Sweden’s players sat on the floor outside the changing rooms of the Rashid Stadium, their mouths turned down. They fiddled with their phones amid the steady din of partying Nigerian fans, still celebrating outside. There was no chatter, none of the usual banter and joke-cracking that followed their previous games here in UAE. They’d been well beaten by Nigeria in the semi-final.
“They deserve to be in the final,” Valmir Berisha, Sweden’s No9, one of the gems of these U-17 finals, told FIFA.com. “They play the game beautifully and they were better than us today.”
It’s a generous sentiment for a losing player, one step away from a World Cup final in his country’s first-ever participation. Berisha, with a half smile creeping through the sadness and the sparks of anger, knew the better team won. For a player who’s drawn comparisons to renegade countryman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both on and off the pitch, Berisha’s reaction is mature and selfless. And it shows a tremendous respect for the game.
“They don’t miss their chances,” Berisha, who scored four goals in UAE so far with a third-place play-off against Argentina still to come on 8 November. “And that’s what a good teams does. You’re never going to get a lot of chances to score in a World Cup semi-final. They took their chances and we didn’t,” he added after the 3-0 result, a scoreline which flattered the Nigerians who were only up 1-0 with ten minutes to go.
The game-plan to score early, like they did in the 3-3 draw against these same Nigerians in the first round, didn’t pan out as Roland Larsson’s men had hoped. Instead, the three-time champion Africans settled into a frenzied attacking rhythm. They were spurred on by their fans, who bayed appreciatively when the young Eaglets had the ball and hissed wickedly when they lost it. Each of Nigeria’s three goals was met with a roar from the crowd of well over 9000. The fans jumped up and down in the humble old stadium that’s almost lost at the base of Dubai, a city climbing toward the sky.
Berisha, who has proven himself a dignified youngster despite his combative personality on the pitch, congratulated all of the Nigerian players at the final whistle. He put his arms around them in appreciation. He knows good football when he sees it. “I went to all of them, especially their forwards, and I told them: ‘you must win the final, and if you don’t then football just isn’t fair.’
Swedish dignity in defeat
“Their football is just amazing,” added the Albania-born forward, whose strength, scoring prowess and ability to hold the ball up in traffic, mark him out for a bright future. And even though most of the fans were wearing green in the Rashid Stadium on the night, the memory of the passion and noise, the trumpets blaring, will linger in Berisha’s mind.
While the Nigerians celebrated noisily, maybe even cockily, after the final whistle, Sweden’s No9 made a point to walk over to the massive bank of African fans and applaud what they’d brought to the game. It was a quiet gesture of great dignity. “I had to thank them,” was his simple reply.
Sometimes in football, we lose sight of the quality of the individual in the hunt for the next big thing, the next goal, the next title, the next golden generation. In Berisha, after the final whistle of his losing semi-final in Dubai, we saw a young man appreciating how far he and his mates had come and just how good football can be.
“I’m not crying right now because we made a name for ourselves,” he went on, a genuine pride in his voice. “People all over the world now know that the next generation of Swedish players can play some football, and we’re desperate to finish with a medal.”
Judging by the reaction of his star man, his foraging and talented No9, it shouldn’t be hard for Sweden boss Larsson to get the boys motivated for the consolation game, the undercard, on final day. “We get to play another game.” Berisha concluded, half a smile on his face, a young man looking forward to running out on the pitch again.