Man United defender Victor Lindelof's journey from Vasteras to the top
VASTERAS, Sweden -- When Victor Lindelof makes his Manchester United debut at Old Trafford in the Premier League next month, he will do so in front of 75,000 fans. It will be a world away from his first-team debut in senior football as a 16-year-old in the Swedish third tier with Vasteras SK.
Now one of the most sought-after central defenders in Europe after joining United from Benfica for over £30 million this summer, the 22-year-old Sweden international had to learn quickly back in 2010, playing in an unfamiliar position after the coach had dispensed with six experienced players.
"With no money, we had to go to what we had so, ready or not, he was one of them," Kalle Granath, who was then the coach of Vasteras, tells ESPN FC.
When Lindelof started training with the senior team he was a midfielder "15 years old weighing 67 kilos" and, while he was among the best players in his age group, he wasn't considered the outstanding talent. The team had an average age of only 19 and there certainly weren't any thoughts back then that Lindelof would go on to play for one of the world's biggest clubs.
"You don't think like that in the third division in Sweden when you have a team that barely knows how to play football," Granath says.
Lindelof was put into the team as a right-back and showed an impressive level of game intelligence for someone so young, knowing when to attack and defend and how to adapt his game according to the player he was marking.
The youngster cemented his place in the team as they won promotion to Sweden's second tier and it was during the following season that Lindelof confirmed to his manager how good he was. Vasteras were facing high-flying Brommapojkarna and the 16-year-old was up against one of Sweden's most highly rated young players: under-21 international Miiko Albornoz.
"He [Lindelof] demolished him in every way," Granath says. "Not only playing smart and together with the team, he destroyed him with physique, technique, tactics, everything and then you realise, OK this kid is not only good at adapting and making smart choices together with others, he can also handle his own."
Lindelof continued to improve and soon teams where the players were full-time professionals started to show interest. Initially it looked as though IFK Gothenburg would be the ones to sign the teenager but instead he agreed to join Portuguese giants Benfica in 2011 before moving a year later.
"We were all shocked," Simon Johansson, who was one of Lindelof's teammates and a current Vasteras player, says. "Many players go to England from here when they are young but not Benfica so that was something special."
As well as playing alongside Lindelof in the first-team, Johansson played against him between the ages of 10 and 15 too. At that point, Lindelof was a midfielder -- "very talented with the ball and always working hard for the team" -- with good passing and vision, but a player who gave no notice that he would go on to become a superstar.
"I thought he was really good but not at that level that he was going to be the next star of Sweden and play for a giant club like Manchester United," Johansson says. "I thought he was going to be a good player, playing [Swedish top division] Allsvenskan or something like that.
"He's very smart with the ball. He's never doing anything stupid with the ball; always the right decision. Not spectacular with the ball like [Lionel] Messi or something like that, just that he doesn't give away the ball easy."
Johansson added that he expects his former teammate to be a success at United, bringing a new dimension to the team's defence with his vision and passing ability.
After Lindelof left for Portugal, whenever he was back in his hometown, "Vigge" would go and watch his old team train, seemingly unaffected by his success. "He's still the same guy," Johansson admits.
The money that Vasteras will receive as part of the deal that took him from Benfica to Manchester United will make them one of the richest clubs in Sweden. It's a remarkable change in fortunes for a club that was not far from going out of business less than three years ago.
"In November 2014 it was really close to laying down the club," current chairman Christina Liffner told ESPN FC. "Then there was an extra general meeting and the supporters mainly said 'we will not let this happen', private people, really devoted supporters."
The supporters managed to raise around $70,000 between November and the end of December to enable the club to pay some of its creditors.
Those previous financial troubles are why the club is determined to make gradual steps towards their ultimate goal of returning to the country's top division.
"First of all, be calm don't make any quick decisions," Liffner says of the windfall. "You should not just spend money and after three years you're back in the old financial situation."
The club plan to spend some of the cash on new youth training programmes and some on players and staff.
Anders Tengstrom, a lifelong fan of the club, who was one of the supporters behind the fundraising effort in 2014, says the club is "well due to advance in the divisions," adding: "We've been up there before, so everybody's thinking that now the club has a good chance to actually advance to the first division [Allsvenskan]."
That will require the club to make constant improvement and to make the most of any opportunities when they arise - much like their former player.
If Vasteras do realise their ambition of returning to the first division, there is no doubt that Lindelof would return to celebrate with his former side despite his newfound standing at one of the world's biggest clubs -- with humility being one of his greatest strengths.
"That's also a part of his success," says Granath. "Being humble to conquer a challenge, I need to be humble that I cannot disrespect the player than I play against, I cannot disrespect the work I need to put in, I cannot ignore what I need to get better at. I think that's basically his magic recipe."
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