is doing very well and has a great team," says Eriksson.

    "Evergrande have been the best team in China for the last few years and are probably the best in whole of Asia.

    "We have met up a couple of times and it has been good."

    While Eriksson has been impressed with the improvement of Chinese football in the last few years, he admits they are a long way away from becoming an international force.

    The national team has failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil next year and there are no home players of true international quality.

    "The Chinese players we have here are very professional, they are listening and want to learn and work," Eriksson says.

    I think China will be a football power in the future, but whether they can improve quickly enough to qualify for the World Cup in even four years' time I'm not sure. China needs a player who can be a big star internationally.

    Sven-Goran Eriksson,

    "I think China will be a football power in the future, but whether they can improve quickly enough to qualify for the World Cup in even four years' time I'm not sure.

    "China needs a player who can be a big star internationally. That would help football in this country very, very much.

    "Someone good enough to play for Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. We don't have anyone good enough to do that at this time."

    Dark days

    Two things have hampered Chinese football in recent years, sometimes making it difficult to retain top foreign players and even leading to supporters becoming disillusioned with the game.

    The first is players apparently not being paid, as was the case with Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua and Lucas Barrios at Evergrande.

    The other - more serious - problem has been corruption.

    There were major match-fixing scandals in China in the 1990s and again in 2010, which hugely tarnished the image of the game.

    Eriksson says: "Hopefully those dark days are over. I haven't seen anything of it so far and hope it doesn't exist any more.

    "If you are a sportsman you don't like these things, but unfortunately it has happened all over the world - Germany, Italy, not just China."

    So what does the future hold for the well-travelled Swede, who has titles in Sweden, Portugal and Italy, and led England to the quarter-finals of three major tournaments.

    "I am happy and have a contract here until December 2014," he says.

    "After that, let's see."

    Don't be surprised to see his footballing odyssey continue.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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