End of an era in Sweden
Sweden without Lars Lagerback and Henrik Larsson? It seems almost unthinkable. Yet, for the first time since the early 1990s, that is the reality facing the Blågult as they tiptoe nervously into a transitional period filled with uncertainty. Lagerback, who had been on the association's staff for 19 years, is on the hunt for a new job, while Larsson will play the final match of his exemplary career on Saturday, having bade farewell to the national team earlier this month.
For Sweden, it is the end of an era. These two long-serving stalwarts have, after all, been central to the most successful period in the nation's football history. Larsson, as some may recall, was among the scorers when Sweden beat Bulgaria 4-0 to claim bronze at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, and in 2003 was named his country's greatest player of the past 50 years. Lagerback, meanwhile, for all his detractors, is the Scandinavian nation's most successful-ever coach, having led the side to five consecutive major tournaments between 2000 and 2008.
Most observers expected him to leave after the most recent of those, UEFA EURO 2008, especially after the Swedish press rounded on their coach and his team of 'oldies' for a limp first-round exit. Instead, a defiant Lagerback returned for one final challenge - reaching South Africa 2010 - only for his celebrated sequence of qualifying successes to end in dismal fashion.
"It's been a campaign where we haven't been able to get the ball in the net," was his assessment of a preliminary programme that witnessed the Swedes fail to score in four attempts against their main challengers, Denmark and Portugal. The fact that the Danes, long-standing regional rivals, comfortably clinched top spot only increased the clamour for a change, with even Lagerback himself left to concede that "a fresh start" was required.
With the 61-year-old having announced his decision to quit before signing off with a 4-1 win over Albania, the focus quickly switched to potential successors. Fulham's Roy Hodgson is reportedly under consideration, while Sven-Goran Eriksson emerged as a heavyweight candidate only to snub the challenge in favour of continuing as a director of football in England's fourth tier. "We had good discussions with Svennis," said Swedish Football Association chairman Lars-Ake Lagrell. "But he has decided that, with regards to his contract with Notts County, there is no possibility of him taking charge of the national team now."
Hans Backe, Eriksson's former assistant at Manchester City, and Erik Hamren, Swedish coach of Norwegian champions Rosenborg, have also been mentioned, although Zlatan Ibrahimovic put forward an alternative option. For the Barcelona star, knowledge of the national team and standing in the game made Larsson, his long-term strike partner, the perfect candidate.
Yet Ibrahimovic seems destined for disappointment. Larsson is keen on moving into management, but the headstrong 38-year-old has already made it clear that he will launch his coaching career abroad rather than go through Sweden's national system. "If I should become a coach, my ambition is to be the best I can be," he said. "That means I will have to leave Sweden. I have gained a lot of experience over the years and I feel I'm on the right track to become a coach, but studying in the Swedish FA system doesn't interest me. I'd like to earn my licence and badges in Scotland."
This return to a nation in which he is still idolised for a seven-year stint at Celtic that yielded 242 goals and a European Golden Shoe is, Larsson insists, principally pragmatic. As he points out: "Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho went through their education in Scotland - and they have done pretty well!" However, there is also an enduring emotional connection to the club at which he became known as 'the King of Kings'. "I talk a lot with Celtic, although nothing is happening at the moment," he admitted. "But everyone knows what my feelings are for the club."
Taking charge at Celtic Park may be a long-term target but, for the moment at least, the future for this legendary Swedish striker and his former coach seems uncertain. Almost as uncertain, in fact, as that facing the team they have just left behind.