With 68 minutes of the quarter-final gone and losing 1-0 to Honduras, coach Roland Larsson of Sweden had to make a decision. After all, these are the knockout stages where it’s all or nothing. He decided to pull the trigger and sent speed-merchant Carlos Strandberg and versatile midfielder Anton Saletros to the fourth official’s table with their entry cards.
“We were going to go for it, to change from our 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 and put some more pressure on Honduras.” But before there was a stoppage, Erdal Rakip slotted home elegantly from a Gentrit Citaku through ball. While the players all celebrated, Larsson called his two subs frantically back to the bench. “I had to stop and think then,” he told FIFA.com with a smile. “What should I do? Me and the other coaches had a quick discussion and we decided to go for it. We brought the new boys, Saletros and Strandberg, in, but we kept it at a 4-4-2 instead of a 4-3-3. We can call it ‘going for it without totally going for it.’”
The pair’s impact was immediate. Strandberg, tall, powerful and with bags of pace, crossed from the right side out to the left flank, where Saletros pulled the ball across the face of goal for colourful striker Valmir Berisha to flick home his fourth goal of the finals.
“You always have to be ready when you’re on the bench,” said Saletros of AIK Solna, who has started two games at the FIFA U-17 World Cup and come off the bench in the other two. “I always prepare before a game like I’m starting because you never know when, or how quickly, your chances will come. I was in there for only a few seconds and I crossed for Berisha to score, so it’s a good thing I was ready.”
Jobs to be done
Strandberg, of mixed Portuguese and Swedish parentage, understands his role off the bench in the purest and simplest terms. “It’s my job to be ready,” said the big BK Hacken player who has yet to start a game here in UAE, but has come off the bench in all of them. “When the coach calls my name, then I go in and do everything I can to help the team. I’m ready to go; no problems at all.”
Striker extraordinaire Berisha, whose heel-flick goal drew more comparisons to his personal hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic, also recognises the importance of Sweden’s depth during the finals. “It’s just amazing that we have so many good players who can come off the bench and do so much good for the team,” said the striker who coach Larsson calls “one of the best attacking players in the tournament.”
Coach Larsson speaks of his less-heralded players on the touchline with a genuine affection, just like he does with his stars. “We have so much power in these boys – starters, subs, whoever. They never stop trying,” he said, patting players on their back as they passed through the tunnel toward waiting media and the team bus. “And I mean never. We lost our balance early in the game and we went a goal down because of it. But they never lost their heads; they did their jobs and did what they had to do to win the game.”
When asked if he thinks he earned a starting berth with his efforts in the quarter-final win, Seletros – blond and friendly – just shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. We’re in the semi-final of a World Cup and that’s an amazing feeling,” he said, a true smile on his face, a member of a team not of 11 players but of 21. “I hope we can do something special there too.”