They were never expected to light up FIFA 2018…and sure enough, they didn’t.
Yet, when you consider the us odds, the FIFA 2018 predictions and the fact Janne Andersson’s side arrived in Russia without a win in six games, without a goal in 337 minutes (nearly four games worth) and without national hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic, perhaps the Scandinavians’ road to the quarter-finals should be considered an unqualified success.
Not only was there no Ibrahimovic, but there was also no cult hero or a player at the calibre of Zlatan—one of the most decorated and iconic players of the modern game and scorer of 62 goals in 116 games for his country. There was even no Henrik Larsson who have gone before them in recent years.
However, the nation which began the tournament 24th in the world rankings found themselves two wins from a first final since 1958.
In many ways, the fact expectations were not particularly high may have had a positive effect of easing the pressure on Sweden.
When they were drawn with France and Holland in their qualifying group, they weren’t even expected to progress.
However, they beat Les Bleus, finished second in their group and went on to eliminate 2006 world champions Italy in the play-offs.
After reaching Russia the hard way, being drawn in a group which included the reigning world champions Germany and Mexico seemed another obstacle they may struggle to overcome.
But overcome they did, topping their group and reaching the last eight for the first time in 24 years—edging Switzerland in a game in which neither team impressed in attack but both were tough to break down.
That seemed to be the core strength of the set-up.
A fierce work ethic, a solid defence, obdurate at times, and the ability to play without pressure.
The combination of dogged defending, a tactical discipline, even a reliance on penalties in the group stages, may not have always been pretty to watch but it was effective, and the national team seemed to win back the hearts of many Swedish people.
They were helped by goalkeeper Robin Olsen from Copenhagen whose opening game shut-out was a fifth consecutive clean sheet which stretched back to October 2017.
Indeed, the number one kept three clean sheets at the 2018 World Cup, a joint-record for a Swedish goalkeeper in tournament history. Only Ronnie Hellstrom (1974) and Karl Svensson (1958) have the same number of clean sheets for Sweden.
Back home, the nation became embraced in a grip of complete World Cup fever.
Many Sweden fans found it difficult to find replicas of national football shirts at home thanks to the team’s success.
As well as selling out the national team shirts in stores and online, millions watched the FIFA 2018 highlights and the matches live in front of the TV, at times bringing parts of the entire country to a standstill.
It may have been summer but the nation’s favourite Christmas tree, spruce trees, was more popular than ever.
Not even a fine—would you believe it was connected with their kit and socks?—could dampen the spirits.
Perhaps, the overall approach and lack of what Ruud Gullit once called ‘sexy football’ also created a false sense of security for opponents, or at least for some opposing pundits.
It could not last and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, it was England (previously the archetypal nation of the 4-4-2 formation and predictability) who made Sweden come unstuck in the very same way many opponents have done to their them in previous years.
The speed and mobility of England’s attacking players proved tricky for the Swedes to handle, and they were very much second best in the quarter-final.
While they did cause England problems of their own, Sweden’s attacking on-field limitations were glaringly obvious.
There was not a Larsson or an Ibrahimovic this time. Instead, who they had was one frontman who plays his football in the United Arab Emirates and another who does not even play regularly for his club side Toulouse.
Striker Marcus Berg, Sweden’s leading scorer in qualifying with eight goals in 11 matches, failed to find the net in Russia despite starting all five games.
Ola Toivonen produced a deft lob to stun Germany, but that was as much as the strike pairing delivered in more than 450 minutes of football.
Sweden, however, return home as a nation playing to its strengths. Overachieving with what it had and lasting longer than the likes of Germany, Spain and Argentina who, while possessing more talented individuals, could not match the collective offered by Sweden.
And it’s clearly catching on.
Even Prince Oscar was caught imitating the World Cup heroes as he was seen trying his hand at football in adorable pictures during celebrations for his mother Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday!
If Sweden can find a gem of a player in the next four years, who knows how far they can go.
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