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May 23, 2006

Consistency is the key

History

It may surprise you to know that Germany 2006 will be Sweden's eleventh World Cup foray and that the relatively small Scandinavian country, with a population of 8.8 million, have a very good record at the tournament.

They were semi-finalists at the 1938 finals, won the Olympic gold medal in 1948 and went all the way to the final on home soil in 1958, eventually losing 5-2 to Pele's Brazil. And it was Brazil that ended Sweden's best run in recent times, eliminating them in the semi-finals of USA 94.

Under joint coaches Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderbergh, the latter of which stepped down after defeat at Euro 2004, the Swedes reached the second round of the last World Cup in 2002, topping a group that included England and Argentina, but then lost to Senegal in the knockout stages.

And after qualifying for Germany 2006 as one of the two best runners-up in European qualifying - winning eight of their 10 matches and losing to Croatia twice - they have again been drawn against England, with Trinidad & Tobago and Paraguay completing the group.

The Swedes will expect to progress from Group B and will not fear an England team that they have a long history and a fantastic record against. The two sides have beaten each other six times, drawing eight, but England, now managed by the Swede Sven Goran Eriksson, have not beaten 'Blågult' since 1968.

The two teams first did battle at the 1908 Olympics in Paris, just four years after the SvFF (Svenska Fotbollförbundet/Swedish FA) was founded, then called the NSF section for hockey and football. England beat the Swedes 12-1 en-route to claiming the tenuous title of the first ever World Champions.

Ironically, it was an FA recommended Englishman, George Raynor, who guided Sweden to their first honours (the Olympic gold) and then coached a team of amateurs to third place at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. The Yorkshireman developed the considerable talents of Hans Jeppson, Gunnar Nordahl, Henry Carlsson and the legendary Gunnar Gren and guided his protégés to an Olympic bronze in 1952.

Raynor capped that with a runners up medal at the afore mentioned 1958 World Cup.

Sweden failed to qualify for the next two tournaments. In 1970 their campaign ended in the first round, in 1974 they went one round further. In 1978 they returned home without a win but in the 1990s Swedish football became reinvigorated, culminating with in the performance at USA 94, thanks largely to the talents of Kennet Andersson, Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin.

Elimination in the first knock-out stage of the 2002 World Cup, to a Golden Goal from Senegal's Henri Camara, was a disappointment but Blågult retain many of the players from that tournament. For the likes of Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljungberg it could be their last chance.

The gaffer

Sweden coach Lars Lagerback has taken Sweden to two European Championships and two World Cup Finals and is cautiously optimistic that his team will do well.

But it is unlikely his side will emulate their best performance, in 1958, and reach the final. Lack of depth could prove the Swedes' Achilles heel.

Lagerback shared responsibility for the squad with Tommy Söderberg until the former Under 21 coach quit after Euro 2004, leaving Lagerback in sole charge, albeit with the support of long-term associate Roland Andersson.

Lagerback first joined the national team's coaching staff in 1997 as an assistant to Söderberg but was promoted to joint coach in 2000. The pair led Sweden through the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 when Söderberg returned to coaching Sweden's youngsters.

The 56-year-old Lagerback is described as a 'players coach' and is renowned for keeping a database of opponents, as well as sending scouts to follow Sweden's opponents every step of the way.

He was born on 17 July 1948 in the town of Katrineholm. He got his coaching licence in 1977 and began his career on the bench with Kilafors AB. After a five-year spell with Kilafors, Lagerback moved to Abra BK and then took charge at Hudiksvalls in 1987.

After earning a reputation for developing young players he joined the Swedish FA's youth set up, moved up to coach the national B team and became Söderberg's assistant in 1998. Not a bad achievement for a manager with a modest CV and no domestic silverware to his name.

Upon receiving the top job with the national team Lagerback brought in former Sweden international Roland Andersson as his assistant and both have become trusted and respected members of the Swedish coaching staff. Lagerback adapted Sweden's traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond formation for Euro 2004 and has stuck with it since.

One to watch

Among the highlights of Sweden's qualifying campaign was the contribution of forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose seven goals included a four-goal haul in the 7-0 victory in Malta and a spectacular injury-time winner in Hungary.

Barcelona's Swedish striker Henrik Larsson believes his 6'3' team-mate has all the attributes - including pace and physical strength - to become one of the best strikers in the world, but his critics say the moody striker's moments of brilliance are too few.

Ibrahimovic is currently suffering from a poor patch form for his club Juventus but manager Fabio Capello has persisted with his €19 million signing from Ajax - which is good news for Sweden.

The Malmö born 25-year-old began his professional career with his local club in the 1999-2000 season and was courted by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger but Malmö blocked any transfer talks.

However, in July 2001 Ajax Amsterdam manager Leo Beenhakker, now manager of Sweden's Group B opponents Trinidad and Tobago, paid €7.8 million for the striker's services. Under manager Co Adriaanse, Ibrahimovic struggled but with the arrival of coach Ronald Koeman he won a place in the starting line-up and subsequently earned a move to Juve.

Ibrahimovic displaced Juventus skipper and golden boy Alessandro Del Piero in the starting line-up and in 2005 he finished eighth in the running for FIFA World Player of the Year. Juve also reportedly rejected a €70 million bid for him from La Liga giants Real Madrid.

Back in 1999 Ibrahimovic attempted to play for the country of his parents birth, Bosnia & Herzegovina, but was rejected. Their loss became Sweden's gain and in 2005 he was named Swedish footballer of the year.

Ibrahimovic scored 16 Serie A goals for The Old Lady in his first season but managed only seven league goals this term. He has had a poor season by his own high standards and will be looking to show the world just how good he is in Germany.


  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.