When London hosted the Olympic Games in 1948, the world was a very different place to when it returned 64 years later in 2012. Many of those turning out to watch had endured the horrors of not only one, but two gargantuan global conflicts, and the bomb-ravaged English capital was itself still in the early stages of rebuilding.
Less than three years had elapsed, after all, since the end of World War II, and food rationing remained in force throughout Britain - even for the athletes taking part. There was, nonetheless, a fierce determination to overcome such obstacles, particularly as these were the first Olympics since the infamous and highly politicised games of Berlin 1936. For the event to be a success, sport had to return to the fore.
Yet the Olympians who helped achieve that aim were themselves very different to the finely-tuned and often heavily-sponsored professionals who will arrive at London 2012. Illustrating the contrast was the star of the 1948 games, Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, who was nicknamed ‘The Flying Housewife’ after reacting to criticism for not staying at home to look after her two children by winning four gold medals.
Yet this groundbreaking 30-year-old was not the only standout performer in London. On the football pitch, a trio of brothers came together to propel Sweden to the greatest triumph of their team’s history, and their only major honour to date. The Nordahls, though, were no ordinary siblings. Of the family’s six brothers, five became footballers and four went on to represent their country. The three who made it to London 1948 - Knut, Bertil and Gunnar – all starred in the final, and each went on to play at the highest level in Italy.
Yet there was no disputing which of the Nordahls took top billing. Gunnar, despite being the youngest of the Olympic trio, was in a class of his own - and not only within his own family. He was the outstanding player of the 1948 games, and ended the tournament as joint-top scorer, having scored seven goals in just four appearances.
Team-mate Gunnar Gren, with whom he enjoyed a long and fruitful alliance for both club and country, said of Nordahl: “He scored tap-ins and spectacular goals. He would sneak into positions that others would not know existed. He was one of the best players there has ever been, and in my opinion one of the best goalscorers."
From an early stage, the signs were there that London 1948 was going to be Gunnar Nordahl’s tournament. Inside ten minutes of his team’s opening match, he had scored twice against the fancied Austrians to set Sweden on the road to a 3-0 win. Four more followed in a 12-0 demolition of Korea Republic in the quarter-finals and, while Nordahl wasn’t on target in a 4-2 win over Denmark in the last four, one of the Swedes’ goals owed much to his renowned ingenuity.
Realising that he had strayed yards offside as his team mounted a counter-attack, the 26-year-old reacted by throwing himself into the Danish goal, removing himself from the field of play and allowing Henry Carlsson to head home. Coolness personified, Nordahl even had the temerity to catch Carlsson’s effort before it hit the net.
The final saw him back to his deadly best, re-establishing Sweden’s lead two minutes into the second half as Yugoslavia were beaten 3-1. Weeks later, the Swedes beat Norway 5-3 in a Nordic Championship match, and Nordahl scored all five. Such feats were never going to go unnoticed by Europe’s top clubs, and no-one was in the least surprised when AC Milan brought him to Serie A on 22 January 1949.
Sadly, however, the move brought about the end of a remarkable international career after just 33 appearances and 43 goals. The Swedish FA were steadfast at the time in their policy of selecting only amateurs, and one of football’s finest strikers was duly lost to the international game at the age of just 27.
“If we’d had him in 1950, I’m certain we’d have done better than third place,” lamented the team’s coach, George Raynor, reflecting on Sweden’s showing at the 1950 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “Nordahl was born to score goals.”
A record five Capocannoniere top scorer awards in Italy underlined that innate ability, and yet Nordahl was not the only hero of the 1948 Olympics denied to their English coach in the years that followed. His success had opened the doors for several other Swedes to move to Serie A, with Gren and Nils Liedholm joining him at Milan and combining to form the celebrated ‘Gre-No-Li’ triumvirate.
It is to Raynor’s immense credit that, despite the loss of such talent, he remained the most successful coach in Sweden’s history. A journeyman footballer in England’s lower leagues, the Barnsley native’s first steps in international ‘coaching’ had come when he taught PE in Baghdad during World War II. It was when he graduated to taking charge of an Iraqi representative side that he came to the attention of the Swedish Football Association, and upon moving to Scandinavia found a group of players ready and willing to be moulded.
"They are a very studious people and they analysed everything," he said of the Swedes. "For instance, you could say 'get some bloody running done', and an English team would run. But the Swedes wanted to know where they should run."
Raynor was a revolutionary. His teams were among the first to adopt the 4-2-4 and 4-3-3 formations at a time when the so-called ‘WM' system reigned supreme. "We pulled both wingers back into the middle of the park, and nobody could fathom it,” he later recalled with a smile.
Indeed, it was widely suggested that, but for their refusal to select professionals, Sweden would have been a match for the similarly forward-thinking Hungarian side of the early 1950s. After all, even without 'Gre-No-Li', Sweden had still finished third at Brazil 1950, becoming the first team to beat a FIFA World Cup holder – Italy – en route. The result of that triumph was the departure of more Swedes to Serie A, and yet Raynor still led his team to another bronze medal finish at the 1952 Olympics, and onwards to the final of the 1958 FIFA World Cup on home soil.
These gallant near misses helped earn the Englishman a knighthood from the King of Sweden. Yet it was in 1948, with Nordahl and Co, that Raynor had given this country its greatest footballing moment, and a glimpse of the glories that were possible.