- Sweden heading for their first FIFA World Cup since 2006
- Play-off win over Italy led to a seven-point FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking rise
- Janne Andersson has rebuilt the team around a strong collective spirit
Whatever is said about Sweden’s road to Russia 2018, it cannot be said that they took the easy route.
Janne Andersson’s side are, in fact, the first European side to have reached the World Cup having faced three former finalists along the way. France, the Netherlands and Italy were all tackled during a memorable campaign that culminated earlier this month in play-off glory.
Sweden were the only underdogs to triumph in those European play-offs, and their 1-0 aggregate victory over Gli Azzurri – four-time world champions – resulted in a seven-place rise in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. That took the Scandinavians up to 18th for the second time this year, returning them to the kind of heights they last reached as far back as 2011.
Such achievements stand as a tribute to the work carried out, quietly but effectively, by Janne Andersson. The little-known former IFK Norrkoping coach was appointed in the wake of a dismal UEFA EURO 2016 campaign and given little chance of success due to the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
But the loss of the team’s captain and talisman has allowed others, such as Andreas Granqvist and Marcus Berg – Ibrahimovic’s successors as skipper and centre-forward respectively – to flourish. “There was no sense of the players being downbeat without Zlatan – not at all,” the Sweden coach told FIFA.com. “But then again, I was very clear when I started that this should be considered a new chapter for everyone.
“It was important that the players stepped up to the challenge, and they've done that. Football is a team game anyway and I want all my players, not just one or two, to be taking responsibility for bringing the team forward.”
Three key results on the road to Russia Sweden 2-1 France (09.06.17)
Sweden 8-0 Luxembourg (07.10.17)
Sweden 1-0 Italy (10.11.17)
Andersson’s humble and team-centred Sweden is typified by its captain. Granqvist recently ended Ibrahimovic’s decade-long reign as the country’s player of the year but, in collecting the award, he cast the spotlight away from his personal contribution. "Individual awards come thanks to your team-mates,” he said. “It's the collective that makes things go well."
The big centre-half, a colossus in the play-off victory over Italy, plays his club football in Russia for FK Krasnodar, and admitted that it would have been “very painful” to miss out on a World Cup in his adopted country. More importantly, with Sweden having failed to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Russia 2018 represented a last shot at the global finals for the 32-year-old and several of his team-mates.
“This is the biggest thing that has happened to me,” Granqvist said after securing Sweden’s place with a shutout in the San Siro. “For those of us that are older, this is probably the last chance to play at a World Cup.
"I've played in three EUROs, but I’d never made it to a World Cup," the 32-year-old had previously told FIFA.com. “Yet for an international footballer it’s the most important competition. Getting to Russia 2018 will be a breath of fresh air for Swedish football."