Cool Swedes seek hot start

For a country who have become perennial contenders since establishing their women's national team programme in the 1970s, it seems strange that Sweden have never won an opening game at either the Olympics or the FIFA Women's World Cup. "Oyoyoy," said Hanna Ljungberg in a sigh of endearing exasperation when asked about the phenomenon. "I really can't remember the last time we won an opening game at any tournament... not since I've been involved and that goes back to 1996."

One of the world's top strikers, Ljungberg is sure China 2007 will be where that trend is put to bed. "We've come together early this time and we are focused fully on getting a good start with a win over Nigeria on Tuesday," said Ljungberg, who finished as Sweden's top scorer in their run to the final of the last FIFA Women's World Cup after losing their opener 3-1 to hosts USA.

Déjà vu
The make-up of China 2007 Group B is identical to that of Group A four years ago in the States. But this time, instead of kicking off against favourites USA, the determined Scandinavians will face African champions Nigeria. "I think it's time for us to win an opener," added Ljungberg, whose level of fitness after a recent knee injury will be tested fully in Tuesday's curtain-raiser. Defensive midfielder Theresa Sjoegran, another veteran of USA 2003, concurred with his team-mate. "Yes, it's true," she told with a smile, "we haven't won an opening game in quite a while."

In past tournaments, seven-time African champions Nigeria have often resembled a paper tiger. Last time out in the US, they arrived with a big reputation only to be taken apart in their three games. They went down 3-0 to the Swedes and went home without either a point or a goal to their name. It was a far cry from their impressive run to the quarter-finals of USA 1999.

That said, Sjoegran is expecting a tough test from the west Africans, who will be bolstered by the inclusion of captain Perpetua Nkwocha and, more importantly, Cynthia Uwak who was short-listed for last year's FIFA World Player award and shone brightly at the 2006 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Russia. "Anyone who thinks the Nigerian team here in China will be rolled over like they were four years ago is not thinking straight," Sjoegran said. "I know this one is going to be much tougher than in USA. That said though, I am confident we are going to beat them."

'Not favourites'
When asked if Thomas Dennerby's team, featuring many of the same players from 2003, is slightly too old and injury-prone to achieve success, Sjoegran dismissed the idea out of hand. "We're not favourites, and we weren't favourites in 2003, so we aren't feeling any pressure from the outside," she said. "As for being too old, that's not entirely accurate. We have some newcomers like Stina Segerstroem, Caroline Seger, Lotta Schelin, Anna Paulson and Madelaine Edlund, so I think the average age is the same as the team four years ago.

"Sure, we have some older players," she added. "But sometimes the experience of age can help." And the experience of past opening-day setbacks should provide an early spur for the Swedes as they set out on what they hope will be another successful run on the world stage.