SWEDEN AND ITALY ARE TWO NATIONS separated by both geography and culture. Sweden is a Scandinavian country of just 10 million people where the Vikings once ruled, and where temperatures plunge below freezing for most of the year. To the south is Italy. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean, it was once home to the Roman Empire and a warmer climate.
The upcoming World Cup playoff pitting these two proud footballing nations will also conjure up their shared traditions. At first, one might think that with their different passions and cultures, they don’t have anything in common. Instead, they do share some loves – for meatballs, coffee and fine design to name just three.
They are also closely linked by a love and passion for football. While many wouldn’t peg Sweden as a football nation with a pioneering history in Italy, the reality is very different. Although also a country where winter sports reign and ice hockey occupies the leisure time of many, it has contributed to some of the finest players in history. Many of those players found a home playing in Italy, and some even stayed behind to spend the rest of their lives there.
While some of the world’s most influential players have come from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Germany and the Netherlands, Swedish players hold a special place in the hearts of many Italians. The love affair between them and Serie A dates back to post-war Europe, specifically January 1948, when AC Milan signed the physically-imposing Gunnar Nordahl. It was something of a gamble, despite his knack for scoring goals, given that he was one of the very first Swedish-born players to ever sign for an Italian club.
The gamble more than paid off. Nordahl had scored an impressive 149 goals in 172 games while playing in Sweden for Hörnefors IF, where he made his professional debut at the age of 16, and IFK Norrköping. Nordahl had been one of 10 children who grew up in a poor, working-class family. He would kick a ball for the first time at eight. Even after he turned professional, Nordahl worked as a firefighter to make money, but football talent was in his blood; his four brothers would also go on to play professionally. As Sweden coach George Raynor would later say: “Nordahl was born to score goals. He could score with his eyes closed.”
Swedish football was not calcio but it would go on to achieve great success. Sweden won the gold medal at the 1948 Olympic Games and were runners-up to Brazil at the 1958 World Cup, a tournament they had hosted. Italy had twice won the World Cup, in 1934 and 1938, and featured some of the world’s best club teams. Among them was Il Grande Torino, a side that had won the league title four times during the 1940s. Having formed the backbone of Italy’s national team, they tragically perished in the 1949 Superga Air Disaster.
Read | Gunnar Nordahl: the first great calcio import
Nordahl ended up in Milan by pure chance. It was a phone call by Gianni Agnelli, founder of the Italian car maker Fiat and owner of rivals Juventus, that forever changed the course of Italian football. Agnelli reached out to the manager of his company’s Stockholm plant, hoping to receive a recommendation for a player he could offer to AC Milan. The move was meant as a peace offering after Juventus had signed Johannes Pløger. The Danish striker had planned to sign for Milan but a Juventus official intercepted him at Milano Centrale station and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Pløger got into a car and headed to Turin.
“Gunnar was not just a great player, but a great man,” former teammate Gianni Rivera said in a statement following Nordahl’s death in 1995. “He always gave it his all – whether it was on the field or in life.”
Nordahl was greeted by hundreds of Milan fans at the city’s main train station. In just half a season, then 27, he eluded the back-line of many of the country’s clubs and blasted home 16 goals in 15 games. At 1.81 metres tall he was a menace in the penalty area, and was unstoppable once the ball landed at his feet. Nordahl gave nightmares to some of the best goalkeepers and defenders in the world with his volleys and simple ball movements. AC Milan had found their star player.
Nordahl became an ambassador for talented Swedish players, as the club bought two of his former Swedish teammates, Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm, forming the ‘Gre-No-Li’ attacking trio that would pile on goals for years. Nordahl, Gren and Liedholm are three of the 79 Swedish players to have played in Italy’s top flight. Two of Nordahl’s brothers, Bertil and Knut, signed with Atalanta and Roma respectively, and played in Serie A for a few years.
The Gre-No-Li trident allowed Nordhal to perform even better. He led Milan to the Scudetto in 1951 – their first since 1907 – and again in 1955. In total, Nordahl scored 210 goals for Milan in 257 matches and another 15 for Roma, where he played for two seasons before retiring in 1958. He took home the league top scorer – the Capocannoniere – title in all but the 1951/52 season during that period.
Nicknamed Il Pompiere (The Fireman), Nordahl spent seven years at AC Milan, establishing records and drawing comparisons to the stars of his time such as Alfredo Di Stéfano, Luis Suárez and Stanley Matthews. Pløger, meanwhile, only played 16 games for Juventus, scoring just once.
Read | Zlatan Ibrahimović: Sweden’s unstoppable man of gold
There have been other great Swedes in Serie A. While Zlatan Ibrahimović is the name that comes up most often for his time with Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan, there were other Swedes who were even more beloved. One of those was Liedholm. Aside from a stellar playing career, the player nicknamed Il Barone (The Baron) permanently settled in his adopted nation and embarked on what became a successful coaching career. After working for Milan in their front office, Liedholm coached Verona and Varese to Serie A promotion in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Those abilities brought with them the attention of Fiorentina. Liedholm coached La Viola from 1971 to 1973 and Roma from 1973 to 1977, before taking control of Milan in 1977, when he led them to their 10th league title before returning to the capital. It was that Roma team, led by Brazilian star Falcão, which won their second league title in 1983. A year later they lost the European Cup final to Liverpool in a penalty shootout in their own Stadio Olimpico.
Liedholm introduced a zonal marking system to Serie A. The former striker retired from coaching in 1997, but although he left the game, he stayed in Italy to run a vineyard with his son in the northern region of Piedmont until his death in 2007 at the age of 85.
The modern era of Italian football saw two other Swedes who left long-lasting impressions on their clubs. The first was Glenn Strömberg, who played eight seasons with Atalanta; the other was Tomas Brolin, who played six seasons at Parma. These were players that came to symbolise their clubs, epitomising the working-class attitude of these provinciali – smaller, lesser-known clubs compared to powerhouses like Juventus and AC Milan – in Italy and across European competition. Not previously steeped in tradition, these teams came to the forefront in the late 1980s and 90s.
Strømberg, for example, was a dominant central midfielder. His long blond hair and beard gave him all the likeness of a Viking warrior, but he was also a player who possessed finesse and technique. That marriage of strength and tactical awareness made him one of Sweden’s best players at the time. After playing the 1983/84 season with Benfica, Strømberg arrived in Italy at a time when the best foreign players coveted the chance to play in what was considered the most dominant league on the planet. He would play his last game ever for the Bergamo-based side in 1992.
Although he won a UEFA Cup with IFK Göteborg in 1982 and a Portuguese league title in 1984, Strømberg is known for his seven Serie A seasons and one in the second tier after Atalanta were relegated at the end of the 1986/87 season. However, he is best-remembered for helping Atalanta reach the semi-finals of the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup during the 1987/88 season, where they crashed out to eventual champions KV Mechelen.
Read | Nils Liedholm: the Swede who conquered calcio
His 185 Serie A appearances and 15 goals make him one of the most notable players in the club’s history. “I still feel the love the fans have for me,” Strømberg told Atalanta’s official website in a 2012 interview. “I am like an adopted son of Bergamo. There is always a smile and a hello. I am really happy to visit.”
Stromberg’s love for his adopted country’s food and culture has led him to start a business in Sweden where he sells Italian products. He also works as a TV commentator in his homeland for Premier League matches.
Like Strømberg, Brolin would represent Sweden at the 1990 World Cup played in Italy but would go on to greater success. Not only would the latter finish third with Sweden at the 1994 World Cup, but he was also part of a Parma team that saw unprecedented growth at domestic and continental level during the decade.
Brolin signed with newly-promoted Parma in 1990 and formed a wonderful attacking partnership with Alessandro Melli. They finished fifth that season, with seven goals from Brolin, to qualify for European competition for the first time in their history. Success for Parma and their budding Swedish striker did not end there, though. During the 1991/92 season, Brolin featured in all 34 of Parma’s top-flight matches, scoring four goals as the team finished a respectable seventh. They lifted silverware in the form of the Coppa Italia,thanks to Brolin’s match-winner against Sampdoria in the semi-final.
The Parma juggernaut continued the following campaign. The club acquired Colombian star Faustino Asprilla and won the Cup Winners’ Cup at a time when Italian clubs dominated all three European club tournaments. Brolin saw less playing time after the Asprilla signing, but he did play in the team’s 3-1 defeat of Royal Antwerp in the final played at Wembley. The team would reach the Cup Winners’ Cup final again a year later, when they lost 1-0 to Arsenal despite Brolin hitting the post.
“My best game at Parma came in the Cup Winners’ Cup at home against Ajax [a 2-0 win in the second leg of the quarter-finals],” Brolin recalled in an interview with Parma’s official club channel in 2013. “We played a great game and I was even able to score a goal. That game is just one example of the so many great memories I have with Parma.”
After Gianfranco Zola was signed in 1993, Brolin learned to play in a much deeper position under coach Nevio Scala, but ultimately left Parma for Leeds in 1995. He briefly returned on loan in 1997 to much fanfare among the Tardini faithful, but would only play 11 games before retiring a year later. “Those were the best years of my life in regards to my playing career,” said Brolin. “I was only 20 when I got to Parma. I won so many trophies at Parma and made so many friends. The fans at the Tardini had me and the others players always in their hearts. The city has been like a second home to me.”