Until recently, it seemed that two things remained constant with Sweden’s national team: their participation at major tournaments, and the presence of Lars Lagerback in the dugout. South Africa 2010 heralded the end of an era, however, bringing down the curtain on a run of five straight successful qualifying campaigns and, with it, Lagerback’s decade-long tenure.
For Sebastian Larsson, who had established himself in the team and was preparing, at 25, for his first FIFA World Cup™, failure came as a crushing blow. “It was a huge disappointment for everyone,” he told FIFA.com. “I think we’d all probably begun to take being at these tournaments for granted.
"I was really disappointed on a personal level because I was at a good age to play my part, and you know that you don’t get too many chances to play in World Cups during your career. But although it was hard to take, these things happen and you just have to move on, regroup and start afresh.”
The process of rebuilding often takes time, of course, but for Sweden it seems to have been quick and painless. With former Rosenborg coach Erik Hamren now at the helm, the Scandinavians have rediscovered their lost verve, and head to the Netherlands today on the back of a six-game winning run. For Larsson, who admits that stagnation had perhaps set in under Hamren’s long-serving predecessor, the new regime’s greatest achievement has been bringing smiles back to Swedish faces.
He said: “Lars Lagerback was a very successful coach for us and you have to acknowledge that he achieved a lot. But ten years is a long time for any coach to stay in place, and I think the time had come to freshen things up. I think everyone has benefited from the new boss – he’s been like a breath of fresh air for everyone. We're all really enjoying ourselves, we’ve started brightly and are playing some good football.
"Practically, a lot has changed too. The way we play is different and the system is different too. We’ve gone from a 4-4-2 to playing with three central midfielders, with the wide men really pushing forward. The football’s been good, but we’ve also looked very solid and are taking charge of games and dominating the opposition more than we did before.”
Morale has also been boosted by the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from international retirement, with the AC Milan striker already established as the attacking focal point of Hamren’s new-look team. “That’s been a massive boost for all of us,” acknowledged Larsson.
“Everyone knows the quality Zlatan has and we’re all delighted to have him back. I do think it was good that he took his time in deciding though because it’s clear he’s come back with a real hunger and desire. He seems really happy to be back and, if he’s happy and hungry to do well, we know we’re going to get most out of him.”
Confidence may be high and performances encouraging, but Sweden remain acutely aware that their showdown with the Netherlands represents the sternest test of Hamren’s brief reign. With neither side having dropped a point so far in Group E, something has to give at the Amsterdam ArenA and, for all their recent progress, the Swedes are sure to start as underdogs. Nonetheless, while full of respect for the team that came within a whisker of FIFA World Cup glory just three short months ago, Larsson believes that the visitors’ renewed sense of belief should equip them well for the challenge.
“It doesn’t get much tougher,” he admitted. “The Dutch are a great side, strong in every department, and they proved during the summer that they’re one of the best in the world. But we believe in ourselves, we’ve been playing well and we’re confident that we can leave Amsterdam with a good result. It’ll be tough but we’ve set a standard for ourselves so far and we want to keep the momentum going.”
Building on progress already made is also the goal for Larsson at club level, where he and his Birmingham City team-mates are aiming to consolidate their Premier League status after last season’s superb campaign. Ambitions have been raised further by the addition of players such as Alexander Hleb and Nikola Zigic, but with recent results having brought everyone at St Andrew’s back to earth with a bump, Larsson believes that avoiding a draining relegation battle must remain Alex McLeish's team's top priority.
“We’ve come a long way as a club and last season was a huge success for us, but we can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “There’s nothing flashy about us but what we do have is a group of players who give 100 per cent every time they step on the field. The gaffer’s built a foundation of making us solid and hard to beat, and I know he’s also looking to improve the way we play football.
"You always want to try to progress, but our focus always has to be on making sure we’re on the right side of the table and not getting dragged into a relegation fight. It would be great to finish as high up the table as we did last season, but who knows? One thing’s for sure – you don’t get anything in this league without fighting hard for it.”
Larsson has emerged as a key player for Birmingham since moving to the Midlands club in 2007, but a decision on his future beckons. The former Arsenal youngster, who candidly admits that he “wasn’t good enough” to make the grade with the Gunners earlier in his career, is in the final year of his contract at St Andrew’s and has yet to accept the club’s offer of an extension. It seems, however, that he is no rush to move on.
“I’m not too worried about that,” he said of his contract situation. “I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m enjoying it more than ever right now, so I’m happy where I am. If we can agree on a new deal, great, I’ll be happy to stay. I’m just trying to focus on football. If I do that, the off-field stuff should take care of itself.”