TGU Interview: Sven-Goran Eriksson

“It’s cold here,” says Sven Goran Eriksson. I’m talking to the former Roma, Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Lazio manager over the phone, with Eriksson in his native Sweden. “The temperature is about -8 degrees,” he tells me, two days before his 73rd birthday. We make some small talk about Covid (because of course we do), before getting into his storied and successful managing career in Serie A.

Eriksson agreed to join Roma in the summer of 1984, as fellow Swede Nils Liedholm was leaving to join Milan. He admits to not having great knowledge of Serie A, as the league wasn’t broadcast in Sweden in the 1970s and ‘80s. “We could only watch English football at the time,” he says, “but when I moved to Portugal to coach Benfica, they showed some Italian football.”

He did however have a deep knowledge of Roma, as his Benfica side were pitted against the Giallorossi in the quarter final of the 1982/83 UEFA Cup. “ We went to spy on them as preparation,” he laughs. The spy missions obviously worked, as Benfica emerged victorious at the Stadio Olimpico, before a 1-1 draw at home sealed qualification to the semi final, where Eriksson’s side eventually lost in the final to Anderlecht.

Eriksson had agreed to take the Roma job before their soul-crushing loss to Liverpool in the European Cup final on home soil, and confesses he really struggled in his first season in Italy. “It was difficult to motivate the players following that final. Many of them had won everything with the club, and there was a loss of hunger. In the first six months I wondered if I’d made the right choice by coming to Roma,” he admits.

Eriksson also had to deal with his star player, Roberto Falcao, missing most of the campaign through injury: “I think he only played seven or eight games that season for us. He had a knee problem, and the rest of the team looked to him as the leader, they told me: ‘mister, we cannot play without Falcao’. And when he did, you could see the difference.”

He recalls one of the games in which Falcao did play in – away to Diego Maradona’s Napoli in December 1984, which Roma won 2-1. “He was better than even Maradona that day, which shows how good he was. He was a phenomenal footballer.”

Falcao left the Eternal City at the end of Eriksson’s first season, after five years with the club. Did the pair always get along? “Absolutely,” says Eriksson. “We had some of the same interests, but Falcao got into an argument with [club president] Dino Viola, and there was no way back for him after that. It was a real pity.”

Eriksson and Carlo Ancelotti at Roma

The mention of Maradona shifts the conversation. Eriksson came up against Maradona when he was at his unparalleled peak in the mid-to-late ‘80s, first with Roma and then with Fiorentina. So how do you prepare for Maradona?

“It was extremely difficult,” he says. “You could mark zonally, but if you gave him space he would destroy you. If you man-marked him, he would also destroy you, if you put two, three or four men on him, it didn’t matter. The result was always the same.”

To illustrate his point, he recalls an anecdote from two games in early January 1988. Eriksson’s Fiorentina side squared off against Napoli in the last 16 of the Coppa Italia. The first leg was mid-week, which ended in a 3-2 away victory for Eriksson’s side. They were due to meet again four days later in Serie A. “Maradona wasn’t really interested in the Coppa Italia, he didn’t do much in the game, but after the whistle he came over to me and joked: ‘mister, Sunday, musica differente’. Come Sunday, they beat us 4-0, and he was unstoppable.”

“He was a simple man, in a positive way,” says Eriksson of Maradona the man. “I had dinner with him a few times, the last when he was living in Dubai. I think he was influenced by bad people throughout his life. As a player, he was probably the greatest ever.”

How would Eriksson have coached him, given the opportunity? “Maradona is Maradona,” he says. “Some players just need to be let free.”

The Swede swapped Rome for Florence ahead of the 1987/88 season, and inherited a precocious young 20-year-old by the name of Roberto Baggio. Baggio was just returning to full fitness after suffering two career-threatening knee injuries in as many years, and had just scored his first Serie A goal the previous May – against Maradona’s Napoli.

In his book, Sven: My Story, Eriksson writes that Baggio was the most talented player he ever coached. Does he still stand by that statement? “Yes,” comes the reply. “Along with [Wayne] Rooney, who I had later on in my career.” Despite being a Ballon d’Or winner and one of the greatest Italian players of all time, there’s a degree of under appreciation outside Italian borders for just how brilliant Baggio was. What made him so special?

“He had everything: incredible technique, vision, pace. I remember one of our first games, it was away to [Arrigo] Sacchi’s Milan, and we only passed the halfway line twice, and scored twice. Baggio made one, and scored the other.”

The game was Serie A’s first glimpse of Baggio’s ability to wreak havoc, his effortlessly lithe way of dribbling past the greatest of defenders. “And it wasn’t just any defence,” adds Eriksson. “It was [Franco] Baresi, [Paolo] Maldini, [Alessandro] Costacurta and [Mauro] Tassotti.”

In Eriksson’s second season, Baggio formed a prolific partnership with Stefano Borgonovo, affectionately known as ‘B2’. The pair would score 29 of Fiorentina’s 44 league goals that season. “We were a much better team in my second season, and they were fantastic,” he says. “But so was Dunga in midfield. We signed him from Pisa. He wasn’t a good attacker, but he pressed, and had lots of energy.

“We had a good team, but those three especially, and then we qualified for the UEFA Cup by beating Roma in a playoff.”

Given Eriksson’s affinity for Baggio, did he ever try to reunite with him when he got to Lazio? “No. I don’t think he was at the same level as before when I was at Lazio, and we also had very good players in our team,” he says. It’s worth pointing out that in the 1997/98 season – Eriksson’s first – Baggio joined unfashionable Bologna on a free transfer, and promptly scored 22 league goals. By contrast, Pavel Nedved was Lazio’s top scorer, with just 11.

Eriksson with Glenn Hysen at Fiorentina

Eriksson took a three-year hiatus from the Italian game after leaving Fiorentina in the summer of 1989. He returned to Benfica, taking them to the final of the European Cup in his first season, where they lost to Sacchi’s Milan, before agreeing to join Sampdoria in 1992.

Sampdoria was owned by the legendary Paolo Mantovani, and had been since the late ‘70s. Mantovani had a reputation for being the antithesis of the stereotypical money-driven club president. Mantovani was a man of his word, a paternalistic president who treated players fairly and created a family-feel at the club.

The term ‘family-friendly’ has become a well-worn trope in the modern era, another buzzword used by the PR wing of a club, but in this case it was very much true. In his 2006 book The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli reveals that he trusted Mantovani to such an extent that when Mantovani agreed to sell him to Juventus in the summer of 1992, Vialli asked him to negotiate his wages with Juve on his behalf, due to not having an agent. “Talk about a conflict of interest,” writes Vialli. “The less Juve had to pay me in wages, the more they would have left over to pay him as my transfer fee. Yet Mantovani had given me his word. There was no way he would not get me the best possible deal.”

Eriksson also speaks to Mantovani’s humanity when dealing with him: “He had changed his mind about where the club could go after I had agreed to come,” he states. “Mantovani told me Sampdoria could no longer challenge Juve, Milan or Inter financially, and that he was about to sell Vialli to Juve. But he told me that it wasn’t what we agreed, so if I wanted to leave, I could.

“But I admired his honesty, and so I accepted. We built good sides, with players like [Ruud] Gullit and [David] Platt, and we focused on young players, like [Clarence] Seedorf, [Enrico] Chiesa and [Juan Sebastian] Veron.”

It was also at Sampdoria where Eriksson met the player most associated with him – Roberto Mancini. By 1992 Mancini had been at the club for a decade, and was already a club legend. “Mancini ran the club,” says Eriksson. “He would ring the kitchen and tell them that we would be late, so therefore keep the pasta warm. He would call the kit man, and make sure all of the kit was ready to use. He was involved in everything. He was like one of Mantovani’s children. Mancini and Vialli used to eat at his house regularly.”

Eriksson refers to Mancini in his book as a rompipalle, which translates best to ‘ball-breaker’. “He had very high standards, and demanded it from everyone. He argued all the time with referees, and with his teammates,” laughs Eriksson. “But what a talent, he could do everything on the pitch.”

Given his immeasurable ability, Mancini garnered a ludicrously low number of caps for Italy – 36 – with his last coming in the March 1994 friendly against Germany at the age of 29. Mancini was perhaps unfortunate that his peak years coincided with Baggio’s, which severely limited his outings post-Italia ’90, something Eriksson agrees with. “He was unlucky, yes. They were both No.10s, and maybe Sacchi could’ve played them both together for Italy,” suggests Eriksson.

Sacchi, rather uncharacteristically, did toy with the idea of using a Baggio-Mancini tandem. The pair shared minutes in several of Italy’s qualifiers for USA ‘94, but given Sacchi’s love of the ‘system’, and his resentment about having to play individualists like Baggio, it’s highly implausible that he would’ve preserved with two. Sacchi eventually dropped Mancini from the squad for the World Cup, opting for Gianfranco Zola, who received a paltry 12 minutes of playing time.

Whilst on Sampdoria, the conversation switches from creative geniuses to the art of defending, and more specifically, the granite-chiselled features of Pietro Vierchowod. Vierchowod played at the club for 12 years – his final three under Eriksson – and is generally regarded as one of Italy’s most imposing defenders.

“Vierchowod was such a tough defender,” states Eriksson. “When he marked someone, he really marked them, he followed them everywhere. If a player got past him, the ball would not. It was either or, but never both!”

Eriksson’s sentiments are echoed by luminaries no lesser than Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta, Marco Van Basten, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gary Lineker, who all named Vierchowod as the toughest defender they ever faced. “He had muscles up to his eyebrows,” Maradona said in a 2007 interview with El Grafico. “It was easy to pass him, but when you looked up, he was in front of you again.” Maradona eventually dubbed Vierchowod ‘The Hulk’. “He was absolutely brutal, and lightning quick,” was Lineker’s assessment of him in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine.

When Sampdoria signed Des Walker from Nottingham Forest in 1992, Eriksson thought he had “the best central defence in Italy.” But it didn’t quite work out that way; Walker failed to settle in Serie A, which included a dressing down from Vierchowod on one occasion.

“He lost his patience with Des,” states Eriksson. “His pace was what got him out of tricky situations in England, but in Serie A all the attackers were fast, and Pietro told him one day ‘what kind of defender are you, if you never get a yellow card?’

Walker has always maintained that Eriksson played him out of position at left-back. Nonetheless, his confidence gradually dissipated, and Sampdoria sold him to Sheffield Wednesday after only one season, 30 league appearances – and one yellow card – for £2.7m.

Eriksson with Roberto Mancini, Christian Karembeu, Clarence Seedorf and Sinisa Mihajlovic

Sampdoria represented Eriksson’s longest stint of his club career. He secured a Coppa Italia title in 1994 – the club’s last piece of silverware to date – before leaving at the end of the 1996/97 season to join Sergio Cragnotti’s free-spending Lazio.

Lazio hadn’t won anything since their first and only Scudetto in 1974, and Eriksson’s first mission was to change the mentality at the club, which he felt was personified in star striker Beppe Signori. Despite the 105 league goals he’d scored for the club since his arrival in 1992, Signori had a habit of complaining about everything within the club. According to Eriksson, a favourite line of Signori’s was “this wouldn’t happen at Juventus or Milan” whenever an organisational glitch occurred. “I couldn’t have him at the club. A very good striker, but he had a negative attitude,” says Eriksson.

Eriksson knew he had to move Signori on, and despite some reservations from Cragnotti and initial uproar from the Laziali, he was sent on loan to Sampdoria in January 1998. He wasn’t missed, as Lazio reached two cup finals.

They won their first, beating Milan 3-2 on aggregate to claim the Coppa Italia in late April. A week after the second leg, they were due to meet Inter in the fourth all-Italian UEFA Cup final of the ‘90s.

That game is best remembered as the Ronaldo show, with the Brazilian at the peak of his frightening two-year spell as the world’s greatest player. Alessandro Nesta has since revealed that he blamed himself on the night for Lazio’s crushing 3-0 defeat, but upon reviewing the match, admits he was simply powerless to stop Ronaldo. Eriksson doesn’t agree, however.

“Ronaldo of course could win games on his own, and he was very good in his first season in Italy, but I think it was our lack of mentality that was the biggest problem,” says the Swede. “We won the Coppa Italia a few days before, and Lazio hadn’t won a trophy in over 20 years, and, as you can imagine, the party went on for a couple of days [laughs].”

Eriksson then gives an example of when the pair met in the final of the Coppa Italia two years later: “After we won the Scudetto, we played Inter in the final of the Italian Cup, and I expected us to lose. I was talking to Marcello Lippi before the start of the game, as we were good friends, and he said, jokingly, ‘Sven, please, let us win a trophy this season’. I replied that we hadn’t trained since winning the title.”

Yet Eriksson’s side, holding a 2-1 win from the first leg, held out for a 0-0 draw at San Siro, securing a domestic double. “It showed that the team mentality had changed in those two years.”

A key instrument in that mentality shift came from the signing of Sinisa Mihajlovic. Famed for his ferocious left-foot and equally volatile temper, Eriksson marvels over Mihajlovic’s unyielding self-confidence. “He had such a strong mentality, he thought he was the best at everything,” admits Eriksson. “He had the best left foot, right foot, best shot, was the fastest. Even when he wasn’t some of those things, he believed it, and that’s a good thing.”

Mihajlovic is tied with Andrea Pirlo at the top of Serie A’s all-time free-kick chart, with 28 goals, including a hat-trick of them against former side Sampdoria in December 1998. “With him, having a free-kick was like a penalty,” says Eriksson. “When players used to get fouled near the box they would scream for a penalty, but Sinisa would say ‘what are you worried for? I’ll score’ and usually he did!”

Is he the greatest free-kick specialist of all time? “Probably,” he says. “I had the best left-footer in Sinisa, and probably the best right-footer in [David] Beckham, later on.”

In his quest for the Scudetto, Cragnotti never said no to Eriksson’s demands when it came to signing players, except for one occasion in the summer of 1998. “He wouldn’t buy Batistuta because of his age (Batistuta was 29), and we couldn’t have made any money on him,” reveals Eriksson. “So we bought Marcelo Salas instead, who did well for us. But Batistuta, what a player. He scored lots of goals for many years.”

Was the idea for a Batistuta/Mancini partnership going into the 1998/99 season? “Yes, it probably would’ve been.”

Lazio were six points clear of second-placed Fiorentina by early spring in Eriksson’s second season, and didn’t lose a single game for five months. However two decisive defeats to Roma and Juventus inside of a week in mid-April proved disastrous, as an unspectacular-but-steady Milan side eventually overtook Lazio on the penultimate weekend, and pipped them to the title by a single point.

“I think we were better than Milan that season, but you have to win the big games, and those two cost us,” he says. “People thought that we would never win the title.”

Eriksson with Mancini in 1998/99

Eriksson and Cragnotti weren’t to be denied a year later, as Lazio overturned Juventus’ massive nine-point lead to secure the title on the final day of the season. Key to their success was the signing of Veron from Parma the previous summer. Given that Eriksson got the best from Veron, was he surprised that the Argentine subsequently struggled at Man Utd?

“I’ve asked myself that many times, and I don’t really know why,” he admits. “I think it was that he was a leader at Lazio, but he when he went to Manchester, he wasn’t. I think he needed to be the leader of teams to be himself, because he should’ve been brilliant for them.

“Veron was a genius. He and Mancini were so alike, and they could do everything on the pitch. They were leaders.”

In the summer of 2000, Cragnotti retained all of Lazio’s key players, and further strengthened the squad by signing Hernan Crespo for a world record fee of £35m. Moreover, Claudio Lopez also arrived from Valencia after the Spanish side had unexpectedly mauled Lazio in the Champions League quarter finals the previous April. Eriksson now had an embarrassment of riches and had arguably the strongest squad in Europe.

“When we bought Crespo and Lopez, I wanted to try and win the Champions League,” admits Eriksson. However events in London soon after the 2000/01 season started would forever alter that ambition.

In October, a rain-drenched Kevin Keegan resigned as England boss in the bowels of Wembley following a limp 1-0 defeat to Germany in a World Cup qualifier. We all know what happened next.

“I would’ve regretted turning down England,” he admits. “When the England job came up, and I accepted, the atmosphere within the club changed. I remember Nesta coming to me and saying ‘mister, no, you have to stay’.”

Following England’s announcement declaring Eriksson as their new coach, Lazio won only six of their next 14 games in all competitions. By the time Eriksson resigned following a 2-1 home defeat to newly promoted Napoli in early January, they were 11 points behind Fabio Capello’s Roma, who would keep the Scudetto in the city of Rome for another year. Furthermore, they finished bottom of a Champions League group containing Real Madrid, Leeds Utd and Anderlecht. “I wanted to try and do both jobs until the end of that season, but then the results started to turn, and I realised it wasn’t possible to do both. So I resigned,” confesses Eriksson.

Another factor in Lazio’s downturn in the autumn and winter of 2000 was the slow form of big-money signing Crespo, who’d only scored four times prior to Christmas. However, the Argentine hitman reassured Eriksson. “One day Crespo said: ‘mister, I don’t score many goals before Christmas,’ but I said ‘Hernan, by Christmas the season is half over’. And so he did (Crespo ended the season on 26 goals, winning the Capocannoniere award), he was a brilliant striker.”

Was he surprised at how quickly the club’s finances unravelled shortly after he had left? “I was. I didn’t know how Cragnotti made his money. I think his other businesses collapsed, and it affected Lazio.”

Eriksson wasn’t to know it, but Cragnotti’s Cirio empire was crumbling. The company’s attempt to diversify into the milk industry in Italy ended in disaster, with Eurolat, a subsidiary within Cirio, declared bankrupt within six months of opening, and in July 1999 Eurolat was sold to Calisto Tanzi’s Parmalat.

As Cirio’s debt rose, Cragnotti was forced to sell Lazio’s best players as a consequence: Veron, Nedved and Salas were all auctioned off in 2001; Crespo and Nesta the following year. The company defaulted on bonds worth over €1bn in 2002, and Cragnotti was ousted the same year. Cragnotti, and Lazio, ultimately flew too close to the sun: Cragnotti went to prison, and Lazio haven’t come close to winning a Scudetto since.

But for Eriksson, it was a golden time. “It was the best period of my career,” he says. “Seven trophies in under four years.”

One thing is certain; he’ll never have to buy another meal in Rome again.

Words by: Emmet Gates. @EmmetGates