Every year Aftonbladet, the Swedish newspaper, awards the Guldbollen (Gold Ball) to the best Swedish footballer. The same footballer has won 11 of the last 12,and is likely to continue his stranglehold on the title after some excellent displays at Manchester United. Only Fredrick Ljungberg could stop Zlatan Ibrahimović from claiming 12 in a row. However, with the superstar’s career beginning to wind down, the conversation has turned to whether anyone can pick up the mantle of one of the greatest Swedish sportspeople ever.
Since the 1992 European Championships, when Sweden reached the semi-finals, and the 1994 World Cup where Sweden managed to come third, the country has yearned to come close to the heights reached in the 1990s. Sweden had a team built on the defensive solidity of Thomas Ravelli in goal, Roland Nilsson, Patrik Andersson, Joachim Björklund and Roger Lung at the back, and combined this with the creative brilliance of Thomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin. They managed to qualify from a group containing Brazil, Russia and Cameroon.
Having drawn with Brazil in the group stages, they met them again in the semi-finals after beating Saudi Arabia and Romania in their first two knockout games. They were desperately close to avenging their defeat in the 1958 final but were beaten 1-0 in Los Angeles. They were brilliantly organised and nearly took the eventual winners to extra time but an 80th-minute Romário goal sent the Seleção into the final. The team returned to Sweden as heroes, having sealed third place with a 4-0 win over Bulgaria.
Every single Sweden team since has been measured by this yardstick; the Class of ’94 are recent enough that many Swedes remember them and hopes have been raised – and subsequently dashed – a number of times since then. Zlatan’s brilliance, married with players including Freddie Ljungberg, Henrik Larsson, Olaf Melberg, Kim Källström, Anders Svensson and Andreas Isaksson heightened expectations in Sweden. They had a number of quality players plying their trade in the big European leagues.
This team, much like England’s so-called golden generation, could not quite live up to the expectations of the public or the achievements of their predecessors. The 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan was seen as a chance for young stars like Ibrahimović to combine with the older more experienced players in the team like Larsson to achieve something special. They managed to make it out of their group but lost to Senegal in the last-16. Four years later, with Zlatan older and wiser and now playing at Seria A giants Juventus, hopes were again high, but they fell at the same stage, losing to Germany.
As the noughties wore on, more and more emphasis was placed on Ibrahimović. Sweden has failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and exited at the group stages of the last two Euros, leading to a dampening of expectations and worries that Sweden might never return to the heady heights of 1994.
While the senior team were becoming more and more reliant on Ibrahimović and other ageing players like Isaksson, Källström and Granqvist, many Swedish fans started to look to the next generation and were enthused by the performance of the under-21 team when they hosted the European Championships in 2009 and reached the semi-finals.
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A number of talented players seemed to be appearing – most notably Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg, whose seven goals made him tournament top scorer. Unfortunately for Sweden, these players have failed to make a lasting impact at either club or international level, with only five of them going on to play more than 10 times at full international level. After failing to qualify for the championships in 2011 and 2013, it seemed there was little hope of Sweden emulating their performances in the noughties – never mind the 90s.
A strong performance at the under-17 World Cup in 2013 saw Sweden finish third, suggesting that perhaps green shoots were beginning to sprout. In 2015 the team managed to qualify for the under-21 European Championships and Sweden headed off to the Czech Republic with relatively low expectations.
The majority of the players still played their football in the Allsvenskan and they lacked star quality in the way Portugal had Bernardo Silva, England had Harry Kane and Germany had Kevin Volland. Sweden, though, still had strong players across the pitch and managed to spring a surprise, winning the tournament by defeating favourites Portugal on penalties.
Suddenly a number of young Swedish players gave the country hope that better times could be ahead and suggested that there was a lot of potential to build on. Incredibly, 19 of the 23 players in the squad have since been capped at full international level with a number of them becoming relatively regular at international level and moving from the Allsvenskan to some of the big teams and leagues in Europe.
One of the key members of this group is Benfica defender Victor Lindelöf who was strongly linked to Manchester United during the January transfer window and is likely to make a big move sooner rather than later. The young central defender is strong, powerful and good with the ball at his feet. All he really lacks is pace, but his game intelligence helps to make up for this.
Jesper Blomqvist, part of Manchester United’s treble-winning side, suggests similarities between Lindelöf and Rio Ferdinand, noting that he is “very capable” of reaching that level. Having taken time to settle in Portugal after a move from Västerås, he established himself as a key member of the first team.
He was only called up to the under-21 side in 2015 after an injury to Emil Krath but he was one of Sweden’s key players, scored the winning penalty in the final and was included in the team of the tournament. He is likely to be a mainstay of the Swedish national team for years to come.
Another key player in the win in Portugal was Celta’s John Guidetti – a player of immense talent who is now beginning to show the performance levels that convinced Manchester City to give him a professional contract in 2011. Guidetti went out on loan at a number of clubs but failed to settle, finally moving to Celta on a free transfer in 2015.
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Since then he has managed to slowly establish himself in Spain and is now a regular in the senior national team squads. At the under-21 Euros, he scored an important goal against Italy in the group stages and converted the first penalty in the shootout against Portugal.
The captain of Sweden’s winning team, Oscar Hiljemark, has also gone on to become a regular for the senior team and is currently playing in Serie A for Genoa. Sweden has been lucky to have a number of talented central midfielders in recent years in Kim Källstrom, Rasmus Elm and Pontus Wernbloom. Hiljemark, alongside Oskar Lewicki, provided a steady and competent presence in the U21’s midfield.
Hiljemark moved from IF Elfsborg to PSV in 2013, playing regularly for the Dutch club for two years before moving to Palermo in 2015 and has since gone on loan to Genoa. He really burst onto the scene having been a key figure in Elfsborg’s 2012 title win – only their second since 1961. Despite being only 20 at the time, he was key both from a defensive and offensive point of view. He is a solid midfielder who can do a bit of everything, is very hard working and provides consistency in the middle of the park.
Lewicki, who has played alongside him in the senior team as well as at under-21 level, spent time at Bayern Munich playing for their reserve team before returning to Sweden and establishing himself at Malmö. He is known for being a smart tackler and he made two appearances for Sweden at Euro 2016, suggesting he could have an important role in the future. He has been compared by some to Stefan Schwarz, the tough tackling midfield lynchpin of the 1994 World Cup team, and was included in the team of the tournament after his strong performances in the Czech Republic.
Two other players are making an impression amongst Swedish fans. Ludwig Augustinsson, an attacking left-back, has had a great season at FC Copenhagen. In this season’s Champions League, he played all six Copenhagen games and had three assists as his team only narrowly missed out on qualification for the knockout stages.
He has Swansea’s Jonas Olsson to compete with at left-back but his excellent form is likely to see him installed as the long-term left-back for the national team. He has also secured a move to Werder Bremen and will join the four-time Bundesliga winners during the summer.
Sam Larsson is also having a great season at Dutch side Heerenveen. At 23-years-old, the winger is making a real impression; he has scored seven goals and registered nine assists in only 21 appearances. He is an excellent dribbler, passer and shot taker and can play on either flank. It is unlikely to be long before he moves onto bigger things. He needs to perhaps play a little more consistently but he has the talent and ability to become an important player for the national team.
When discussing the future of the national team it would be impossible to leave out 25-year-old Emil Forsberg, the RB Leipzig player who was Swedish midfielder of the year in 2014 and 2016 as well as the best player in the 2. Bundesliga last season. Forsberg, much like his side, has made a big impression in the Bundesliga. He currently has the joint most assists alongside Thomas Müller with 10 and the left midfielder has added seven goals.
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He is in excellent form and is rapidly becoming a genuine star who Sweden can rely on to make things happen in big games. While it is important that Sweden do not fall back into relying on one player too much as they did towards the end of the Ibrahimović era, having a player who can score big goals and take on responsibility is important and Forsberg looks like he could do that.
This promising young crop has been complemented by a number of even younger players hoping to make a big impact both at the under-21 European Championships in Poland this summer. Perhaps the most well-known and promising player within this group is Alexander Isak, who recently signed for Dortmund having apparently snubbed Real Madrid. The Stockholm-born teenager has been labelled the next Ibrahimović. Isak scored 10 goals in 24 games in the Allsvenskan for his local club AIK, and became the youngest scorer in Allsvenskan history netting against Östersund in a 2-0 victory.
He really put his name on the Swedish football map with two goals against AIK’s rivals Djurgården in the Twin Derby. Isak, at 1.90m is very tall, especially for a 17-year-old, is very technically gifted, quick with his feet and is an excellent finisher. He became Sweden’s youngest goalscorer at 17 years and 113 days earlier this year with a wonderful goal against Slovakia. Isak’s move to Dortmund has made him the most expensive Allsvenskan player ever and hopes are high that he can follow in the footsteps of many of Dortmund’s other youngsters and play consistently at the highest level.
Alongside Isak are a number of other promising young players who will hope to emulate their 2015 counterparts, including a couple plying their trade in England. Joel Asoro at Sunderland has only played once for the Black Cats in the Premier League but in doing so became Sunderland and Sweden’s youngest ever Premier League player. The speedy forward has a burgeoning reputation and has reportedly been scouted by a number of top teams since his debut for the under-21s. At only 17, he has plenty of time to make his mark.
The right-back position has long been a problem for Sweden with a number of different options tried there in recent years, with Seb Larsson filling in on multiple occasions. The emergence of a genuine right-back in Linus Wahlqvist has been welcomed in Sweden. The IFK Norrköping player had a key role in his side’s shock title win in 2015, when they climbed from 12th (out of 16 teams) and four points from the relegation playoff spot in 2014 to win the title in 2015. The attacking full-back is solid in defence but his pace and willingness to attack help set the tempo that has fuelled Norrköping’s rise. Despite being only 20, he has already won five caps for the senior national team.
One of his team-mates at Norrköping who has begun the step up to the senior level is Filip Dagerstål. The 20-year-old, who can play in defence or midfield, is beginning to establish himself at the club. He made his first appearance for Sweden’s senior team against Slovakia and will be hoping to impress this summer for the under-21s in Poland. The fact that Janne Andersson, the mastermind behind Norköpping’s 2015 success, became Sweden’s new manager after Euro 2016 is unlikely to harm Wahlqvist and Dagerstål’s bid to gain more playing time for the senior side.
Finally, Carlos Strandberg, after a slightly nomadic career that has seen him play at CSKA Moscow, Ural, Club Brugge and now Westerlo in Belgium, is another young attacking player looking to build on his potential. He has scored goals wherever he has gone but has always struggled to hold down a starting place and remain consistent. However, he is still only 20 and will hope to make the most of the potential that saw him chased by Dortmund. He was also an important part of the under-17 World Cup team in 2013 and scored in their third-place playoff win over Argentina.
This promising generation has brought renewed excitement and this has led many to wonder how far they could go. It’s rare to hear anyone suggest this team could reach the level of the 1994 team and there is little suggestion at this stage that they will do that. However, with a strong spine in Lindelöf, Hiljemark, Forsberg and Guidetti complemented by even younger players with bags of potential like Isak, Wahlqvist and Strandberg, the future looks bright for Sweden
By Jozef Brodala @jozefbrodala