Sweden sour

Sweden have underachieved ever since the last World Cup, says Duncan Cooper

June 16th 1997 – the rainiest day of the year at Arlandastad golf course near Stockholm Airport. I stagger off the 18th green, wet through, and trudge slowly up to the clubhouse. Near the first tee a man with blond hair is struggling to put his waterproof trousers on. One foot seems to be stuck. He’s slightly podgy, unshaven, and generally rather grumpy

Stone the crows, it’s Tomas Brolin. Here’s my chance to ask one of those questions which have perplexed Swedes over the past few years: can we trace the decline of the national team back to your broken ankle against Hungary? How come you never really regained your old form after the injury? Might there not have been a more suitable English club to move to than Leeds United? But of course, I say nothing of the sort, and plod on towards the car park.

To fail to qualify for one major championships after securing a World Cup bronze medal might be deemed unlucky; to miss two in a row looks like carelessness. But that’s exactly what has befallen Sweden since they saw off Bulgaria 4-0 in the 1994 third-place play-off in Pasadena. All in all, a pretty sorry story. Many have pointed to Brolin’s nasty injury as the start of the slide, but the decline has inevitably been a more general one. The backbone of the ’94 team managed to peak on those blistering hot afternoons in Dallas and Palo Alto and just haven’t been quite as sharp since. Some got injured (Schwarz and Ingesson, as well as Brolin) and some slowed up (Thern), while both main strikers saw their scoring touch become fitful at best. On paper, the current team’s record in 1997 is actually pretty good: ten wins in 14 games. They just picked the wrong ones to lose – notably the decisive one-nil turnover in Vienna.

Another easy charge to level is that national coach Tommy Svensson hung on to his old favourites too long, and didn’t blood enough young players. Truth to tell, many of the new faces rather disappointed when they pulled on the yellow and blue: Jörgen Pettersson and Teddy Lucic have struggled to reproduce their club form, while Jesper Blomqvist’s international record of played 24, goals 0 is becoming a little distressing. Celtic’s Henrik Larsson has perhaps more reason to be aggrieved: of his 30 caps at senior level, he’s played the full 90 minutes in just five.

Over the past year we’ve seen a worrying but familiar trend: young players leaving the Swedish Premier League too early, for professional contracts overseas, only to languish on the bench or in the reserves. At Highfield Road, Magnus Hedman has found Steve Ogrizovic singularly unwilling to part with the No 1 jersey, and has lost his place in the national squad as a result. Joakim Persson is having a similarly frustrating time at Atalanta. Dan Sahlin’s sojourn at – ahem – Birmingham City was predictably brief. One Swedish tabloid attempted to brighten up Tomas Brolin’s spare time at Leeds, presenting a list of exciting things to do in the West Yorkshire metropolis. Top tip was a quiet afternoon in Roundhay Park. Hmm.

Sadly, Swedish fans haven’t found too much solace in the performance of their club sides in Europe, either. AIK’s dismal exit at the hands of the unremarkable Slovenians Primorje meant the end of Swedish interest in the UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups. The only bright spot this autumn has been IFK Göteborg’s qualification for the Champions League by eliminating a Famous Club from Glasgow. Mind you, looking at Göteborg’s zero-point record since then, they probably wish they hadn’t bothered.

So, no Swedes at the Världsmästerskap beanfeast in France next year, then? Almost, but not quite. There will, in fact, be one: Denmark’s coach Bosse Johansson. Here’s a man so determined to sample the different cultures of the Nordic area that he’s plied his managerial trade in all five countries.

Meanwhile, Norway’s long-standing national coach Drillo Olsen isn’t drawing quite the same admiration from Swedes. After the Norwegians had secured their World Cup berth, he jovially announced that, deep down, he was quite pleased that Sweden were faring so badly. The Swedish FA’s Christmas card list immediately shrank by one.

It had long been known that Tommy Svensson would step down from the manager’s job if Sweden failed to qualify. The question of his successor proved a knotty one, though. First choice would appear to have been Lazio boss Sven-Göran Eriksson, but as Blackburn Rovers discovered, prizing the man away from Italy was easier said than done. Eriksson’s penchant for immaculately-tailored suits, zabaglione, warm summers and generous Serie A contracts simply proved too much. So the nod went to national under-21 coach Tommy Söderberg. A burly, avuncular figure, he is best known for his 1992 feat of steering AIK to their first Premier League title since the days of Lisping King Erik the Lame (1216-50).

Unfortunately, news of Söderberg’s promotion to the top job leaked out weeks in advance while Sweden still had a mathematical chance of qualifying, causing much embarrassment all round. When the end did come for Tommy Svensson, after the drab 1-0 victory over Estonia at Råsunda, it was all rather shabby. With most of the 18,000 crowd already funnelling towards the exits on a chilly afternoon, Swedish FA Chairman Lars-Ake Lagrell lumbered onto the pitch unannounced, microphone in hand, as if it were the end of the French Open tennis at Roland Garros. Svensson stoically hung around for his old boss’ not very well-chosen words, accepted a bunch of flowers from the loyal Roland Nilsson, and departed.

Svensson’s predecessor, the dapper, guardsman-like Olle Nordin, had more or less fled the country after the 1990 World Cup fiasco (three straight 2-1 defeats). After spending seven years in exile in Norway and the Middle East, he finally crept back here to take up the managerial reins at IFK Norrköping. My guess is that History – and football supporters in Sweden – will be somewhat kinder to Tommy Svensson. There was something special about that USA campaign in 1994; it seems to retain a glow so durable that nothing – not even three years of indifferent football and bad luck – can quench it.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month