It is now over 17 years since the Swedish Football Association first added to their books a little-known former footballer by the name of Lars Lagerback.
Then 41, this quiet and unassuming character joined on the back of unremarkable spells on the coaching staff of Kilafors, Arbraa and Hudiksvall, stints that followed an equally low-profile playing career with some of Sweden's lesser-known outfits. Nevertheless, his grasp of the game had impressed the association's hierarchy, and with the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ fast approaching, Lagerback was recruited to a dual role that combined scouting Sweden's opposition with coaching the country's youth team.
It was a job in which he excelled, and when Tommy Soderberg was promoted from his position as U-21 boss to succeed Tommy Svensson in 1997, he immediately moved to install this still-unknown youth coach as his assistant. Now, a decade on, this same man who arrived unannounced and utterly anonymous on Sweden's football landscape has the distinction of being his country's most successful-ever coach, having led the Scandinavian nation to four consecutive major finals.
That impressive sequence began with qualification for UEFA EURO 2000, by which time Lagerback had already been elevated by Soderberg to equal billing in recognition of his immense tactical contribution to qualifying triumphs over the likes of England. Defying the sceptics, the pair's partnership survived and indeed flourished as Sweden advanced to the knockout stages of both the 2002 FIFA World Cup™ and EURO 2004 before Soderberg vacated the stage, leaving Lagerback to assume the central role.
However, as the long-serving Sweden coach revealed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he now has a new equal partner in all but title, with assistant Roland Andersson central to the continued success of a side that currently peer down on Spain, Denmark and Northern Ireland from the top of their EURO qualifying section. As he reflected on a decade at the top, Lagerback also looked to his own future and, having previously stated his intention to quit after EURO 2008, admitted that he would now not rule out extending his remarkable tenure.
FIFA.com: This year sees you celebrate a decade of
involvement in the management of Sweden's national team? How
would you reflect on that time?
Lars Lagerback: Well, that is a very big question! So much has happened that it's impossible to sum it all up other than to say that I have enjoyed those years immensely. The job is one that I love and one I still have a big appetite for, so I'm very grateful and privileged to have held it for so long. I appreciate that it's rare in football for a coach to stay with one team for so long, although I would also say that the only reason I'm still here is because we've had some good results. Like all coaches, if the results hadn't been so good, I would have gone some time ago.
Clearly a national coach doesn't have the capability to
strengthen his squad by signing players, but do you believe Sweden
are stronger now than when you took over?
I don't think so actually. With national teams, I always feel that a good way to assess your strength is to look at how many players you have playing in the major leagues - and we have fewer now than when I started. Where I do think we have strengthened in Sweden is in widening the base of international-class players we have to pick from. That has been a big positive step forward from my perspective.
It's increasingly rare in football for any coach to stay in place for as long as you have. Do you believe this stability has been beneficial to Sweden? I'd like to think so, yes. Certainly, I believe in continuity, and I think that national teams benefit from it every bit as much as clubs - if not more. After all, we don't work with our players every day like club coaches do, so it's vital to know those players inside-out, and it's only after some time you can achieve that. I think it benefits everyone: players, coach, staff. When we meet up, everyone knows what to expect.
That predictability brings its own dangers too, of course.
Do you make a conscious effort to alter your approach from time to
time to keep things fresh?
Of course, because you're right - it's important not to let things become stale. But I've always been a great believer that you don't change for change's sake. There has to be a purpose to whatever you do. But there's no doubt that you have to keep evolving, and we've developed things down the years from the likes of the way team meetings are held to major issues such as our style of play.
Is it fair to say that the style of play has been an area that you have been particularly keen to develop? After all, Sweden have not traditionally been known for playing entertaining football.
I certainly feel, going round the world, that Sweden are afforded a great deal more respect now than they were when I first became involved. Again, results are a big part of that, but I do feel that people now appreciate that we have a lot of very good footballers in our team. Maybe in the past we were just seen as strong and well organised, but although those are not attributes to be ashamed of, I think we have developed as a group. We certainly score a lot more goals now than when I first took the job, and that's something I am quite proud of.
The partnership you had with Tommy Soderberg was another
rarity in modern football. Do you ever miss that, or is it easier
to work on your own terms?
I can see why you would ask that, but to be honest there's no real difference to the way things are just now. The partnership I have with Roland (Andersson, Lagerback's assistant since Soderberg's departure in 2004) is very similar to the one Tommy and I had in practical terms. I've never had a problem with that arrangement, I don't need to have the title of No1. But it was Roland's preference to come in under the title of assistant. I would have been perfectly happy to have him as co-coach in the same way Tommy and I were.
Did you ever consider resigning after the 2006 FIFA World
No, I can honestly say that I never even considered it. I had already signed a contract until 2008 and I had never broken a contract until then, so I wasn't about to start. And I don't think our performance in Germany demanded anything like that.
You've said that you will step down when your contract
expires after EURO 2008. Is there any way that, given the right
circumstances, you could be tempted to stay on?
It's a difficult question to answer right now. I really don't know. I've spoken to the chairman about the future, of course, but only in very general terms. At this stage, it doesn't make sense to talk about my own future beyond EURO 2008, but what I would say at this stage is that I wouldn't close the door to that (staying on). I will certainly be continuing in football somewhere, but whether that's with the Swedish national team or a club, who knows?
Would you ever be tempted to follow the lead of your
countrywoman Marika Domanski-Lyfors and take charge of another
national team other than Sweden?
Perhaps... why not? It would depend on the country of course, but if it was something interesting, I would surely consider it. I still have one-and-a-half years before I need to think about anything like that, but I would say again that I would not close the door to anything.
Looking at your EURO qualifying campaign after seven games, you must be delighted to be top of such a tough section.
Absolutely. If you'd have been able to offer me six wins from our first seven games before we started qualifying, I'd certainly have taken it. I think the players have done a marvellous job so far, although there's obviously still a long way to go.
At the moment, you are three points ahead of Spain, with Northern Ireland a further two points behind but with a game in hand and Denmark another three points further back. Do you see it as a three or four-horse race, or do you see the Spanish as your only real threat?
Realistically, with the greatest of respect to Northern Ireland, who've done tremendously well so far, I think it's going to be very difficult for them to maintain their challenge. What I would say is that it would be wrong to count out Denmark. If they beat us in our next match, that would put them right back in the running.
You were obviously awarded a 3-0 away win over Denmark by
UEFA's Control and Disciplinary Body after the referee was
attacked by a Danish fan with the score at 3-3. How do you reflect
on that incident?
It was very sad because, for me, it spoiled a real football party. It had been a fantastic football match that had everything: excitement, quality, goals and a great atmosphere. It's sad the outcome had to be decided away from the football pitch, but it shouldn't be forgotten that we had a penalty when the referee brought the game to an end and would more than likely have won the game regardless.
One of the stars of that match was Johan Elmander. Is it
gratifying to see the kind of evolution that, as you lose someone
like Henrik Larsson, a player such as Elmander can emerge almost
from nowhere as a real mainstay of the team.
Well, I was very sad to lose Henrik because, not only is he a truly marvellous player, he was always a very important person and character in our squad. But he's almost 36 now, so I understand his desire to move on after such great service to the national team. That said, you're absolutely right in saying that other players have began to emerge, and Elmander is a perfect example. He's had a tremendous season for us and for his club, and he'll be a big player for Sweden going forward.
You have been involved in so many major competitions with
Sweden. Is there one tournament or memory that stands out from the
Again, that's a difficult one. Apart from EURO 2000, when we didn't do well at all, I've really enjoyed them all. I loved the experience of Portugal in 2004, that was fantastic, and perhaps we produced our best football at that tournament. But if I had to pick one match, it would definitely be the game against Paraguay in Berlin at last year's World Cup. What a memory! To have 50,000 Swedes at an 'away' game, that was something I had never seen before - and probably never expected to see. I'll never, ever forget that game. It was just incredible.