The brilliance of Tomas Brolin: a superstar beyond his failures

The brilliance of Tomas Brolin: a superstar beyond his failures

It is the evening of 14 June 1992 at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm. England are playing their final Group A game of Euro 92 against the host nation Sweden, needing a win to ensure progression to the semi-finals. After drawing with both Denmark and France, England manager Graham Taylor is troubled and under intense media pressure from the tabloids and the pundits in the television studios.

Before the tournament, he had famously told England supporters on the Wogan show to relax and let him do the worrying, and these brash, confident words are now hanging over him like the sword of Damocles. With only two points awarded for a win, Sweden know that a draw will ensure qualification.

Sweden had beaten their Scandinavian rivals Denmark in their last game, but the host nation were underdogs going into this match, especially after their calamitous performance at the 1990 World Cup where they lost all three games to finish bottom of their group. Swedish manager Tommy Svensson made a tactical change for the Denmark match, pushing 22-year-old winger Tomas Brolin further forward. It worked; he scored the winning goal in a crucial victory.

England led 1-0 at half-time and appeared to be in control as Taylor looked like he was going to achieve the result he needed. Sweden had to respond so, once again, Svenson made some tactical changes to provide more support for his strikers in the second half. It produced results as, just six minutes after the restart, Swedish defender Jan Eriksson equalised from a corner.

The game was drifting inexorably away from England and a desperate Taylor gambled by replacing Gary Lineker, their most prolific marksman, with Alan Smith. It had no effect. Eight minutes before the end, Brolin was fouled in midfield. He received the ball on the left flank from the resulting free-kick and cut inside, dribbling past the hapless David Batty and Neil Webb. He played a one-two with Ingesson and then another with Dahlin, never breaking stride as he accelerated through the middle of the England defence, before producing a spectacular finish from the edge of the penalty area that gave Chris Woods in goal no chance.

Brolin milked the acclaim of the home crowd with his trademark pirouette celebration, jumping up and twisting around with his hand raised aloft. Commentator Martin Tyler described the goal as “Glorious, absolutely glorious”. It was arguably the best of the tournament. Brolin had started the move and never stopped running until he placed the ball in the net.

When the final whistle went, Brolin was mobbed by his teammates and coaches. He had single-handedly ensured that Sweden made it to the semi-finals, and his two goals in two matches had proved decisive. The young Swede had proved himself to be a potent striker on Europe’s biggest stage. On the sidelines, a weary 31-year-old Lineker could only watch and reflect that as his England career wound down.

In the semis, Sweden came up against a formidable German side, whose greater skill enabled them to prevail 3-2. Ironically, if the Swedes had finished second in the group they would have earned an arguably more winnable tie against the Dutch. More frustrating was the fact that Denmark, who they had defeated in the group stage, were the eventual winners.

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Brolin scored from the spot in the semi, which brought his tally to three goals for the tournament, making him the joint top scorer. The Swedish press summed up the thoughts of a nation the next morning with their headline: ‘Thanks, Heroes’. In reality, there had been one outstanding hero, the man who had scored three of their six goals, Tomas Brolin.

Despite being the third youngest member of the team, Brolin had already established himself as a prolific striker for his country. In 1990, as a 20-year-old, he made his debut against Wales and scored twice past Neville Southall. In his next game, against Finland, he repeated the feat. His goal-scoring impact just six weeks before Italia 90 led to a public clamour for him to be included in the squad.

Although the 1990 World Cup had been a catastrophe for Sweden, Brolin scored their first goal against Brazil and generally gave their defenders a torrid time with his movement and trickery. In the final match against Costa Rica, they still had an outside chance of qualification but when the striker went off injured after 34 minutes,  with Sweden leading 1-0., they fell away, losing 2-1.

Nevertheless, representatives of some of Europe’s biggest clubs made a note of his performances. Playing well and scoring against Brazil in a World Cup was always going to attract admirers.

 

The Golden Boy

 

Back in Sweden, Brolin was the new poster boy for the Blagults. He had started playing in the fourth tier in 1987 at the age of 15 with Sandvikens before moving to Sundsvall, who had just been promoted to the top flight. Despite his goals, the team struggled in the top flight of Swedish football, the Allsvenskan, and were relegated after two seasons.

Several top sides came in for him, duly ending up at Norrköping. He came on at half time for his debut and he scored a hat-trick as his team destroyed giants Gothenborg 6-0 in the first game of the campaign. The media had been impressed with his impact, and with his success at both national and international level, he was the obvious candidate to be honoured with the Guldbollen, the Swedish Footballer of the Year award. In the press release that accompanied his award, it was implied that the choice had been easy for the panel.

Born Per Tomas Brolin in November 1969, he had become the living embodiment of a Swedish fairy tale, a footballer who had literally come out of nowhere. Brolin was raised not in a major conurbation such as Stockholm or Gothenburg, but instead in the isolated rural backwater of Finflo, a place so small most in Sweden had never heard of it.

Despite that, from a young age, he developed as a talented forward at a prodigious rate, going from making his debut in the fourth division in 1987 to playing for his country in a World Cup against Brazil within three years. Brolin was the living embodiment of the Swedish dream; he delivered the message to aspiring Swedish footballers in rural backwaters that anything was possible if you had the talent.

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At the start of the 1990s, there was only one arena to showcase your talent if you considered yourself to be a leading player – Serie A. Although several leading calcio teams had monitored his progress, it was the newly promoted Parma, a team that had never played in Serie A before, who identified Brolin as the man to establish their position in the top tier.

The club was in a healthy financial situation, bankrolled by the multinational food and dairy chain Parmalat. Although a number of suitors on the continent were intent on procuring the services of Brolin, Parma were successful in signing the player for a fee in the region of £1.2m pounds, a hefty price for someone as yet unproven outside of his homeland.

 

Love in Parma

 

Nevio Scala was the coach who had led Parma to promotion, and he was about to guide them to the most successful period in their footballing history. The coach decided to start the 1990/91 campaign with Brolin operating as a deep-lying centre-forward, with Alessandro Melli playing as the more advanced striker.

The duo proved to be an extremely effective partnership, with Melli scoring 13 goals and Brolin another seven. Between them they provided almost half of Parma’s goals in that campaign. In a competitive league, Parma finished in sixth place, well exceeding the predictions of most journalists. More importantly for the club, it meant that they had qualified for a European club competition for the first time in their history. In his first Serie A campaign, the boy from Finflo had justified his fee.

The following season saw Parma confirm their status as a major player. They achieved a seventh-placed finish in Serie A but more importantly won their first ever trophy as they claimed the Coppa Italia. Brolin had played a decisive part by scoring the winning goal against Sampdoria in the semis and was also an ever-present figure in the league campaign, scoring four goals.

Brolin returned from Euro 92 on a high but suddenly found himself struggling for a regular place in the Parma starting line-up due to the three foreigners rule in calcio. Unfortunately for the Swede, in the close season the club had signed Faustino Asprilla for a record fee, virtually guaranteeing him a place in the side.

Brolin appeared to accept the situation stoically and didn’t demand a transfer, although a number of clubs apparently inquired. The team made it all the way to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup, but Asprilla had sustained an injury and was unable to play. Brolin was handed his place back in the side and grabbed the opportunity with both hands as he played his part to help the Italians beat Royal Antwerp 3-1 in front of a surprisingly sparse crowd of 37,000 at Wembley.

With a proven record of success on the pitch, Parma were now able to attract the best talent at home and abroad. Italy internationals Gianfranco Zola and Massimo Crippa arrived that summer, putting yet more pressure on Brolin’s place. Scala, though, had other ideas and, having seen the benefits of playing Brolin in midfield during the previous campaign, decided to withdraw him into a deeper role alongside Crippa and Gabriele Pin, leaving Aspirilla and Zola as the attacking outlets. The move worked and Brolin thrived, reinventing himself as a playmaker. His passing, vision and exceptional technique made him a natural for the role.

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It was another season of progress for Parma. They finished in fifth in the league, nine points behind the eventual champions AC Milan. In the European Super Cup, they demonstrated their potential by securing a victory over Milan that would see them start the new season amongst the favourite for the title. This was their second European success in less than a year. They were also doing an excellent job of defending their Cup Winners’ Cup, progressing to the final for the second time with Brolin contributing an impressive tally of five goals en route.

Parma faced Arsenal in the final in Copenhagen. The Gunners were managed by George Graham, who would later cross swords with Brolin at Leeds. Despite Parma playing the better football and Brolin hitting the post, Arsenal took the lead through Alan Smith, and a dour defensive masterclass allowed the Gunners to grind out a less-than-deserved win.

Brolin’s time at Parma, where he’d become a firm fans’ favourite, had coincided with a golden age in their 81-year history. It all meant that he entered USA 94 in prime form. A nation expected.

 

World Cup star

 

Sweden had been placed in a tough qualifying group for the 1994 World Cup, finishing top ahead of Bulgaria and France, who failed to qualify. Brolin, apparently worn out by media obligations and the intensity of Serie A, asked for a break from playing for his country but returned with a bang, registering a hat-trick against Israel.

Given their performances at Euro 92, the fans and players were cautiously optimistic until they were placed in a tricky group alongside Brazil, Russia and Cameroon. Nevertheless, under Svensson, Sweden were organised and played with grinta throughout the finals. They came close to losing their opening fixture against Cameroon but managed to salvage a 2-2 draw thanks to a Martin Dahlin equaliser. The next game against Russia was crucial, with Brolin scoring from the spot as Sweden triumphed 3-1. The final match against Brazil ended in a credible draw, which ensured Sweden’s passage to the next stage as runners-up.

In the round of 16, they were paired with Saudi Arabia, who had finished level on points with the Netherlands in their group. The Swedes’ superior fitness in the heat and technique proved too much for the opposition as they cantered to a 3-1 win. Against all expectations, they had made it to the quarter-finals, where they faced a Romania side boasting arguably the player of the tournament so far in Gheorghe Hagi.

In a tense game, the Swedes took the lead with one of the goals of the tournament – a wonderfully engineered move from a free kick. Stefan Schwarz shaped to shoot but instead jumped over the ball, leaving Håkan Mild to flick it into the path of Brolin’s astute run, which had left him unmarked as he peeled away from the Romania wall. The forward then spun and thrashed the ball into the roof of the net from the tightest of angles. Romania, though, equalised two minutes from time to take the game into extra-time.

Sweden fell behind to a goal from Florin Răducioiu before Schwarz was sent off with 20 minutes remaining. Outnumbered and playing in a blistering heat, the 10 men hung on and manufactured an unlikely equaliser through Kennet Andersson to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. After the great Miodrag Belodedici missed his effort, Sweden were through to a World Cup semi-final for the first time in 36 years.

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The semi proved to be one game too far for an exhausted Swedish side, who lost 1-0 to the eventual winners, Brazil. However, in the playoff for third place, they demolished Bulgaria 4-0, Brolin starting the scoring with a header after eight minutes. It was his third goal of the tournament, cementing his place alongside Andersson as one of Sweden’s stars in the US. It all resulted in his selection to the FIFA All-Star XI at the conclusion of the finals.

It came as no surprise, then, when he received the Guldbullen in 1994 for the second time in his career. With the world at his feet, Spanish newspapers linked Brolin with Barcelona, suggesting he was the natural replacement for Hristo Stoichkov. Despite the Catalans’ interest, Brolin opted to stick with Parma, believing a Scudetto was now firmly within their grasp.

 

Slipping Crown

 

Brolin appeared to have made the right decision. After nine games, Parma led the table and Brolin, once again playing in midfield, was a key contributor. At the start of November 1994, he joined up with the national side as they started their qualification campaign for Euro 96.

Sweden played Hungary at the Rasunda with Brolin was at his imperious best. He scored the first goal and then brilliantly sent up Dahlin for the second. While the team celebrated, though, Brolin had collapsed in agony and was lying on the floor screaming for attention. In supplying the pass, he appeared to have twisted his left foot as it caught with the turf when he turned.

Scans revealed that he’d broken his foot. It was a massive blow to Sweden’s hopes of qualification, and though nobody predicted at the time, it would also put an end to the Brolin the world of football had become so enamoured with.

It was a long road to recovery. Brolin was out of the game for over six months, and it would require a determined effort on his part to get back into shape physically and mentally. Parma’s Serie A challenge faltered under his absence, while Sweden failed to win their next two games in qualification. The goals and assists were proving difficult to replace.

He made his comeback for Parma in May 1995 but struggled for form and fitness, failing to complete 90 minutes once. To compound his misery, Brolin was sent-off against Napoli on the last day of the season as Juventus captured the Scudetto.

It was going to be a make or break summer for the Swede, which was not made easier by Parma signing Stoichkov to lead the line. Brolin faced a tough summer of intensive training in an effort to get his body back into shape. He appeared in two of Parma’ s pre-season games but he was clearly not the same player, obviously overweight and missing the spark that so often saw him create space to showcase his skill.

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He was duly dropped for Massimo Bambrilla and never reclaimed his place. Struggling for form, fitness and confidence, Brolin had fallen out of the loop at Parma. It was time to move on.

 

Sergeant Wilko

 

Despite failing to regain his place at the Stadio Ennio Tardini, Brolin’s reputation still had enough currency to attract offers from other leading European clubs. He turned down offers from three Serie A clubs, which in retrospect was a disastrous decision. Leeds eventually parted with £4.5m to sign him in November 1995, a record fee for the club at the time.

Manager Howard Wilkinson had sold the club to Brolin by insisting that he was to play behind Tony Yeboah in a withdrawn striking role. Given the success that he’d enjoyed playing in this position for both Parma and Sweden, and that English football was always a popular destination amongst Scandinavian players, it was easy to see why Brolin chose Ellan Road.

Wilkinson appeared confident that he’d deliver and decided to recoup some of the fee by selling fan favourite Noel Whelan to Coventry. Given his previous performances, the Gelderd Enders were confident that Brolin could have them challenging for honours again.

The striker made his debut away at Newcastle, coming off the bench after 82 minutes to replace Mark Ford. He started in a League Cup game against Blackburn the following week and scored his first goal away in a 6-2 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday in mid-December. He followed this with an impressive performance in his home debut as Leeds defeated Manchester United 3-1.

The club embarked on a run of four wins in six games without defeat, in which Brolin scored another three goals, including a brace in a masterclass performance that led to a 2-0 win at West Ham. With four goals in eight games, the Leeds fans sang his name long into the night.

A crushing 5-0 defeat at Liverpool marked the turning point in the striker’s fortunes in Yorkshire. He was asked to play on the right-hand side of midfield, a role he loathed due to the defensive running involved. Brolin was adamant that this was not a role best suited to his skills and, in a catastrophic error of judgement, decided he would not even try during the game to prove his point.

Wilkinson was incandescent with rage after the match, branding his signing as “lazy”. Brolin countered that he had signed as a striker and not as a winger. As other players like Eric Cantona had previously established, Sergeant Wilko didn’t tolerate those who spoke their mind. Brolin struggled to make the starting line-up under Wilkinson again, although he did appear as a 65th-minute substitute in the League Cup final defeat to Aston Villa, with desperate fans chanting his name.

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Despite his poor form in the Premier League, even a near-fit Brolin was an automatic choice for the national side, and on 6 June he scored from the spot to earn Sweden a 1-1 draw with Iceland and scored again in a friendly match against the USA.

At the start of the 1995/96 season, the headlines reported that Brolin had been fined by Wilkinson for missing a part of pre-season. The reality was that a disillusioned manager had given him three days leave to find another club. The striker had sought assurances that he would play in his preferred role, but Wilkinson’s silence on the issue was deafening. As Brolin himself succinctly stated a few years later, “The man would not bloody listen!”

As a result, Brolin failed to return to Leeds, incurring a fine of a week’s wages. With no future at Elland Road, Brolin went to FC Zürich on loan, taking a substantial wage cut in the process. A poor run of form led to Wilkinson’s sacking in September 1996, but if the Swede thought matters would improve with the departure of his nemesis, he was mistaken.

 

General Graham

 

New manager George Graham immediately demanded that Brolin return to Leeds, threatening legal action if he didn’t comply. Injuries continued to plague the Swede as a metal staple inserted into his ankle during a scar tissue-removal operation earlier in 1996 scuppered a move to Sampdoria in November.

Oblivious to the staple’s existence, Leeds called Brolin back to Yorkshire to have the injury properly examined amid fears that his playing career might have reached a premature end. Brolin never played for Leeds again, and eventually he took the step of self-funding a loan move back to Parma in December, paying £500,000 of his own money to facilitate the deal.

At Parma, he struggled to establish himself as a first-team regular and it soon became clear that the club had no intention of keeping him permanently. In reality, Parma had only agreed to the loan as a favour for his loyal and fruitful service in the early 1990s, and his period there was a mixture of brief cameos and substitute appearances. Prior to his move back to Italy, he played his last game for the national team in a draw against Turkey.

He was due to return to Leeds for pre-season training but an incident involving a bird smashing into the windscreen of his car – which was falsely reported as Brolin running over an elk in the British tabloids – resulted in a delay. Graham was furious, and when Brolin appeared at Elland Road, the manager, never averse to the draconian castigation of a player, confiscated his passport and locked it away.

Brolin, remarkably, still managed to leave the country to go to Sweden for the weekend. The result? He wasn’t included in the team photo, didn’t get any training gear, and was no longer allowed in for free at Elland Road to watch Leeds play – despite still being a Leeds player. When interviewed for the Swedish magazine Offside, Brolin  was contemptuous in his judgement on Graham: “He was an even bigger idiot than Wilkinson.”

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Both parties now decided that it was in their mutual interest for a parting of the ways. Brolin, increasingly incensed by his treatment, had threatened legal action by taking the club to a Premier League Tribunal. and also to go to the BBC for a warts and all documentary on his treatment by Graham. The board at Leeds agreed to release him from his contract and also to rescind any previous fines they had imposed. His sojourn at Leeds was over. It had been a costly experience for both sides.

Steve Coppell, the Crystal Palace manager, offered Brolin a two-week trial that began in January 1998. He made his debut against Everton, looking visibly overweight in a tight- fitting shirt which was anything but flattering to his physique. However, he was out of form and out of condition and failed to score the six months he spent at Selhurst Park. He had become a pale imitation of the player who had shined at the European Championship and at two World Cups. Although he was still only 28, his career was over.

 

Legacy

 

Brolin consistently appears in the lists of worst Premier League players, not least at Leeds and Crystal Palace. But are these judgements fair? Does a portly George Best playing out his career at the likes of Dunstable and Stockport negate the thrill his talent brought to the table when he was at his prime? Surely not – and the same is true for Brolin.

Back in Sweden, Brolin was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 2010. His record of 27 goals in 47 appearances marks him out as the seventh highest goalscorer in the country’s history. So proud is he of his record for his country that he successfully lobbied for a goal that Roland Nilsson had been awarded in a 1991 match against Norway to be awarded to him.

At Parma, they still regard him as one of the pivotal cogs in their greatest era. His photograph can still be seen in many of the cafes near the Stadio Ennio Tardini, where he’s cherished as one of their finest imports.

Sadly, he never fully recovered from his broken foot, but a return of four goals in his first eight appearances for Leeds begs the question: would a more sympathetic manager have coaxed better performances from Brolin if he had played him in his preferred position?

At his peak, Brolin was one of the most thrilling players to watch on the world stage. He shone as a midfielder in Serie A, the most competitive league in the world at that time, and registered a brilliant seven goals in 12 appearances at the World Cup and European Championship. Aside from Gunnar Gren in 1958, he is the only Swede to have been selected for a World Cup All-Star side.

For me, despite the unfair regard with which he’s held in England, Tomas Brolin will always be the Swedish superstar from Finflo whose golden years in the limelight convinced you that he was one of the world’s very best players.

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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