"I feel totally empty right now," said Sweden captain Victoria Svensson following her side's ultimately futile 2-1 win over Korea DPR. The Scandinavians had turned it on to win their last group match but, after a characteristically slow start, it was too little, too late.
Svensson had famously combined with Hanna Ljungberg to score six
goals between them on their run to the final of USA 2003. This
time, with just a single goal between them, they were experiencing
the flip-side of the FIFA Women's World Cup. A rueful early
trip home now beckoned for the yellow-shirted players who sprawled
despondently on the Tianjin pitch at the end of the Korea game.
"We played well and won the game but this was a very tough
group and we just came up a little short," added Svensson.
Eliminated by the Koreans on goal difference, it could well be the end of the road for a wonderful generation of Sweden stars. Alongside Svensson in attack, Ljungberg - Swedish player of the year twice and a veteran of three FIFA Women's World Cups - failed to find the net once following her recent return from a knee injury and her fortunes here in China were summed up when she limped off just before the interval against the Koreans with a fresh knock.
Ljungberg will have joined Svensson on the wrong side of 30 by the time the next world finals come round in 2011 but even Charlotta Schelin, 23 and the scorer of both goals against Korea DPR, was questioning whether she would return. "I'm not sure I'll be back for a another World Cup," said Schelin. "Four years is a long time and we'll have to see what happens."
Brighter days ahead
Yet there are positives according to the Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby. The younger players in the squad earned valuable experience and will be keen to pick up where their elders leave off. Stina Segerstrom, Caroline Seger and Madelaine Edlund all proved themselves worthy successors of the old Viking tradition. "We have a great future ahead of us," said Dennerby. "There were a lot of young players who showed good things here in China."
Tied with the Koreans on four points, Sweden - ranked third in the world - will know their undoing came at the start. Never having won an opening game at a FIFA Women's World Cup proved a curse again here in China, and conceding an equaliser late in their opener against Nigeria would ultimately prove their downfall. If that one point had been three, it would have been the Swedes and not the Koreans going through along with the USA. "We didn't take our chances through this whole tournament," said Dennerby after the final game. "In the end we were punished for it."
Heads bowed as they boarded their team coach in Tianjin ahead of a long trip home, the Scandinavians looked a forlorn lot. However, not all may be lost, for Sweden could yet qualify for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing next year as one of the top three European sides at China 2007. For that they need results to go their way in the final matches in Groups C and D but Dennerby, for one, has not given up hope. As he was quick to point out in typically optimistic Swedish style: "We'll do better in Beijing!"