Sven-Goran Eriksson's Philippines appointment a big gamble for manager and country
The 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup is Southeast Asia's biennial tournament, and among the 10 national teams competing there are two coaches at the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum.
In August Cambodia appointed Keisuke Honda, still a player and is so young and unqualified that he has to be described as a general manager. None of that applies to Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took the Philippines job in October. The 70-year-old is more than double the age of the Japan international and has a coaching resume at club and country level that is as long and as a Honda free kick and with just as many twists and turns.
If the appointment of Honda seems strange, that is because it is. The 32-year-old is still busy playing with Melbourne Victory in the Australian A-League and has apparently been training the Angkor Warriors by video. He has made plenty of headlines but then Cambodia is a country that loves football, with 50,000 turning out regularly in Phnom Penh just to see their national side play international friendlies.
The hope in Manila is that Eriksson will deliver the success, starting with the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup opening match at home against Singapore on Tuesday, that will help push the Philippines along the same road and close the gap on more popular sports such as basketball and boxing.
"It's something new even for me. It's a country with more than 100 million people and football is not important, and I want to try to make it important," Eriksson said in his first press conference on Nov. 5.
"I thought, why not try to do something very good with the Philippines? They're very low in the FIFA rankings list [116th], so let's try to get that up."
For Eriksson that is low, but not for the Philippines, who until relatively recently have been a regional minnow. He is going to have to adjust to his new surroundings. The Philippines will have to adjust to Eriksson too. He is their first big-name coaching appointment. But he represents a risk. While Honda is working for free, the well-travelled Swede does not usually come cheap.
Salary details have not been released perhaps because Philippines football has not traditionally been flush with cash. There is a need for money at all levels of the game. The grassroots throughout the archipelago could do with some investment as could the top of the pyramid. The National Football League was set up in 2017 with eight teams. Two dropped out ahead of the second season due to financial issues.
There are plenty of coaches who would be a lot cheaper than Sven and have a lot more knowledge of the region. Some have had success in the past. In 2010, Simon McMenemy was just 32 and came from Worthing in England's non-league but took a team that had won just one game in the tournament's history to the last four of the AFF Cup for the first time, defeating defending champions Vietnam in front of 40,000 stunned fans in Hanoi along the way. Michael Weiss repeated that feat in 2012 by reaching the semifinals, as did Tom Dooley in 2014.
Eriksson's appointment, then, is something of a risk especially as his record of late isn't that impressive. His early successes in the Portuguese and Italian leagues meant that he became the first foreign coach of England in 2001. Since leaving the Three Lions in 2006, he has bounced around from Manchester City to Mexico to Ivory Coast and then to Leicester without doing much of note anywhere.
It was almost inevitable that he would end up in Asia, which is what happened in 2013 when he became coach of Guangzhou R&F in China.
After a decent time in the south, he got the Shanghai SIPG job in 2014 but couldn't deliver the title that the club won the first time earlier this month. In 2016, he moved into the second tier with Shenzhen but was fired last year with just five wins in 13 games.
It is not glittering stuff. He still has the name but he has to prove he can still make a difference in a country that needs a lot from its national team coach. Whatever happens, for Eriksson to be a success, he has to work just as hard off the pitch as his players will do on it. Promoting the national team and marketing the game itself are crucial tasks.
The Swede's resume is in danger of becoming mediocre but this time in Manila gives him an opportunity to really leave a legacy and do something special. Winning the AFF Cup would be a fantastic start -- and his first trophy since 2000 -- but there would still be much more to do than that. If Sven can give a major push to help the one country in Southeast Asia that is not a football country to become one, then it could just be his greatest achievement.
Failure, however, would be costly for all involved.