Nilsson: Sentiment can't get in the way

Twenty-seven years ago, an enraptured Roland Nilsson sat in the IFK dressing room ogling the Allsvenskan trophy. Barely old enough to legally drink the champagne that filled the prize, the then 19-year-old hoped it was the prologue to a successful career.

It certainly was. The accomplished right-back won three domestic titles and a UEFA Cup with the Gothenburg giants before departing for Sheffield Wednesday, with whom he became one of the first Swedes to excel in the English top tier. At international level Nilsson helped his country finish third at both UEFA EURO 1992 and the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, and remains their most-capped outfield player, while he crowned his playing career by claiming his fourth Swedish gold with hometown club Helsingborg.

It was, curiously, with the latter club’s arch-rivals that the 46-year-old won the first of what he hopes will be multiple honours as a coach on Sunday. FIFA.com caught up with Nilsson to discuss Malmo’s final-day conquest, Sweden's chances of reaching UEFA EURO 2012, his memories of USA 1994 and the best players he competed alongside and against.

FIFA.com: Malmo FF, Swedish champions – how does that feel?
Roland Nilsson:
It feels great. When I took over the target was to qualify for Europe within three years. We’ve won the title within two, so we’ve surpassed expectations.

Malmo finished mid-table in 2008 and 2009. What was the key to the team’s emphatic improvement?
First, we managed to resist selling players. And second, one of the things I have done since coming here has been to lower the average age of the team, and this season we really benefited from this. The youngsters were a year older, had a year’s more experience, and they were crucial to our success.

I’m a professional, I had a job to do, so they were just another team. You can’t let sentiment get in the way.
Roland Nilsson on competing against his hometown and former club Helsingborg

Daniel Larsson and Agon Mehmeti certainly were…
They were very important for us. They both scored a lot of goals and their overall play was excellent. They have big potential – it’s up to them how far they go in football.

Daniel Andersson is Malmo through and through – how pleased were you to see him lift the Allsvenskan trophy?
It was really nice to see. People wrote him off, said he was finished, yet he was one of the best players in the whole championship.

On a personal level, you were born in Helsingborg and had three spells there as a player. How did it feel competing against them for the title?
I’m a professional, I had a job to do, so they were just another team. You can’t let sentiment get in the way.

What are Malmo’s ambitions for next season?
We want to retain the Swedish title, which we know will be difficult, and win our qualifying rounds and reach the group stage of the Champions League.

Do your own ambitions include becoming Sweden coach in the future?
I think everybody wants to coach their country – that’s always the goal. But I’m only at the start of my [coaching] career, and I have to prove myself first. If I can coach the national team in the future, then wonderful.

Do you think Sweden can reach EURO 2012?
I think we have the talent to qualify. We lost against Holland, which has complicated things, but they still have to come to Sweden. There are plenty of points to play for, and I think we have a really good chance.

How do you rate Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
He’s one of the best players in the world. I terms of using his size and skill, he’s tremendous.

Let’s talk a little bit about your playing career. Who was the greatest player you played with and against?
Chris Waddle. When he came to Sheffield Wednesday from Marseille in France he was quite old, but the things he could do were just extraordinary. It was a pleasure to watch him train and play. As for the best player I’ve played against, I’d probably say Romario.

You played against Romario twice at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, first in the group stage. With Russia and Cameroon also for company, many believed Sweden would bow out at the first phase, but what were your expectations for the tournament?
Our target was to reach the knockout phase. We knew we were in a tough group, but were confident we could realise that target and maybe even reach the quarter-finals.

Sweden went one better than that, edging Romania on penalties to qualify for the last four. Did you believe that was possible with just five minutes remaining in extra time, when you were down to ten men and trailing 2-1?
You can never give up in football, anything can happen. We didn’t entertain the thought that it was over. We kept on fighting, pushing forward for an equaliser, and we got our reward.
 
You took what proved to be Sweden’s penultimate penalty in the shoot-out. How did it feel being under so much pressure?
I actually felt fine. I was very confident I was going to score, and that’s what I did.

How did it feel to be playing in a FIFA World Cup semi-final in front of over 90,000 people?
It was a fantastic feeling, something I’ll always remember. And we kept Brazil quiet for a long period. But it became difficult when we went down to ten men (Jonas Thern was sent off in the 63rd minute), and Romario scored the only goal. Still, to finish third at a World Cup is an incredible achievement and I’m proud to have played a part in that.