As the national anthems rang out in Sharjah before kick-off in Japan and Sweden’s Round of 16 tie at the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the contrasting size of the two teams was startling. This difference in stature instantly brought back memories of the match played here ten days earlier, when the vice-champions of Asia took on Russia.
For the European champions, however, this physical edge did not count for much up against the mobility of Hirofumi Yoshitake’s players. Everyone was thus left wondering: would the Scandinavians make full use of this particular advantage?
Speaking to FIFA.com following his side’s victory, Swedish defender Linus Wahlqvist explained how Roland Larsson’s men decided to keep playing to their strengths: “We watched lots of videos of Japan’s matches,” he began. “We knew that we had a physical advantage and that we could capitalise upon that. So we decided to play with lots of width and use aerial balls to complement our side’s power, pace on the wings and firepower in front of goal.”
Later, when quizzed about his side’s opposition, Wahlqvist openly admitted how tough the match was: “We knew that [Japan] were good, but not that good,” he recalled.
“They’re like a Barça junior! The way they move the ball around and the players’ movement... What a great side!" he went on admiringly. “They played extremely well and they were undoubtedly one of the best teams here. But our defence is solid - as we showed in our previous matches - and it’s hard to score against us.”
Having built up a lead against Japan it was the team in yellow's defensive rock himself who reduced the deficit, when he inadvertently sent Hiroki Ogawa’s effort into his own net. “I was trying to clear the ball, but it obviously didn’t work,” said Wahlqvist.
“Sometimes things like that happen. But in the end it just made me more determined for the rest of the match. What’s more, all of my team-mates supported and encouraged me. Sixten [Mohlin], our goalkeeper, had a similar mishap against Nigeria and we all got behind him too. This time it was my turn, but in the end it wasn’t a problem,” the defender concluded with a smile.
However it is also clear that the impressive sense of solidarity that saw Sweden come out on top, despite numerous Japanese attacks, quickly wore off once victory had been sealed: “When they saw my name on the scoresheet, everyone had a good laugh and I got plenty of stick as you’d imagine,” he laughed, casting a glance at his team-mates as they exited the changing room one by one.
And this unity at the heart of the Scandinavian nation's squad has been plain to see, ever since the Swedish FA brought together the best players from all over the country at the start of their qualifying campaign. Furthermore, the great sense of diversity that the squad boasts across its cosmopolitan ranks shines through in every one of their interviews.
Just as Valmir Berisha explained when he spoke to FIFA.com (see link on the right), Wahlqvist believes this is a good thing and shared his team-mate’s analysis of the matter: “There is a great cultural diversity in our squad and it works really well,” he said. “Traditionally Swedish people are big and strong while these players bring us new qualities, like pace and skill.”
And the progress that Sweden have made in the competition demonstrates what a success this blending of talent has been. “We arrived here with great confidence in ourselves, having remained undefeated for so long,” Wahlqvist explained, before once again highlighting the togetherness in their camp. “Everyone is playing an important role, whether that’s in the starting XI or on the subs bench, and we’re all friends both on and off the pitch.”
Ultimately the defender dreams of going all the way in the competition, now more than ever. For the time being, however, Sweden must prepare for their quarter-final clash against Honduras on 1 November in Al Ain.