Cast your mind back to the end of the group stage at this Olympic women’s football tournament.
Sweden, the pantomime villain at this year’s games, tiptoed into the knockout stages after unconvincing performances against South Africa and China, and a thumping 5-1 loss to hosts Brazil. Fast forward to a day before the gold medal match, and we find the villains, or the ‘cowardly’ Swedes (whatever you want to call them), against the unconvincing, but efficient, Germans in the final. With question marks throughout the tournament about the two finalists, there is no doubt the number of fans, pundits or players that predicted an all European final, would have been ‘zero.’
Okay, some (and it would be a small number), may have plunged for a Germany-France finale, but no one, not even Swedish fans, would have expected their team to be in Rio this Friday – unless they were perhaps watching another sport as spectators, as Australia’s Matildas have been doing this week. In truth, whether you like Sweden or not, you have to respect them, and they have answered a lot of questions asked of them. When people look at the record books in 20 years’ time, they’ll see Sweden have at least a silver medal.
Will people remember they won it by parking the bus in the quarter and semi-finals? Let’s ask another question – do you comment on how the USA won gold in Atlanta, or Norway in Sydney? With the exception of a few, it’s unlikely. You see who won gold, silver and bronze, and that’s all you look at – not how they won it.
The 5-1 defeat to Brazil in the group stage was the best thing that could have happened to Pia Sundhage’s side, because it was a reality check. And the reality is, Sweden is not in the elite group that sits at the top of women’s soccer, despite their world ranking of six.
But what they do have, is a world class coach; a coach who has won gold medals, and a coach who knows how to win – at whatever cost. Combine that with some hard-working, experienced, and let’s not sell them short, quality players, and you have a good blend for a successful side. The Swedes should actually be praised for their bravery and ability to adapt to a different approach. Does Kosovare Asllani want to be back helping her full-back, or Lotta Schelin defending set-pieces? Absolutely not! These are attack-minded, ambitious players who had to change the way they play to get the job done.
If they had played their natural game, the US would have thumped them in the quarters, much like Brazil did in the group stages, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Good coaches try to find a way to beat the opposition, and good teams find a way to put those ideas into practice. It might not have been pretty, but Sweden did a tremendous job despite horrible form coming into this tournament.
Nilla Fischer, a colossus at the back, told The Equalizer before the tournament that the team did not come into the year with huge confidence after their disastrous World Cup. But those players, led by the experience of Fischer, Schelin and Caroline Seger, played out of their skin to earn their spot on the final showdown. Do they care how they got there? Absolutely not!
And what about the confidence and calmness of Lisa Dahlkvist. Scoring the decisive spot-kick, under enormous pressure, in both matches – now that takes guts.
What they face now is a different test. An equally world class coach, who will have had sleepless nights these last few days as she plans to do find a way to breakdown Sweden’s resistance.
Can the Swedes do it again? Well, you now have to believe they can, because few gave them any hope in the last two matches – and they came through both of them.
But they’ll have to deal with the fact they’ve played 60 more minutes than their opponents, and have had the emotion of two penalty shoot-outs. Germany don’t have the pace of Brazil or USA, but they do have a clever midfield, who may not need to get as close to the Swede’s 18-yard box, especially with the shooting range of Melanie Behringer and Sara Däbritz.