Twenty four hours before their quarter-final match with Australia, Sweden players were enjoying some much-needed downtime ahead of the big game. Some were sleeping, others strolling in the park adjacent to the team’s hotel, while a few were shopping in the centre of Augsburg.
In a tournament such as this one, a player’s preparation off the pitch is just as important the work that goes on in training. In this regard, Sweden’s Hedvig Lindahl believes that Thomas Dennerby and the rest of his coaching staff have got the balance just right. Statistics would seem to support the keeper’s viewpoint. Sweden are one of only three teams, together with Brazil and Germany, to win all three group matches – something which the Blagult have never managed before.
“This may just be the best Sweden team there’s been,” Lindahl confided to FIFA.com. “There’s a group of players who have been in this team for a long time. Since the last World Cup we’ve gained experience in different ways, with some of us playing abroad. I think that’s where we’ve lost a lot of fear for our opponents by playing them regularly and at big games at club level. We’ve also got coaches that put more pressure on, so we now know how to deliver.
“We’re a really strong group, which is another factor. Right now we have a really good feeling in our squad; we are a team and we understand that we have to try and strive towards our goals together and we need to help each other. Everyone feels really valuable.”
Lindahl also believes that the transition made by the likes of Sofia Jakobsson and Antonia Goransson from last year’s FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup to Germany 2011 has also been a factor in the Scandinavians’ impressive showings.
“There’s a very good blend between youth and experience,” continued Sweden’s No1. “The standards have improved and there’s a real depth of talent now. If we make substitutions, we know we have equally good players to coming on to the field. Such is our strength in depth this year, I think we have at least two or three players back home that would have made it into previous squads.”
It’s easy to be a good goalkeeper when you have such a good defence in front of you.
There were calls for Lindahl to be included in Sweden’s FIFA Women’s World Cup squad 12 years ago when the keeper was just 16. Her former goalkeeping coach Birger ‘Bigge’ Ahlberg believed that she should be taken to USA 1999 as one of Ulrika Karlsson’s understudies, but the Kristianstads DFF custodian was forced to wait until China 2007 for her big chance.
That tournament holds mixed emotions for the 28-year-old. While she was understandably delighted to make her bow on the biggest stage of them all, Sweden did not progress from the group stage and Lindahl failed to keep a clean sheet. This time around things are better with the goalkeeper touted as being one of the tournament’s best with her net unbreached in over four hours of football.
Indeed, the goal that she did concede: a ball off Abby Wambach’s shoulder in Sweden’s 2-1 win, does not seem to have fazed her.
“It’s never good to let in a goal but on the other hand it was a good one,” said Lindahl philosophically. “It wasn’t a mistake or a simple goal. Abby is one of the world’s best players in the area and sometimes you just have to applaud your opponent. It’s easy to be a good goalkeeper when you have such a good defence in front of you, but not only them, the whole team has been very organised. That’s made my job much, much easier.”
The next test for Lindahl and Co is a match against the Matildas in Augsburg, a stadium where the keeper conducted the crowd in handclaps and Mexican waves, during the 1-0 defeat of Korea DPR. When asked whether she was surprised that the Aussies were their last eight opponents rather than Norway, she was defiant.
“From what I’ve seen from Australia’s games so far, I’m not surprised they’ve reached the quarter-finals, not at all,” she said. “They’ve played really well, it’s not like they’ve only just scraped through the group phase. We have respect for them. Whatever happened before the World Cup and reputations doesn’t matter. Look at Canada – they played really well this year but didn’t make it happen here. Neither do reputations. Norway were a good team when it came to important games in the past, but it looks as though they’re having difficulties nowadays.”
There’s only one thing that is playing on the keeper’s mind ahead of the big game, namely the hirsuite nature of her coach’s face. Before the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Dennerby was relatively clean-shaven, while during Germany 2011 it seems as though the former Sweden U-21 star has abandoned his razor for the time being!
“I’m not sure what the thinking behind it is,” laughed Lindahl. “I’ll have to ask the guys about their beards now that we’ve got to the knockout stage. In hockey the men leave their beards when they reach that point in a tournament so maybe they should save them for good luck too!”