Cool Swedes on the rise
© AFP

Given that part of the country lies well within the Arctic circle, darkness is the hallmark of winter in Sweden. But a bright future beckons for the nation's footballers. The national team has surpassed all previous records by qualifying for the finals of the last five major tournaments, a remarkable achievement for a land of just nine million inhabitants.

The Swedes are unquestionably regarded with great affection around the footballing world, partly due to their ever-present travelling army of colourful, good-natured fans, but also for a conveyor belt of world-class strikers, thrilling neutrals with spectacular scoring feats wherever they go. It now falls to 26-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic to maintain the tradition established by the likes of Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson, as Lars Lagerback's team go in search of new glory.

Seasoned Inter Milan goal-getter Ibrahimovic and his Sweden team-mates are poised to climb the first step on the ladder back into the elite by returning to the top 20 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a position they last held back in September 2007.

The nation which finished third at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ currently occupy 22nd spot, just 12 points off the 20th-placed US. Sweden must be a decent bet to rejoin the leading 20 on the planet in the near future, as Lagerback's men are enjoying a first-rate run of form, jumping two places on the latest Ranking thanks to an additional 11 points.

Despite their climb, the Swedes, putting out a second-string side, recently stumbled to a 2-0 loss to USA in California.

A glorious past

In any case, many observers would automatically include Sweden in their list of the world's finest footballing nations. The Tre Kronors were never out of the top 20 between November 2004 and June 2006, and again between August 2006 and March 2007, before a phase spent oscillating between 17th and 24th. Moreover, they were always and still remain the best-placed of the Scandinavian teams.

In the months leading up to the UEFA EURO 2008 finals in Austria and Switzerland, Sweden are determined to regain their top-20 berth and retain it over the long term, although even that would be a far cry from the glory days of November 1994 when the men in yellow and blue rose to the giddy heights of second. In any case, the route back promises to be long and demanding for Lagerback, as the coach is currently replacing old faces with new ones in his squad.

The arrival of a new generation makes Ibrahimovic a more influential figure than ever before. Larsson has already called time on his international career, while veterans such as 30-year-old Fredrik Ljungberg, Anders Svensson, 31, and 36-year-old Niclas Alexandersson are well into the later stages of their playing days.

At the European showdown in the shadow of the Alps, where the Swedes have been drawn in Group D with Spain, Russia and defending champions Greece, the Scandinavians are likely to post one of the highest average ages of all the competing squads. Ibrahimovic will carry the hopes of most of the travelling fans on his shoulders, but will bear up well if he can maintain the scintillating form which has brought him 13 goals in 18 Serie A appearances and five goals in the same number of UEFA Champions League outings. The 1.92 metre (6 ft 4 in) striker could yet turn out one of the stars of the continental finals.

Bright future?
In any case, Lagerback is already looking to the future. "Guiding Sweden to a sixth major tournament in a row will be a fascinating but tough challenge," he declared recently after extending his tenure at the national helm until 2010.

The 59-year-old, set to become the oldest incumbent ever to hold the Sweden job, must plot a course through the minefield of European Group 1 in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, where Portugal, Denmark, Hungary, Albania and Malta lie in wait.

Sweden are close to regaining a place at football's top table, but are also on the verge of a new era. A top-20 spot is clearly within reach, but staying there could prove a much more significant test. As so often in the past, they could easily emerge as the surprise package of the world game, although a fine line separates explosive progress and the potential for a spell in the doldrums.

However, the situation is not entirely unfamiliar, and the naturally optimistic Swedes are convinced football will continue to provide a beacon of light in the darkness of winter. A decent showing at EURO 2008 this summer would raise hopes of a new and glittering future.