Mellberg: A leader for club and country
Like most Swedish footballers, Olof Mellberg is an interviewer's dream.
His answers are educated and honest and despite his towering 1.94m frame, which has acted as an imposing barrier to some of the world's top strikers, he is always courteous and approachable.
Yet behind his calm exterior to the media is a man whose vocal presence on the pitch marks him as one of Europe's most feared defenders and finest leaders. For both Sweden and Aston Villa, he excels in the air, is good on the ground and marshals the back four with aplomb.
He joined the English club for a fee of £5m from Racing Santander in the summer of 2001 and since then has enhanced his reputation with a series of fine displays. FIFA.com caught up with him at Aston Villa's training ground last Friday to pose a series of searching questions…
FIFA.com: How has the move to the Premiership helped your career?
Olof Mellberg: I came here from playing for Racing Santander in the Spanish top-flight, which I don't think is incredibly different to the Premiership. In fact, I think the major European leagues are all getting closer and closer to each other with the influence of foreign coaches and players. But the move was one from a smaller club to a bigger club. That was the reason for me coming here. I'm not sure how it's helped me, but I'm very happy here, both in terms of my lifestyle and my performances. Since playing here, I've been made captain of the club and for Sweden, so that is pleasing.
Apart from the language, what are the differences between captaining your club and your country?
The big difference is that here (Aston Villa) is where I live and where I play most of my football. At the most with Sweden we play 10 games a season, so I feel more responsible for the lads here than I do when I'm with Sweden. In the main, I've always tried to be a leader on the pitch and I think that's what got me the captain's armband for both teams. I don't think about acting a different way when I'm with the national team, that's for sure. When you're on the pitch for whatever team every player had a special role to play.
When I came to Aston Villa there were a lot of senior players, a lot of experienced players but they are all gone now, I'm only 28 but I'm one of the senior players here. The same thing has happened with Sweden. When I came into the side just before EURO 2000, we had a lot of experienced players in Stefan Schwarz, Kennet Andersson and Joachim Bjorklund but they have all gone too. Now we have a lot of young players coming through and I am one of the senior ones. We haven't got any really young players, but plenty in their mid-20s who are younger than myself.
Has your current manager David O'Leary been an influential figure in your career - after all he was an international defender with FIFA World Cup™ experience?
Well, since I've been here I've played under three managers and I haven't been here for five years yet! A lot of things have changed. A lot of players have gone and a lot have arrived. In fact, the man who signed me left quite quickly after he arrived! The three managers have all been different to each other. It is always a challenge to work with someone new and prove yourself to a new manager.
One of your former Aston Villa team-mates, Steve Staunton, makes his international managerial debut on Wednesday against Sweden. As a former team-mate, what do you think of him?
People think he's quiet, but I'd disagree. He's quite vocal on and off the pitch. He's a great professional; he always worked hard in training and in games. I'm not surprised that he's become a manager. He was always a leader. I always got on well with him.
Did you notice that he a managerial brain?
He's always been a clever player. When I played alongside him he was 33 or 34 and obviously he didn't have the pace or the physique he had in his younger years, but he made up for that in other ways. He knew how to play football. So yes, I could see him as a manager.
He did give me advice, he was the captain for a period, so he always tried to lead by example. We know that when we play Ireland in Dublin a lot of their players will be eager to prove themselves to him. That's always the case when a new manager comes in.
Sweden traditionally have had a reputation for playing dour football - do you think people's perceptions are changing?
Definitely. Even though we still try to be organised defensively and always try to maintain a solid base we have been more adventurous going forward and we do have good attacking players. In the main, this has been one of the best periods for Sweden in a long, long time.
As a relatively small footballing nation, Sweden seem very good at maximising their potential. Do you think there's something special about the Swedish mentality that helps you achieve this?
Since I came into the side, we've had a special way of working together. There's been a fantastic atmosphere in the dressing room and a wonderful team-spirit in the group. That's something that we've really tried to work on and something that the managers have focused on. A good atmosphere and confidence in the group is important. It must be difficult for an international manager to change the way a player plays, so therefore he has to focus on other things.
What else do you want to accomplish in football?
Nothing else really, I'm happy. A lot of players talk about winning medals, but that depends on which club you play for. With the situation being as it is, it looks very difficult to win the Premiership with Aston Villa, but I feel that it would be a great achievement to defy the odds for my club and country. With Aston Villa I'd like to improve upon the sixth placed finish we had a couple of years ago and have a good run in one of the cups. With Sweden I'd love to go a long way in one of the major championships. For me, it's not about silverware, it's about personal pride.