Not much gets written or said about Sweden or Swedish football outside of Scandinavia. Sweden is praised around the world for many positive things but are not traditionally renowned for their football or for their national team. They lack controversy, they don’t shout about their victories, and they are gracious in defeat. More importantly, they’ve been missing from the world stage for a while. The Swedes and their national team have a rich and understated history, and now they are back, featuring in their first World Cup for 12 years.
A rich history
Sweden was an early adopter of football as it exploded out of the British Isles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It quickly rippled its way through society permeating at every level, to gain equal popularity regardless of the social class you belonged to or the area you lived in. Take the capital and largest city Stockholm for example, which quickly developed three rival teams across the social landscape. There was the team of the elites Djurgården, the team of the middle classes AIK, and the working class team in Hammarby.
It still remains the only country in the Scandinavian and Nordic sphere to have a domestic team win a major European honour, which was achieved twice by arguably the greatest teams to have featured in Sweden’s domestic league both won by IFK Göteborg in 1982 and 1987 respectively.
However, it’s Sweden’s national team that has been the crown jewel of Swedish football and they have a commendable record at the World Cup. They’ve appeared at an impressive 11 World Cups in total, and consistently made it to the knockout stages, if not to the top four on six occasions. They’ve also won an Olympic Gold Medal and their U21s as recently as 2015 won U21 European Championship, not to mention their women’s team is consistently ranked among the best in the world.
It’s important to remember that we’re not talking about a large country here. They have a population one-twentieth the size of Brazil, an eighth the size of Germany, even a sixth the size of nations like Italy and France. It’s no doubt then that their impressive World Cup form is rooted in a strong and palpable footballing culture.
And what a record it is. They’ve been performing almost from the very beginning, finishing fourth in Italy in 1934. This was then followed with an impressive third spot in Brazil in 1950, where they managed to go one better on home soil in 1958, only to falter to one of Brazil’s best teams with a rampant 17-year old Pelé. In 1994, they achieved what is largely considered to be their pinnacle, finishing third at USA 1994. They were only being beaten by eventual winners Brazil.
Sweden has produced some major talents. They have a long tradition of exporting an array of gifted and talented players that have featured in some of the world’s major domestic leagues. Furthermore, they’ve done this consistently over a number of generations. There was the famous Gre-No-Li combo of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, who all ended up in successful AC Milan sides, but more importantly provided the backbone for Sweden’s successful World Cup campaigns of the 1950s.
Then we could fast forward to the 1980s where players such as Glenn Hysén and Glenn Strömberg emerged in a successful IFK Göteborg side to go onto play for the likes of Liverpool and in Serie A.
Continuing this great tradition were players such as Henrik Larsson, Thomas Brolin, Anders Limpar and Kennet Andersson who were already plying their trade across Europe as they guided their country to a bronze medal at USA 1994.
Players such as Larsson would continue to play for the national side in 2002 and 2006 World Cups that saw the likes of Fredrik Ljungberg and arguably Sweden’s biggest superstar up to date, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, emerged. They would reach the round of 16 on both occasions.
The class of 2018
Sweden go into this year’s competition with a balanced, yet unpretentious squad that has proved itself as solid team through various challenges as of late. Since their lacklustre, prosaic performance two years ago at Euro 2016, they’ve regrouped, revamped and found themselves a steady balance.
Euro 2016 in France was supposed to be a joyous occasion for the Swedish public. They’d scraped their way through a tough and trying qualifying group, to come third after Austria and Russia. They were then drawn into the playoffs against their favourite foes Denmark, whom they managed to see off across the water on enemy turf in Copenhagen. Zlatan Ibrahimovic proclaiming with delight after he scored the winning free kick that he’d sent the entirety of Denmark into retirement after they claimed they would deny him a final tournament for Sweden.
Unfortunately, Zlatan failed to inspire and the Swedes only goal of the tournament came from an own goal against Ireland. It was disappointing, but the exit of Zlatan Ibrahimovic into international retirement has made the Swedish national team take a long, hard look at itself. Their lack of superstar power has forced the Swedes to play better as a team, no longer opting to launch the ball up to Ibrahimovic in the hope that he would make magic happen.
That lack of superstar power doesn’t mean the Swedes don’t have talent throughout their ranks. It has to be said that their squad doesn’t have the most strength in the depth but they do have a good level of emerging talent as well as experience in key positions.
In defence they are solid, and this is arguably their greatest strength, enabling them to deny teams like the Italians from scoring over two legs. They have experience in Celtic stalwart Mikael Lustig and captain Andreas Granqvist, while Victor Lindelöf at Manchester United and Ludwig Augustinsson at Werder Bremen represent the present as well as the future.
Going forward they have a talented crosser of the ball in Sebastian Larsson, and arguably their greatest talent Emil Forsberg who excites pushing forward on the flanks. Unfortunately their strikeforce fails to excite in Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, but there is enough experience in playing as a team that goal potential is always there. If Sweden find the resolve they will score, and then they can sit back and absorb pressure well.
Speaking to Sweden’s fans can be a frustrating experience at times. By nature your typical Swede is usually quite reserved and won’t want to give away too much, or to appear too ostentatious or overly confident. But to put it simply, there is no such thing as your average Sweden fan. Instead there are two types of average Swedish fan. There are those that you’ll see in abundance at the World Cup in Russia, those clad in a sea of radiant yellow. They are the ones who threw caution to the wind to journey with the team in their thousands. Then there are those who sit quietly with trepidation in bars around Swedish towns and cities, biting their nails muttering nervous curses under their breath.
The common denominator between these two types of fans are that they expect Sweden to do well. Sweden overcame two of European football’s superpowers in the Netherlands and Italy in qualifying. And regardless if those two are a bit out of sorts as of late, getting to Russia is a great achievement in itself. If you talk to any Swede they’ll wholeheartedly agree with you, but you’ll have to push that opinion on them. The fact of the matter is, no matter how negative a fan you meet – they want to and in many ways expect to advance to the knockout stages and there will be severe disappointment if they don’t.
Sweden are finally back at the World Cup, and it’s exactly where they deserve to be. There has been talk of how disappoint it is that the Italians are missing, that they are a staple of the World Cup and that it won’t be the same without them. But the Italians are missing out because of another team with an illustrious World Cup history, and this year that team are solid and ambitious.
Sweden successfully navigated a tricky South Korean side with a solid team performance, while creating a number of decent chances in their opening match. Unfortunately they have to face both Germany and Mexico, which will be no mean feat. If they can stick together and take the opportunities when they come knocking, while showing the grit and opportunism they did during qualifying then they can be proud. They’ll be able to count this year’s World Cup up there with some of their best.