Erik and Ibra get Sweden rising

"I feel we’re on our way to something big,” Sweden centre-back Daniel Majstorovic told FIFA.com in a recent interview, epitomising the spirit and verve currently coursing through a resurgent side. 

The February edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking serves to confirm the Celtic veteran's assertion, as the Swedes have risen to 29th spot, their best placing since March 2009. It is the second-biggest climb of all the teams in the top 30, while among the European nations, only Northern Ireland have made better progress this time. 

The mastermind behind the Scandinavians’ renaissance is Erik Hamren, installed at the Tre Kronor helm in the aftermath of failure to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, a disappointing final chapter to the 13-year Lars Lagerback era. Majstorovic feels Hamren, formerly in charge at Norway’s most successful club Rosenborg, is the perfect pick for the Sweden job.

"We had a really good start with him, won six games in a row, playing really good football, and I think that gave everyone a boost," he said. "It was something the players and the fans both needed after missing out on the World Cup. It’s a good moment for the Swedish national team right now."

The football’s been good, but we’ve also looked very solid and are taking charge of games and dominating the opposition more than we did before.
Sebastian Larsson on Sweden's progress under Erik Hamren

In the decade prior to last year's FIFA World Cup, Sweden’s qualifying record was flawless: starting with UEFA EURO 2000, the men in yellow and blue appeared at five major tournaments on the bounce. That was a record for the country, where fotboll has its nose ahead of ice hockey as the favourite sport. However, Denmark and Portugal beat the Swedes in the race for places in South Africa, prompting two significant developments: Lagerback stepped down, and superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to the fold in July after a six-month sabbatical from the national team set-up. 

Midfield regular Sebastian Larsson is excited by the latest developments. "A lot has changed. The way we play is different and the system is different too. We’ve gone from a 4-4-2 to playing with three central midfielders, with the wide men really pushing forward. The football’s been good, but we’ve also looked very solid and are taking charge of games and dominating the opposition more than we did before," he said, before discussing the return of Ibrahimovic.

"It's been a massive boost for all of us. Everyone knows the quality Zlatan has and we’re all delighted to have him back. I do think it was good that he took his time in deciding though, because it’s clear he’s returned with a real hunger and desire. He seems really happy to be involved again and, if he’s happy and hungry to do well, we know we’re going to get most out of him." 

By any standards, the latest generation from the nation which finished third at the FIFA World Cups of 1950 and 1994 is bristling with promise. Even in the absence of the talismanic Ibrahimovic, the Swedes managed a goalless draw in a friendly with high-flying Germany last November, and have only lost twice in 12 games since stumbling on the road to South Africa. 

A 5-4 penalty shoot-out defeat by Ukraine in a friendly tournament a couple of weeks ago is easily enough forgotten, but the other loss gave cause for soul-searching and a frown or two. Back on 12 October last year, the Swedes travelled to Amsterdam in EURO 2012 qualifying with high hopes of a result against the Netherlands, but the South Africa 2010 runners-up were in blinding form and the Scandinavians were a trifle lucky to escape with a 4-1 defeat. 

The Dutch lead the standings on maximum points from their four matches, followed by Hungary on nine points, and Hamren and Co on six, albeit from only three games so far. Furthermore, the Swedes beat the Hungarians 2-0 at home in what could yet be a pivotal result in the group. 

The durability of the Swedish resurgence will be put to the test in the months to come. Tre Kronor face Moldova home and away on 29 March and 3 June, and Finland on 7 June, as they continue their push for a berth in Poland and the Ukraine for EURO 2012.