Sweden and their nearly-men: The story of Swedish football’s near misses at the summit of the game

Sweden has produced many things: peace prizes, dynamite and basically Roy Hodgson’s career. The latter being the deadliest – by far. But they have never produced a major tournament victory: either in the club game or the international. This, of course, should be no real surprise: Sweden has produced great players but rarely great teams. In tournaments, they have forever been the underdog.

However, twice they have come close to converting their underdog status into champion status. At their own World Cup in 1958 and in the European Cup in 1979. Both sides would ultimately fall at the final hurdle to vastly superior opposition, but their respective journeys follow similar paths and may encapsulate Sweden’s footballing identity: the nearly-men.

As Sweden hosted the 1958 World Cup, the sixth iteration of the tournament, few would have foretold the significance of the tournament. It would be the birthplace of the world’s first superstar footballer: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or more commonly known, Pelé. It would be the first tournament win for Brazil – eight years on from their heartbreak in the Maracanã. It would also be the second coming of an unfancied great Swedish side – only to fall at the final hurdle.

Sweden came into the tournament unknown and unfancied led by an odd Yorkshireman named George Raynor; Brian Glanville described their chances as ‘an outside one’ in The Irish Times. Failure to qualify for the 1954 World Cup was seen as a shock as they had finished third in 1950 with, as Somnath Sengupta put in Football Paradise, ‘arguably the best team in Europe when football restarted after [the] war’.

Stig Sundqvist, Lennart Skoglund and Gunnar Nordahl all turned professional moving to Italy after the 1950 tournament, with the Swedish Football Association (SvFF) not allowing professional players to play for the national team, this heralded the end of an era of European dominance for the Swedes.

Raynor’s Sweden started the tournament with a comfortable win over Mexico, 3-0. A 2-1 victory over the 1954 finalists Hungary, the ‘magical Magyars’ of the early 1950s had been ravaged by the political events of 1956, preceded a 0-0 draw with John Charles’ Wales in the group stage.

The SvFF, by 1958, was now allowing professionals; the 1958 side contained five overseas players: Nils Liedholm, Kurt Hamrin, Arne Selmosson, Lennart Skoglund and Bengt Gustavsson. Hamrin and Skoglund, in particular, were crucial to Sweden in their run: Hamrin would score four and Skoglund named in the team of the tournament.

Hamrin would go on to become one of Sweden’s all-time greats with spells at Fiorentina, A.C. Milan and Napoli meaning he is still eighth on the all-time Serie A goalscoring chart. Despite this, the Swedish public thought it wrong for, what they called, ‘Italians’ to play for Sweden even if they were making the team successful.

It was Hamrin, one of the so-called ‘Italians’, described by Glanville in The Irish Times as ‘the finest right-winger in Italian football’, who would score first against the Soviet Union in the quarter-final and then again in the 3-1 semi-final victory against defending champions West Germany

It was the defeat of West Germany that was the defining moment of their World Cup. The West German’s had defeated the iconic Hungarian side in 1954 but ‘have done little in international soccer since their triumph’, according to a New York Times piece from June 1958, and were said to have ‘little chance of retaining their title’ by Glanville. Nonetheless, they had defeated a Yugoslavian side described being perhaps the ‘favourites’ by Glanville in the weeks preceding the tournament and had lost just twice in the previous eighteen months, including beating Sweden. They were no mugs.

The delicate Swedish style would triumph over the tough West German side setting up a final with Brazil. This being something ‘her [Sweden] supporters still can hardly believe’ wrote W.R. Taylor in the Manchester Guardian. They would lose 5-2 to a brilliant Brazilian side. This result was hardly surprising but it came as a crushing blow to the home fans. It would be the aftermath of the tournament that would bring more sorrow for Swedes.

They would fail to qualify for the next two World Cups despite losing just four of their next twenty-three games. Liedholm, Skoglund, Gustavsson and Selmosson, Sweden’s overseas talents, would all only play a handful more games for their national side. It would be the crashing of the second wave of Sweden’s outstanding national team’s in the 1950s. Not until the 2018 World Cup would such an unfancied side penetrate so deep into the tournament. Sweden would have to wait until 1994 before they did anything on the international scene, but it would be a Swedish side that would make it all the way to the European Cup final in 1979: little-known Malmo.

It would be another unknown Englishman, Bob Houghton, just 27 when he took over in 1974, that would lead Malmo to three Allsvenskan league titles in 1974, 1975 and 1977; with four Svenska Cupen titles for good measure and, of course, a European Cup final.

The victory in 1977 gained Malmo entry to the champions-only European Cup. In their first entry under Houghton they would lose narrowly to eventual champions Bayern Munich in the second round; then to Torino in the first round the following season. Entry in 1978 was seen as a mere bonus for winning another Allsvenskan title.

Swedish entrants would have the added hurdle of the timings of their seasons. The regular European season would last from August to May; the Swedish would play from April to November. Thus meaning, as noted by John Roberts in The Guardian in 1979, they had ‘travelled the length and breadth of the continent playing friendly matches in order to stay in shape’ while their European counterparts played out their domestic seasons.

The 1978-79 season was no different. Drawn against the French champions, AS Monaco, in the first round, Malmo would immediately showcase their defensive solidity on the continental stage. Led by Bo Larsson, described as ‘the most eminent player in Sweden’ by Roberts, and Roy Andersson, Malmo’s defence would shut out a Monaco side that scored 79 league goals the previous season.

Their 1-0 victory over two legs would mean a journey behind the Iron Curtain to Kyiv. What lay in the great unknown was Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv. Lobanovskyi, along with Ajax’s Rinus Michels and Viktor Maslov of Dynamo Kyiv, is credited with introducing the concept on pressing and ball recoveries in the final third as being central to any successful team. Jonathan Wilson, in Inverting the Pyramid, describes Lobanovskyi’s Kyiv as ‘undoubtedly one of the best teams in Europe’.

Dynamo also boasted Oleg Blokhin as their leading forward – who was named Ballon d’Or winner in 1975. Dynamo, led by Blokhin, had won their previous eight home fixtures in the European Cup by an aggregate score of 19-1. A 0-0 draw, ‘the most surprising result in the first leg of the second-round’ as David Lacey wrote in The Observer, showcased both Malmo’s defensive abilities and the difficulty of playing behind the Iron Curtain.

The return leg finished 2-0 meaning that the Soviet, Italian, Belgian and European champions had all been eliminated. Liverpool and Club Brugge, the previous season’s finalists, had been expected to dominate again. It would be the conquerors of Club Brugge that Malmo would face next: Wisla Krakow.

The Polish champions were as unknown as Malmo. Club Brugge had beaten them in Brussels in a half-filled Olympiastadion and lead 3-2 on aggregate with ten minutes to go in the second leg. Goals form Leszek Lipka and Janusz Krupinski would take Krakow through; another late goal in the first leg of their second-round tie would set up the encounter with Malmo.

Taking a 2-1 first-leg lead, Krakow then led 1-0 on the night in Malmo. A hattrick from the “Swedish Puskas”, Anders Ljungberg, would help little-known Malmo overturn a 3-1 aggregate deficit in twenty-five minutes to win 5-3 on aggregate. It was made all the more remarkable by Houghton himself acknowledging that the ‘quarter-final came at a bad time for us, in the middle of our close season’ and they had been struggling for injuries.

Injuries would ravage the defence that would be so vital in their semi-final against Austria Wien: Larsson would miss out entirely; Ljungberg would miss the first leg. Wien had scored eleven in their three homes games so far in the tournament with stand-out striker Walter Schachner netting five of them. Malmo’s dogmatic defensive abilities would produce another 0-0 away from home in the European Cup, in what Roberts described as ‘a surprising goalless draw’.

Houghton himself noted that ‘they [Wien] have scored 11 goals at home and none away so far’ it would be the decisive fact that Wien were unable to score away from home as a forty-seventh-minute goal from Tommy Hansson booked Malmo’s place in the final against Nottingham Forest. It would make them ‘the most remarkable qualifiers for the final since…Panathinaikos, in 1971’, Roberts asserted.

The final itself was a dull affair with Trevor Francis’ lone gone for Forest, his first in European football, helping them triumph over a Malmo that was, as put by David Lacey, ‘dour in the extreme’. The Swedes, remarkedly, caught their English counterparts offside fifteen times but ‘had not looked remotely like scoring’. They had been bogged down, yet again, by injuries to key players with captain Staffan Tapper, Larsson and Andersson all missing out.

Defeat would bring an end to Houghton’s era of success with Malmo – just one solitary Svenska Cupen victory before he would leave in 1980 – and the closing of the door of European competition for him. It would be the last time Malmo would make it past the second round; the last time a Scandinavian team would make serious headway in the European Cup.

Malmo’s downfall after the final mirrored that of the 1958 Swedish national team with just six league titles in the next thirty-one years – a barren run, historically. They failed, like the 1958 team to build on their achievements. It would be the reign of Roy Hodgson – before he became the Roy we all now know, and lament – from 1985-1989 that would yield five consecutive titles. But no success on the continent would follow.

For Swedish football, a third-place at the 1994 World Cup would be the next serious achievement in the men’s game. Instead, it would be the women’s national team that would produce a victory in the 1984 European Championships and a string of third-place finishes at World Cups. It seems the men may forever be the nearly-men but the women’s game could prove to be where success lies for the Swedish game.


About the author

Ewan Freeman is a contributor to Long Reads: Football and The Student, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He covers all aspects of the game, across Europe, from current affairs in the top flight to issues affecting lower league clubs.

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