Hamren: Zlatan’s return has been huge

In an era in which coaches often boast a higher profile than their players, Erik Hamren is something of an exception. While, at 54, the Sweden coach is hardly a new kid on the block, a career spent quietly forging a reputation in Nordic club football has not made him a household name. Not yet, at least.

Hamren, while giving no indication of craving the celebrity of his contemporaries, is nonetheless finding that his work in revamping Sweden’s national team is winning plenty of friends and admirers. Since succeeding the long-serving Lars Lagerback in June of last year, the former Rosenborg coach has enthusiastically embraced the challenge of ushering in a new era, changing the style and personnel of a team that, as even Lagerback himself admitted, needed a fresh start.

Sweden sit three points behind the Netherlands in their UEFA EURO 2012 preliminary section, but 20 goals in six matches speaks volumes about the transformation of a side that managed just 13 over their entire South Africa 2010 campaign. Nevertheless, as Hamren prepares his side for tomorrow’s friendly against Ukraine before a vital trip to Hungary on 2 September, he assured FIFA.com that the rebuilding process has only just begun.

“Overall, I’d say I’m satisfied with the progress so far,” he said. “We’ve changed some things about the Sweden team and that was always going to require some adjustment. But we have played six games and won five of those, so it’s been pretty good. It’s going to be a really exciting finish in our group, and we hope we can do enough to make sure we’re happy with the outcome.

“We still have a lot to learn though; we’re still a long, long way from where we want to be. At the moment, the Holland game aside (a 4-1 defeat), our results have been good. But some games have been very pleasing, others not so pleasing. We want to find a consistently high level and we are working extremely hard to get better.”

We still have a lot to learn; we’re still a long, long way from where we want to be.
Erik Hamren plays down the progress his new-look team have made

Leading by example in this quest for improvement has been Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Decried by his critics as a self-indulgent individualist, the AC Milan striker has become an inspiring, unifying force since Hamren coaxed him out of international retirement and took the gamble of handing him the captain’s armband.

Ibrahimovic spoke at the time of having been won over - “excited” even - by Hamren’s promise of new players and fresh tactics, and his return to the fold represented a major psychological victory before a ball had even been kicked. Nor has the 29-year-old disappointed since, scoring five times in as many EURO qualifiers and, according to his coach, emerging as the perfect example for the youngsters around him.

“Zlatan coming back to the team has been huge for us,” said the Sweden coach. “He’s a really good player – a world-class player – and a country like Sweden can’t afford not to have players like him in our team. He’s played really well for us so far and I must also say that he’s been taking really good responsibility with our young players. We have a new generation coming through in our team at the moment and he’s been really important in setting an example for everyone and giving them confidence in what they’re doing.”

Restoring belief has been crucial after a dismal FIFA World Cup™ qualifying campaign in which Sweden won just five of their ten matches to finish below both Denmark and Portugal. Failing in such circumstances was a nasty shock for a nation that had become accustomed to reaching major tournaments, having qualified for four of the previous five FIFA World Cups and each of the last three UEFA European Championships.

Restoring his team to those stages is Hamren’s principal aim and, having just returned from the Brazil 2014 Preliminary Draw - where Sweden were pitted against Germany and Republic of Ireland among others - his appetite has evidently been whetted. “We weren’t there in 2010, and Swedish people want to have those parties again. It’s very important for everyone,” he said. “We had some really nice days in Rio when we were over for the draw, and Brazil is a fantastic country. A World Cup there should be something special.

“We’re building towards that one, of course. At the back of our minds, we’re trying to put together a team that will go on towards the World Cup, although the main thing for everyone right now is making sure we qualify for the EURO. Making it to both would be the ultimate, of course - that’s something for us all to aim for.”

Hamren can be assured of one thing. Should Sweden achieve this lofty ambition, their coach’s days in the international shadows are numbered.