In many ways, the most recent Women's World Cup in the USA in 2003 was defined by raw physical power and an increased combativeness in the arena of female football. Then USA coach April Heinrichs even warned: "We have to make sure our game doesn't get too physical and based around sheer power."
Eventual champions Germany exemplified this shift better than anyone. As a result, many purists fell in love with beaten finalists Sweden, who profoundly bucked the bruising trend by relying in some of the more stylish facets of the beautiful game.
By no means shrinking violets in the challenge, Marika Domanksi-Lyfors' side made headway by moving the ball. Either through quick short passes in midfield orchestrated by the likes of Malin Mostrom, incisive runs up front from livewire Hanna Ljungberg or dribbling wizard Victoria Svensson, the yellow-clad Scandinavians always put on a sumptuous show in the States. In doing so they managed to leave far more physically powerful sides such as Nigeria and Canada in their wake. Brazil were also put to the sword en en route to the final.
Dennerby in the dugout
Nine members of the 2003 Sweden squad will be returning to the women's showpiece this September in China, all of them armed with the memory of that heart-breaking golden goal loss to Germany in in Los Angeles. They will also be conscious of the fact that while that match will always hold bitter personal memories, it also represented a high point for the women's game in their homeland, drawing record TV audiences.
Despite similarities in the form of seeming ever-presents like Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson, the Swedes will also show some significant changes from the class of '03. First and foremost, former Hammarby player Thomas Dennerby has taken over the reigns from the talismanic Domanski-Lyfors, who has since moved on to coach finals hosts China PR.
Also missing will be outstanding USA 2003 goalkeeper Caroline Jönsson, whose acrobatic shot-stopping often bordered on the impossible. A torn cruciate ligament in her knee will open the door for back-up Sofia Lundgren. Josefine Oqvist and Frida Nordin also represent major losses for the aging side as they gear up for their jaunt in the Far East and what will be the nation's fifth appearance at the women's world showpiece.
Despite these losses, Dennerby's side, who finished a respectable third at the 2007 Algarve Cup after disappointing in the Scandinavian championship, will be keen to focus on the large chunk of returning veterans. "Obviously it's a big blow to lose important players in your team with a World Cup right around the corner," said the coach, "but we have a strong squad with a lot of experience and we should be able to fight for medals in China."
Hopes for Hanna
Although she has had to contend with a seemingly endless string of injuries since 2003, Umea IK striker Ljungberg - who once famously received an invitation to play for Serie A men's side Perugia - could well represent the key to Swedish hopes of global glory in China alongside long-time strike partner Svensson.
Speedy, lively and with a predatory eye for goal, the former Swedish Women's Player of the Year was the team's main attacking threat with three goals and two assists at USA 2003 and will be keen to link up again with former veterans Hanna Marklund, Malin Mostrom and Therese Sjogran, all of whom have over 100 caps for the national team. "Hanna (Ljungberg) is fighting her way back and we all know what she's capable of, so I'm in a good mood," Dennerby recently remarked.
If statistics are anything to go by it seems the Swedes - though four years older than the lively bunch that shimmied and wriggled their way to the last world final - are every inch the free-scoring and defensively solid side they once were. In a rampaging run through European qualifying, they racked up 32 goals - one more even than world champions Germany - while conceding just six at the other end.
All optimism and history aside, one certainty simply can't be avoided: this time around the Swedes find themselves in, arguably, the tournament's toughest section. They will certainly need to redscover the form of 2003 if they are to escape a tough pool that also includes Nigeria, USA and Korea DPR.