It’s 48 hours since the Philippines’s narrow 1-0 defeat by South Korea in their opening game of the 2019 Asian Cup, but Sven-Goran Eriksson, the team’s coach, is smiling. He’s facing a quick-fire round of questions from a dozen Chinese journalists, all of whom are keen for the Swede’s opinion ahead of his team’s meeting with China on Friday.
It’s been three months since Eriksson took charge of the Philippines. It’s been a positive start for the well-travelled 70-year-old: the Southeast Asian nation progressed to the last four of the regional Suzuki Cup under his stewardship, before frustrating South Korea in Dubai with a fine display of grit and counter-attacking football.
“No one thought we would be able to beat South Korea,” Eriksson says. “We didn’t. But the way we handled the match, the way we played it… It was a big fight, we created chances. With a little bit of luck we could have got a different result. They won, but it’s good for the future. It gave confidence to the players. They feel that if we can do what we did against South Korea, we can do it against any team in this tournament because South Korea are one of the big favourites.”
When Eriksson signed a short-term contract with the Philippines – his deal expires after the tournament – he cited the low-key nature of the role as one of the reasons for embarking on his latest adventure. There’s no intrusive sports media in Manila and fans don’t clamour for autographs and selfies.
“The Philippines are not supposed to win the Asian Cup,” explains Eriksson. “No one will even dream about that. Football is not the biggest sport in the Philippines. So, it’s many things against you. But maybe that was one of the reasons.
“Why not try something new? And I liked them when I met them. I like the staff, the people running the show and I like the players. So, instead of sitting in cold Sweden for three winter months I can be here enjoying myself and trying to help this team.”
Basketball dominates the Filipino sport scene. It’s a different world from Eriksson’s experiences in England and at major European clubs such as Lazio, Roma, Benfica and Manchester City. Football is a national obsession in those countries; the same, sadly, cannot currently be said for the nation currently employing him.
“They have a lot of supporters but it’s a little bit sad when the national team of the Philippines is playing at home and you see a stadium – a stadium with maybe 15,000 capacity – and it’s half empty,” he says.
“You don’t really understand that. It’s the Philippines! It’s great players! It’s an important game, Suzuki Cup semi-finals, things like that… and people are not coming. So, that’s sad but I think this generation of players and this Asian Cup – if we can do well – will change things a little bit in the Philippines. Football will be more popular.”
As England manager, Eriksson led the ‘Golden Generation’ to a 5-1 World Cup 2002-qualifying victory over Germany in Munich, but successive quarter-final exits in three major finals were low points of his tenure.
“The interest around the English team is incredible,” he says. “The media, the fans, wherever you play it’s full. It’s not like that here but I can see that more and more in the Philippines, more and more are coming, trying to see the training, trying to get tickets for the games.”
In 2017 Eriksson was sacked from his previous job at Shenzhen FC in China, where he had previously been manager of Guangzhou R&F and Shanghai SIPG. That Asian experience hasn’t really helped him in the Philippines, though. Eriksson has relied heavily on Irish assistant Scott Cooper, who took over as interim coach after Terry Butcher’s departure in August. Cooper and Eriksson worked together at Leicester in the 2010/11 season.
“[He’s helped me] learn how they play, how they react, and to try to get the right formation,” says Eriksson. “I have been very lucky because the coaching staff who has been here much longer than me, they’re doing and have done a great job. You have to change a little bit, according to the players at your disposal, according to the style and things like that. But my methods are more or less the same as they’ve always been.”
The Philippines play China and Kyrgyzstan in their two remaining Group C games at the Asian Cup. They’ll need at least a point against Marcello Lippi’s men to have any chance of advancing to the knockout phase of the 24-team tournament.
“You dream to go through to the next stage,” says Eriksson. “That would be great for the Philippines. The reality is that it’s very difficult but it’s possible, quite possible, if we can repeat the intensity, the way we played against South Korea. But it depends very much on us. You cannot have a bad day if you want to make a result against China. You have to have a good day.”