When Malin Mostrom hung up her boots in December, one Swedish journalist wrote wistfully, "Miss Perfect will never play again." Shortly before Christmas, the 31-year-old Umea IK playmaker announced she was quitting the game to focus fully on her family and her career as a property agent. The decision was no great surprise in itself - Mostrom had already raised the prospect of her retirement in 2005. Officials at both club and national level appear to have been taken aback by the timing, however, only nine months ahead of the FIFA Women's World Cup finals.
Having also just lost the services of Linda Fagerstrom and Anna Sjostrom, Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby is now faced with the task of replacing 'Mosan', the player who for years has pulled the strings in the middle of the park for the Scandinavians. Dennerby freely admits that there is no comparable talent at his disposal, but says, "Now other players will just have to try and fulfill Malin's role in the team."
Mostrom's departure has heralded a sweeping change in strategy for the Swedes. Two recent friendlies in Cyprus against Japan (2-2) and Scotland (1-0) offered a possible taste of things to come.
Caroline Seger and Therese Sjogran played together in central midfield - a tactic that has proven successfully on occasions in the past when Mostrom was not available. Josefine Oqvist and Lotta Schelin are being deployed more on the flanks to help get the ball forward quickly - something Mostrom achieved playing largely through the middle. Dennerby will use the Algarve Cup in March and subsequent friendlies to experiment further with these and other variations.
New style of play
Since taking charge in the wake of UEFA EURO 2005, Dennerby has introduced a number of promising young players into the senior side; Maria Aronsson, Nilla Fischer and Caroline Nafver to name but three. As yet, none of the newcomers has been able to establish themselves as a first-team regular. "In the international arena they need to be able to move up to the next level," Dennerby said of the youngsters when he took over the reins.
In the deciding game of the qualifying campaign against the Czech Republic, six of the players in the starting line-up had taken part in the final of the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003. As it is, the real regeneration work remains a task for the years to come.
The immediate priority is selecting the best-possible combination for the upcoming finals . Thirty players are in contention for 21 places in the squad for China. Some of the candidates were given an opportunity to shine in the two matches in Cyprus, while others will have their chance in the upcoming test games. Among those travelling to the Algarve Cup is 26-year-old newcomer Charlotte Rohlin, who played 4 times for the U-21s.
Forward Hanna Ljungberg will miss the trip to Portugal due to injury. "She only played five games in the World Cup qualifying campaign and scored ten goals. That speaks for itself," says Dennerby of his star striker. Ljungberg is key to Sweden's success at China 2007, but her proneness to injury is a concern to the coach. An inflamed thigh muscle will keep her out of action until May at the earliest.
Thunebro the find of the year
One player who shot to prominence in 2006 was Sara Thunebro - both for her club, Djurgarden/Alvsjo, and for the national side. The 27-year-old started out as a striker but her career has blossomed since switching to fullback, where she can operate equally well on either flank. "Those two positions suit me best," says Thunebro, who hopes to be in China in 2008 as well - this time for the Beijing Olympics.
In order for that dream to become reality, Sweden will have to be one of the top three European nations at China 2007. With the likes of Germany, Norway, England and Denmark also in contention, that is certainly no easy undertaking.
Dennerby hopes the prominent departures from his side might lead to some opponents underestimating the Swedes. "That's what I'm really hoping for," he says, "We have a lot of capable players in Sweden who have the chance here to take a mighty step forward."