How Sweden went from underdogs to Olympic contenders to Euro 2022 favorites

Sweden’s rise to become one of the favorites for Euro 2022 this summer has, it seems, been a long time coming.

When the sport awoke from its imposed slumber in early 1970 after the lifting of bans on women’s football, one only had to look to the Scandinavian triumvirate to find some of the best teams in the emerging game. While Norway and Denmark have had their ups and downs (and still risen) over the years, Sweden has remained the region’s figurehead, never failing to qualify for the Olympics or world Cup.

The first winner of a European Women’s Championship – or as it was called in 1984 during its first run, “the European Women’s Football Competition” – Sweden have, despite their consistency, failed to win the medals of subsequent winners. A country that has had a fine chain of player production, as well as some embodiment of the league since the early 1970s, there is perhaps no surprise at the longevity of Blagult (“the blue-yellow.”)

Yet with Euro 2022 starting on July 6 – Sweden’s 11th appearance in the competition – they have rarely looked as strong as they do today. Other nations, such as hosts England and previous winners Netherlands, will be favourites, but after Sweden reached last year’s Olympic final in Japan – losing to Canada on penalties to the point – their time may have finally come.

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The new Swedish style focused on attack

For all the talent in this team from Sweden, their current tenure is due to their coach, Peter Gerhardsson. Appointed as Pia Sundhage’s successor in 2017, Gerhardsson has always focused on the attack with the national team, encouraging his proteges to unleash their creative side and rely on their instincts in the box. A former striker himself, he immediately wanted to change Sweden from an “old English 4-4-2 style” to something that could engender confidence in attacking passing and positive play.

For those who have followed Sweden, even if only in major tournaments, the gradual progress has been there. Moving on from the heavier style of Gerhardsson’s predecessor, Sweden fought their way through the group stage of the 2019 World Cup in France with little fuss, before being dispatched with Canada and then Germany , before losing their semi-final in extra time against the Netherlands. More a butterfly emerging from its cocoon in 2019 than an unrelenting juggernaut, Sweden then clinched silver at the 2020 Olympics when the pieces fell almost beautifully into place.

Americans will remember – or perhaps still try to forget – the opening group match of last summer’s Olympics because of Sweden’s dominance and the confused stutter of their own US national team. Before the tournament, the problem for the Blagult had converted their chances. Yet, as USA keeper Alyssa Naeher fended off everything she could in Tokyo, it soon became clear that, despite her best efforts, she was on the losing side. Sweden battled their way to a 3-0 win over the world champions and didn’t seem to stop until they lined up against Canada in the final, 16 days and another 10 goals later.

With this attacking approach backing them up, Sweden went from simply good team ahead of last year’s Olympics, tournament favorites to win gold by the end, with just about the right balance of everything both on and off the court.

A midfield three consisting of Kosovare Asllani, Caroline Seger and Filippa Angeldal provided enough creativity, stability, experience and youthfulness in perfect measure. The defence, parked in front of goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, saw injury-enforced rotation and game management as Gerhardsson remained able to go to his bench if his three favorites of Stina Blackstenius, Fridolina Rolfö and Sofia Jakobsson needed to be refreshed.

From underdogs to one of Euro 2022 favorites

Matches in the blistering heat of Japan at the Olympics last year should have been energy-intensive – yet, as everything else seemed to fade, Sweden remained bright and determined until their inability to score before the tournament return for the rescheduled final in Yokohama. Sweden’s best chances multiplied as the game moved from regulation time into extra time to spot penalties and, possibly, sudden death penalties. Canada took the 3-2 win on the night, with each side scoring just two of their five shots on goal before Jonna Andersson missed and Julia Grosso scored.

As Sweden failed again in Japan, they were barely recognizable from the side that won silver at the 2016 Olympics under Sundhage’s no-nonsense approach, managing just four goals for the entire tournament in Brazil. While Sweden’s first silver in Rio had been a feat of sheer determination and agonizing focus game after game to keep the opposition away – a widely celebrated tactic – their second was considered by team members as a painful reminder of their failure in Yokohama. . As Asllani said after the match: “I’m so sick of having a fucking silver medal.”

Gerhardsson brought expressiveness and fun to the team, and throughout his tenure there was joy in the way the players entered the pitch – in the way they grew and retrained their brains to be confident of being the favorites. Under Gerhardsson, Sweden no longer became an outsider.

By the time they stepped onto the court in Tokyo, the team was able to balance both global confidence and humility in their minds, so their tournament-opening win over world champion USWNT was not a surprise but also nothing more. that a to win.

For the players of the Swedish team, the Olympic final against Canada had been their first real taste of being clear favourites, of expecting them to do something they had never done before. The intention was to not only win a first-ever Olympic gold medal in football, but to end a 37-year wait for their second major tournament honours. Maybe another day the ball will bounce slightly differently and Sweden will be able to convert more than one of their 30 total shots. Or maybe it was a loss that always had to happen, to provide a more teachable lesson in the future.

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The clichés are that you learn more from defeat than from victory, or that conflict makes eventual success all the more enjoyable, or that such defeat is the greatest motivation. Either way, as seen in the five years since Gerhardsson took charge, there’s little that can be thrown at the Swedish team that they can’t face or overcome together.

For team veterans like Seger and Lindahl – the goalkeeper, the only player who was alive, albeit trotting, the last time Sweden won the Euros – there is only a number countless times they’ll line up at a major tournament, and there’s nothing more appropriate than a golden goodbye.

Drawn in a group at Euro 2022 with the Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal, Sweden know their opponent well. Few teams look as strong as the Swedes ahead of the tournament, as they are unbeaten in regular time in their last 29 games, a streak dating back to March 2020. The challenge will be to maintain a consistent level and not peak too much early.

In their third major tournament under Gerhardsson, perhaps the third time is the charm.

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