ERIKKSON IN FAKE SHEIKH STING

While Eriksson made a round of contrite calls to his players to head off any dressing room tension, senior figures at the Football Association conducted a flurry of telephone conversations before letting it be known that his position as England boss was not in danger. Eriksson said he would quit Englandif they won the World Cup and was prepared to become the GBP5m-a-year manager of Aston Villa as part of a takeover bid. By ANDREW CULF.

England's football coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, spent (Jan. 15) making a series of apologetic telephone calls to a group of his leading players after he fell victim to an elaborate "fake sheikh'' sting just five months before the World Cup finals.

After enjoying lobster and GBP900-worth of vintage champagne with a notorious undercover investigator from British tabloid News of the World posing as a rich Arab businessman, Eriksson said he would quit England if they won the World Cup and was prepared to become the GBP5m-a-year manager of Aston Villa as part of a takeover bid.

The 57-year-old Swede, accompanied by his agent Athole Still, offered to "tap up'' the England captain, David Beckham, and persuade him to leave Real Madrid to join Villa, and offered a series of indiscreet remarks about England stars, including the observation that Michael Owen was unhappy at Newcastle United.

While Eriksson made a round of contrite calls to his players to head off any dressing room tension, senior figures at the Football Association conducted a flurry of telephone conversations before letting it be known that his position as England boss was not in danger.

FA sources said they did not believe it was a sacking offence for the manager to be discussing his future after the World Cup and said he was not the first person to be taken in by the News of the World's sheikh impersonator.

Later an official statement said: "The FA can confirm that England's head coach, Sven-Goran Eriksson, continues to have the full support of the organisation. This follows conversations between FA chief executive, Brian Barwick, and Sven, and subsequent conversations involving Brian with FA chairman, Geoff Thompson, international committee chairman, Noel White, and senior FA figures.''

Eriksson said: "I would like to assure everyone, especially the fans that I'm 100% committed to the England job. I've told the FA this and value the great support I have received from them. I have spoken with the players concerned today and I have been very pleased with their reaction and am confident my relationship with them has not been damaged.'' Eriksson was lured to Dubai's seven-star Burj al-Arab hotel for talks about a consultancy for a sports project in the city. The News of the World is believed to have set up the sting six months ago and spent more than GBP100,000 on it.

According to the newspaper, Eriksson raised the idea of buying a club with the Arab businessman, suggesting Aston Villa as a target because it was for sale and the chairman, Doug Ellis, "is an old man ... he's sick''. Asked whether he could be prised away from his England contract, Eriksson said: "Everything is possible. But only at the end of the season.'' Later he added: "Anyhow, if we win the World Cup, I will leave and say goodbye.''

The following day, aboard a luxury yacht in Dubai's marina, the paper claims Eriksson said he would like a three-year deal similar to Jose Mourinho's GBP5m-a-year salary at Chelsea.

Eriksson offered to phone Beckham to persuade him to join Villa, saying the team would "sell more shirts in one week than they did for the last 10 years''.

He said Beckham was frustrated at Real Madrid: "I know for sure he wants to come back to England ... if it's a London club, he will come tomorrow. And it's up to me to convince him Birmingham is the right place to be.''

Perhaps the most damaging quotes were about Michael Owen's transfer to Newcastle from Real Madrid after he failed to strike a deal with Liverpool. Eriksson was quoted as saying: "I talked to Michael Owen and said, `You are happy?' He said, `Not really with the club, but economically I never earned that money in my life'. So they paid the salary more than Real Madrid did.

He said, `they gave me a house, they gave me a car, it's incredible'. They had to do it because in any other way he wouldn't have gone there.'' Other observations were less indiscreet, attributing a "temper'' to Wayne Rooney and describing Rio Ferdinand as "lazy sometimes''.

Eriksson's agent took to the airwaves to defend him, while admitting they had been naive to be caught out by the reporter Mazher Mahmood. "Sven is totally committed to doing the very best for England at the World Cup and it would be a scandal and a disaster if scurrilous entrapment of this kind did anything to destabilise that situation,'' Still told Radio 5 Live's Sportsweek.

The England coach himself was keeping a low profile — in contrast to the celebratory interview on the FA's website to mark his fifth anniversary in the job, "reflecting that he has done things his way''.

Sven's way has included a series of off-the-pitch headlines, including affairs with the TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson and an FA secretary, Faria Alam, and a secret meeting in 2003 with the Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich. Fears he was about to jump ship to the Premiership club led to an extension until 2008 of his GBP4m-a-year contract with England.

For some time there has been an expectation at FA headquarters that England will part company with the Swede after the World Cup final in July. The revelations will do nothing to dampen that speculation.

For the time being no one is taking very seriously Still's suggestion that far from going early, Eriksson might want to negotiate an extension:

"Sven said to me recently, `Perhaps I've got used to this job, despite all the annoyances. Perhaps you should have a word with Brian Barwick and see whether the FA would be interested in my staying until 2010'. That is absolutely true.''

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006