Hold the front page: sensation as man has affair with woman

WHO would have thought that the sexual dalliances of a bespectacled and balding 56-year-old football manager could generate more column inches than the infidelities of his star player? Especially when you consider that, as an officially single man, England coach Sven Goran Eriksson, the manager in question, ought to be free to bed whomever he wants, whereas David Beckham only has to take a leak to draw comment from the popular press.

For anyone who has spent the last two weeks on Mars, the essential facts of the case are these: Eriksson was exposed by a tabloid newspaper for having an affair with Football Association secretary Faria Alam after the FA had denied it, and became the focus of an investigation into how the FA was made to appear so foolish.

There have also been two high-level resignations, neither of which was Eriksson’s.

The resignations came after the newspaper delivered its coup de grace and revealed that FA communications director Colin Gibson had attempted to strike a deal with the paper in which he offered to provide lurid details of the Eriksson-Alam affair - including phone calls, weekends away and restaurants the lovers had dined in - in return for the paper agreeing not to disclose that FA chief executive Mark Pelios also had an affair with Alam.

The fallout has been both surprising and predictable. On the predictable side of things, Gibson and Pelios have resigned under a cloud of disgrace, having attempted a right royal stitch-up of a colleague who, bizarrely, now looks like a fine upstanding citizen by comparison.

Another predictable result is the stream of probing articles about Ms Alam’s sexual history - which, in short, is a classic casting-couch tale of sleeping with powerful (and not-so-powerful) men in exchange for promises of career advancement.

The more surprising fallout has been the dogged interest in the case evinced by the press - broadsheets included. Sports writers of every shade and stripe have been positively vituperative in their condemnation of Eriksson, rushing to stick the knife in, not on the ground of his morals - or perceived lack of them - but on account of his inability to turn England’s football fortunes around sufficiently to please them.

The affair with Ms Alam has provided them with an excuse to express anger they were too timid to vent in the wake of England’s poor show in Euro 2004, and their cry (as if this footballing farrago really affected the health of the nation) is that Sven must go.

As if that weren’t enough, heavyweight commentators have brought their fine minds to bear on the matter - arguing that the whole sordid affair is a tale of predatory middle-aged men looking for fresh thrills once other, more acceptable forms of competition have faded from view, or else writing academic-style essays on the symbolic status of the secretary as surrogate wife.

Most surprising of all was to find Colin Gibson confessing to such detailed surveillance of the FA’s staff. Monitoring phone calls? Keeping records of hotels visited and restaurants patronised? If I were Eriksson, I’d be suing the FA for all they’ve got.

Now, I admit to adding more useless copy on the subject to the heap. However, in my defence, such is the grip of this salacious story on the media’s collective psyche that it is impossible to escape its influence: in short, much as I hate to admit it, Svengate is news - albeit not news I would otherwise pay the least bit of attention to.

The duties of my profession aside, I feel that the unrelenting, prurient and accusatory press attention is pathetic - a miserable slide into the gutter, where magazines like Hello!, OK and Heat are content to wallow, promulgating tawdry tales of celebrity bed-hopping in order to raise a chorus of oohs and aahs from a judgmental readership haplessly addicted to trash.

Never mind that in the same period that Svengate has run and run, more than a thousand people have died in floods in Bangladesh and the humanitarian crisis in Sudan has deepened as the country’s rogue government rejected UN intervention. These are the kinds of story that deserve front-page attention, if not from the popular press then certainly from other purveyors of that increasingly arcane commodity once known as serious news.

The British, it seems, are outdoing the Americans when it comes to an appetite for Jerry Springer-inspired, National Enquirer-fed voyeurism. I can just see poor Sven on the Springer hot seat with Jerry laying a hand on his shoulder, shaking his head gravely and saying: "And you didn’t know that she had already had an affair with your boss?.... Mark Pelios, come on down!"

And I can just as easily see us lapping it all up, like crocodiles that haven’t been thrown a good piece of meat in months.

In a gossip-fuelled culture as greedy for the next titbit as ours, it makes perfect sense that Ms Alam should be the dubious victor of the scandal. Of course, she is also its victim, having lost her job (she resigned on Friday), her privacy and, some would argue, her dignity over the affair.

Nonetheless, with the aid of Max Clifford, PA man of choice for spurned lovers, she has now sold her story to ITV and to two Sunday newspapers for a cool half million, and she’s expected to net a further 250,000 from syndication rights. And so the tales of bedroom antics will continue - complete, no doubt, with league tables ranking Ms Alam’s first division lovers (a third FA executive conquest is expected to be named) according to their ability to, ahem, strike.

All that remains is for Clifford to invite Ms Alam to join Monica Lewinsky, Rebecca Loos and himself at the round table discussion on chequebook journalism that is guaranteed to be a huge draw at this month’s Edinburgh Festival.

At the end of the day it is not the boss caught with his pants down that keeps us glued to the kiss-and-sell genre, but the new breed of mistress who has almost nothing to lose and everything to gain from exposure and who simply refuses to be cast aside.

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