For Erik Hamren and Sweden, it all comes down to this. After eight matches, five wins, two draws and one defeat, Hamren and his team know that just one more Group C victory will guarantee a spot in the European Zone play-offs for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Standing in their way are Austria, the only team to have beaten the Swedes thus far, not to mention their sole remaining challengers for second spot in this Germany-dominated section. Hamren, though, is feeling positive. His optimism, as he explained in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com, is based on the mature leadership of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on the never-say-die spirit of a united team and, crucially, on Sweden’s ability to shape their own destiny.
That is a position secured on the back of successive away wins to Republic of Ireland and Kazakhstan in their most recent World Cup qualifiers; victories that showcased many of the characteristics Hamren has been striving for since taking charge in 2009. Now, with the group phase almost complete and Brazil glinting tantalisingly on the horizon, the Sweden coach believes his side are ready to take another decisive step towards the destination they so desperately crave.
FIFA.com: Looking at the table, three points clear of Austria with two games remaining, how are you feeling about your chances?
Erik Hamren: I feel happy because, at the moment, everything is in our hands. We don’t need any favours from other teams or results to go our way in the other matches. If we do what need to do and win against Austria, we are in the play-offs – it’s as simple as that. But we’re not there yet. We know it’s going to be really, really tough against Austria and we can’t afford to play at anything less than our very best.
Was the 2-1 win in Dublin particularly pleasing for you, given how tough you had found it against Republic of Ireland [in a 2-2 draw] at home?
Of course. That was a fantastic win for us. But there are so few matches in a World Cup qualifying campaign that every game becomes important. One mistake, one bad performance, and you can leave yourself in big trouble. To get where we are, we have needed a lot of good results and the one in Dublin was just one of those. But to win away to one of your rivals, of course it’s a fantastic feeling. If we had lost that match, it would have been really tough for us to qualify. As it is, we took all three points and effectively put Ireland out of contention at the same time.
You came from behind to win against the Irish, and you have made a habit of that in many of your matches, including the famous fightback from 4-0 down to draw in Germany. Does that speak for Sweden’s character and team spirit?
Definitely, and that’s something I’ve been really happy about. We have been behind in a few matches in these qualifiers and, on almost every occasion, we have fought back really well to get a good result. I think we definitely have a good spirit and a good attitude in this team and, as a coach, that’s such a great asset to see in your players.
You also have a record-breaker in your midst, with Anders Svensson having gone past Thomas Ravelli by winning his 144th cap against Kazakhstan just a few days after scoring the winning goal against Ireland. How impressed have you been with his contribution?
He’s been great for us, even when he hasn’t been playing from the start. He’s just a great guy to have around the team because his attitude is always excellent and he does a lot to help the young players by setting an example in how to prepare themselves and behave off the field. I was really happy for him to get this record, and to see him score such an excellent goal in the Ireland game. If anyone deserves that kind of thing, it’s him.
And what about your captain? Have you been happy with the influence Zlatan Ibrahimovic has had on the squad?
He’s been really, really good – a massive positive for us. Not only in the way he’s playing, which has been excellent, but also in the way he’s been handling the role of captain. I look at him with the young players especially and he is just fantastic with them, taking care of them and taking responsibility as a leader.
There were some who criticised you when you first took over for bestowing so much faith and responsibility on a player who was known to be volatile and unpredictable. Can we assume you now feel vindicated?
There were certainly some critics when I made him captain. But I always had faith in him and he’s proved me right by leading the team both on the field, through the high level of his performances, and in taking on so much responsibility off the field too. I think he is learning all the time how be a great leader because it was a new role for him when I first made him captain, and he’s getting better and better all the time.
You’ve previously mentioned the ongoing process of trying to build a different kind of team to the Sweden sides we’ve been used to seeing. Do you feel you’re getting close to achieving your vision?
Sometimes I feel we’re getting close and then other times I think we have quite some way to go. We’re still progressing, and we’re not where I want us to be yet. Sometimes, when you’re working with players for such a short space of time, it’s a case of taking a few steps forward, then occasionally a couple back, and then a few forward again. Plus, results are so important in international football. There’s no room for mistakes. But I still want us to get there; it will just take a little more time.
What kind of game do you expect against the Austrians?
Just like last time, a very tough one. They’re the only team to have beaten us so far and I expect another really strong challenge from them, especially as they’re still fighting with us to go through. I think they’ll go out happy for a draw though because they will know they have the Faroe Islands in their last match, while we play Germany. For us, I think we need to win - because then it’s settled. We don’t want to be going into the game against Germany, who are obviously really, really strong, with anything still in doubt.
Every World Cup has its own unique appeal, but having visited Brazil and seen the passion for football there, do feel this one will be something a little extra special?
I do feel that, yes. I’ve been to Brazil numerous times as a club coach and it’s a country that really lives and breathes football. Everything in that country seems to revolve around football, and to be a part of a World Cup there would be something fantastic. None of us wants to miss that chance.