Do you know Magda Eriksson? If you’re into European woso, players who are proudly and loudly out or just world class defenders, you probably do. Or maybe she popped up on your radar this summer when she called England sore losers and heralded the jävla mentality of the Swedish team after they bested the Lionesses in the third-place World Cup play-off. (The 25-year-old also called Hope Solo a “sore loser” after her much-talked about comments following the USWNT’s Olympic exit in Rio, so you know she’s a BAMF anyway).
But this isn’t about the Chelsea defender, but rather what she was reacting to in Nice, her comments mirroring the general feeling after England coach Phil Neville called the bronze medal match “nonsense.” Neville’s words were full of bluff and arrogance; he didn’t come to the World Cup to play for bronze. He was a winner and nothing short of the title would be enough for him. (We assume had England gotten to the final and lost, he would have donated his silver medal to charity, or angrily thrown it in the bin).
Travelling around France, deeply immersed in covering the World Cup, it was hard to see the woods for the trees for five weeks. Yet through the haze, humidity, and baguettes, Neville repeatedly came up on my radar (even though I consciously tried to avoid England). His words after England’s win over Cameroon caused bile to rise in my throat, a, “This fuckin’ guy?” dying on my lips as I watched his post-match flash interview on the BBC. He was haughtily blowing hot air and it was a joke that his words were eagerly lapped up by the English press (but not unsurprising).
He spoke as if he was the saviour of women’s football, that it was in disarray before he stepped into the England job (with an incredible lack of experience).
The worst thing to ever happen in women’s football? Maybe it was the 50-year ban imposed by some countries, maybe it was the serious under-funding and rampant sexism, maybe it was the physical and sexual abuse suffered by members of the Afghanistan women’s national team [by men within their own federation]? Nope, it was Cameroon losing their heads against England. They had shamed the entire sport, it “wasn’t football” Neville was watching and it made him uncomfortable.
An English defender in the 90’s and 00’s, it’s hard to imagine Neville never witnessed (or partook) similar scenes in men’s football; after all, we know that’s squeaky clean.
His words struck a chord with the English, who like Oliver Twist, thrust out their bowls and pleaded for more. But moreso, they struck a disharmonious chord with everyone who wasn’t English. The coach (aside from showing his arrogance) was simply woefully under-prepared for the match and what kind of spanner African opposition could throw into the works.
There are those who can explain the culture and climate in African football better than I, shining light on the terrible conditions the players have, about how they’re barely treated as professionals when they reach the World Cup or Olympics. Two months out of four years to stand up on the world stage. Neville came from a place of luxury and privilege, of Alex Ferguson and walking into one of the highest profile jobs in women’s football. He was the chalk to Cameroon’s cheese and the disparity was stark.
After the match, Neville blasted Alain Djeumfa, the last-minute replacement for the recently dismissed Joseph Ndoko, who had encouraged the bad behaviour. His post-match comments were monopolised by the opposition, about the physical play and how his opposite number needed to get his “ship in order”. Neville didn’t speak of his own managerial style or tactics, the team unmoved and unchanging as Cameroon threw their weight around. The novice coach showing his inexperience on the world stage.
Against a coach like Jill Ellis who has been relentlessly criticised for her tactics and decisions, Neville had rings run around him. England was set up to deal with Megan Rapinoe but the charismatic and ageing attacker was warming the bench, with Christen Press preferred, and combined with Alex Morgan, completely nullifying one of England’s best outlets in Bronze.
It would have been easy enough to switch Bronze with Rachel Daly for five minutes to see if England recovered half a yard of attack - an easier option than going to his bench so early - but nothing changed. The team on the pitch stuck to a confusing 4-4-1-1 formation that left Nikita Parris lost in an unfamiliar #10 role. Nothing quite worked for the Lionesses at either end of the pitch, Neville’s complete oversight of Rose Lavelle and unwillingness of anyone on the pitch to stop the brilliant and wiry attacker a glaring miscalculation.
The former Manchester United defender had his tactical nous questioned for 90 minutes and failed to provide an answer.
Happy to lose
If Mark Sampson had caused controversy with his remarks that Olivier Echouafni was, “wet behind the ears” at the 2017 Euros, Neville raised him with his remarks about the third-place match. The comments, worryingly, spreading to his team of 23 too.
The words from the coach and players in Nice were a reminder of why no one votes for the United Kingdom’s Eurovision entry. Karen Carney remarked that she was glad England hadn’t won, they hadn’t cared enough and would have to dig deep at the Olympics. Lucy Bronze wasn’t motivated; England had come to France to win the tournament and the team hadn’t been able to pick themselves up after their semi-final loss.
Eriksson responded, reminding the world that Sweden had played an extra half an hour in Lyon as well as had a day less to prepare. They picked themselves up, the mentality… ho boy. Sweden had had the hotter quarter and semi-finals and they’d been sucker punched in extra time by the Dutch. In Nilla Fischer’s words, there wasn’t the time to be worried about the reduced time to prepare. Winning bronze wasn’t a consolation for Sweden. They came to France to win the tournament too, nor did they want to go back to Nice, yet they traveled back to the French Riviera and dug out a 90 minute performance.
Their mentality wasn’t small-time, it wasn’t, “Oh wow, a medal, shiny shiny!” Their resolve was steely, they were again not the favourites, and they had less time to prepare but they weren’t playing for nothing (or nonsense). They were playing for Sweden, for a chance to win a medal, to proclaim that they were the third best team in the world [cup].
Another team and nation who were chalk and cheese to that of England, to the Lionesses whose chests were proudly puffed out, their arrogance on show and entirely undeserved.
After the whistle, the images were expected: Sweden celebrating, England crestfallen. Yet, according to their manager, the players were only heartbroken because they weren’t in the final. That was the kicker for them; Nice meant nothing. His words even rattled players from four years ago.
Try telling the 23 players thought went to Canada that a bronze medal match is a ‘nonsense game’! Winning a medal at a @FIFAWWC is a great achievement and I guarantee you that every player out there today wanted a medal just as much!— Siobhan ⚽️ (@Sio_Chamberlain) July 6, 2019
Even before the match, the coach was still feeling self-congratulatory. “I came into this job with no previous knowledge of the women’s game. That’s actually been a benefit.  I’ve introduced ideas probably no one else was thinking of.”
For a man who has yet to actually achieve anything in his job, Neville talks a big game and it’s high time for someone to whisper a gentle, “Shhhh, just, shhh” in his ear.