Veterans of 11 FIFA World Cups™, Sweden will begin qualifying for South Africa 2010 as one of Europe's heavyweight contenders. The Scandinavian nation's pedigree in this tournament is undisputed - they have reached the semi-finals twice, in 1938 and 1994, and the Final in 1958 - but it is a measure of expectations generated by these achievements that the Swedes' creditable recent record has been regarded by their own fans as somewhat disappointing.
The last three major tournaments, in fact, have seen Sweden establish a familiar pattern of qualifying for the competition itself, advancing from the group stage and then falling at the first knockout hurdle. This represents an achievement of which many comparable countries would be proud, but so accustomed have the Swedes become to success that there were calls for long-serving coach Lars Lagerback to step down after the 2-0 Round of 16 defeat to Germany in 2006.
Prior to crashing out to the hosts, Sweden - spearheaded by their talented strike duo of Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic - had qualified from a section including England, Paraguay and Trinidad, and after a brief period in exile, Ibrahimovic will be back to lead the Scandinavians' bid for South Africa 2010. Even better news for the Swedes is that, in the wake of Larsson calling time on his long and distinguished international career, a new national icon has emerged in the shape of Toulouse forward Johan Elmander.
Previously a bit-part player, Elmander has become a key figure
in an impressive Swedish side that finished second in their UEFA
EURO 2008 qualifying group to secure their presence in Austria and
Switzerland. In midfield, midfielder Kim Kallstrom is also
beginning to fulfil his undoubted potential, while captain Olof
Mellberg remains a pivotal presence in holding together a defence
that has traditionally proved the backbone of Sweden's success
at international level.
With Lagerback now able to look back on a decade of sterling service, and still sticking faithfully to his tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 system, do not expect too many surprises from the Swedes during their preliminary campaign for South Africa 2010. The biggest surprise, in fact, would be if they failed to make it to their third successive FIFA World Cup.