Swedes shouldn't be sour
A dream is over. But Sweden should not despair, should not bow their heads. They should, instead, look back on their Euro 2004 adventure with fondness and pride.
The team arrived in Portugal with no sort of fanfare and were duely expected to leave in the same fashion. A middle of the road team with nothing for the neutral to get excited about, that's the Swedes. Good value for a few viking helmets in the crowd but little else. Yet they will depart the tournament having enriched it with so much more than that.
The refreshing approach of the Swedish management team may have been more shrewd than spectacular. But, ultimately, a game plan based around pin-pointed possession reaped dividends higher than many imagined. As cruel as a penalty shoot-out defeat is, Sweden should console themselves with the title of great all-rounders of the tournament.
Making good use of limited resources, they excelled in every facet of the game, if not perhaps all at the same time. They showed brilliant attacking form, full of energy and commitment, to beat Bulgaria 5-0. They then took heavy punishment for an hour against an inspired Italy before self-belief, fitness and, above all, incredible resilience helped them fight back for a vital 1-1 draw. That same fortitude was evident in the final game when they twice came from behind to draw 2-2 with Denmark. And, although marginally second best over 120 minutes, they displayed a fitness and attitude to match the technically superior Dutch.
The secret of their success? Perhaps it's the fact their approach is 180-degrees apart from the last European Championship in 2000. Then, many players believed they suffered in games because of intense, twice daily training sessions Now, less intense training and 'being relaxed and working as a team' are the most important qualities of Sweden, according to Marcus Allback, who also credits the squad's relaxed, almost laid-back posture with a willingness to 'work hard for each other and not put too much pressure on ourselves.'
Tommy Soderberg, who co-coaches Sweden with Lars Lagerback, says training in his homeland's 'dark and cold winters' helps them work together to survive. It still may not sound like totally ideal preparation for humid nights in the baking heat of the Algrave and the spectacularly put-together Faro-Loule Stadium. However, perhaps it's this philosophy that's helped to carry them so far. Far from fretting over the fact they lacked the individual quality in the Dutch squad, Sweden's strength came from this collective willingness to work until they drop.
The highpoints? The attacking guile and gifted strike partnership of the talismanic Henrik Larsson - whose decision to come out of international retirement has been fully vindicated – and Ajax star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, singled out by many opponents as Sweden's biggest dangerman. The pair have bonded almost unnaturally in recent weeks since being thrown together on the training field and, according to Soderberg, 'can find each other with their eyes closed now.' Here was Larsson planning to show his old firm foe, former Rangers chief Dick Advocaat, he has a finishing Dutch. Before moving to Celtic, Larsson had spent four years at Feyenoord and in view of his experience, would never underestimate the strength of the Dutchmen.
Although only separated by a few hundred miles, this was the first time Sweden and Holland had met for 21 years. Remarkably, in qualifying and tournaments, they had passed each other like ships in the North Sea night and had to look back to Sweden's 3-0 friendly win in 1983 in Utrecht for their last meeting. On a more nostalgic note, the 1974 World Cup tie between the nations was when a certain Johan Cruyff bemused and bewildered a Swedish defender with a move which soon became known as 'the Cruyff turn'.
As the Swedes head home, so Portugal bids farewell to their yellow and blue clan who appear to have done nothing but enjoyed themselves. The colourful following, almost to a man wearing the Swedish jersey and waving Swedish flags, happily mingled with opposition fans, and those who didn't make it to Portugal gathered in their thousands at the Stockholm football stadium to watch matches on a giant screen.
You won't be surprised to hear either, that there's been a large increase in average viewing figures in Sweden, compared to Euro 2000. Perhaps displaying their belief Sweden would not qualify from Group C, an estimated 7,000 supporters had already packed their rucksacks and headed back into the hills ahead of this the quarter-final showdown with the Dutch. That, more than anything, showed why this tournament has been a success for Sweden. Adjö´ så lä´nge!