Father's example guides history-maker Ericson

The trophy bestowed on them as Sweden's first-ever European champions. Stockholm's Kungstradgarden Square, packed with fans ready to roar them home.

Before a ball was kicked at the UEFA European U-21 Championship, it was these two images - the trophy and the square - that Hakan Ericson showed to his players. Little did the Sweden coach know that the photographs would prove eerily prophetic.

"I just felt at the time that it was important for them to have mental pictures to focus on - to show them that anything was possible," he told FIFA.com, the fantasy having become reality. "And I made of point of saying, 'I won't be setting any limits for what this team can achieve'."

"But," he added after a pause, "I would be lying if I said I expected us to win."

There can be no shame in admitting to such doubts. No-one, after all, expected Sweden to achieve what they did. Few, indeed, had predicted anything other than an early exit, a consensus strengthened when the draw placed them in a section with Italy, England and Portugal.

"In Sweden, people thought it was impossible for us to get through," Ericson recalled. "But I could see that there was a belief and a determination in our players to do something, and that gave me real hope.

"I didn't think it would be enough to win the trophy, and I knew that we were big underdogs in our group. But in the year building up to the tournament, a feeling had developed within the team that anything was possible. We didn't start the qualifying campaign well - just four points from our first four games - but ever since, whenever the boys needed to win a game, they won it.

"Even before the final tournament, we beat France to qualify, scoring four at home after losing the first leg 2-0. I think making it through that way created something special in our team. My players genuinely love being together - their team spirit is fantastic. And so is their self-belief. They are convinced they can beat anyone."

If the Swedes emerged from the European finals feeling invincible, it is no wonder. No challenge proved insurmountable, with the qualifying comeback against France and group-phase elimination of Italy and England merely the start of a remarkable campaign.

They are superb supporters and will add a lot to the tournament.

The semi-finals, a 4-1 demolition of Scandinavian rivals Denmark, showcased their style, while the team's steel and substance again came to the fore in the decider. Portugal, fresh from thrashing Germany 5-0 in the last four, were thwarted at every turn and blinked first in the ensuing penalty shootout. Sweden's heroes, nerveless throughout, had made history. An unforgettable reward soon followed, with their homecoming described as "absolutely insane" by goalkeeper Patrik Carlgren .

"It was unbelievable," echoed Ericson. "When our plane crossed the Swedish border, two military planes - fighter jets - flew alongside to give us an official escort. Lots of people were waiting for us in the airport, which was fantastic too. But the best part came when we were taken to Kungstradgarden Square a couple of hours later.

"There were almost 25,000 there for us, which is the biggest crowd like that ever seen in Sweden. Not even the team that finished third in the '94 World Cup got anything like that. For a U-21 side, it was just amazing. The whole country had been following the tournament though, and the team caught everyone's imagination."

Olympic excitement

In truth, the size of the crowd merely reflected the scale of the achievement. Ericson had overseen Sweden's greatest football success since 1948, when the renowned triumvirate of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm inspired a gold-winning Olympic campaign.

Thanks to their unlikely U-21 triumph, the Swedes are now bound for the same competition that helped forge the Gre-No-Li legend. Rio will be Olympic hosts on this occasion and, with the senior side having missed out on last year's FIFA World Cup™, Ericson is keen for his countrymen to sample Brazil's unique appeal.

He said: "I was lucky enough to be in Rio last year to do some TV analysis and it will be a great pleasure to go back again. I do hope the Swedish fans - having not had the chance at the World Cup - can come with us in good numbers. They are superb supporters and will add a lot to the tournament. And although the team won't be exactly the same as at the U-21s, which is a pity, we'll do our very best to make the people proud of us again."

What should encourage Sweden's fans is that, while the squad may be slightly different for next year's U-23 event, the management team looks set to remain unchanged. Their hopes, therefore, will be in the safe hands of a man who, in his masterful leadership of the U-21s, continued a proud family tradition.

Hakan, after all, is only the second Ericson to guide Sweden to a global showpiece, with father Georg having coached the senior side at the 1974 and '78 FIFA World Cups. It poses the question: did following his dad into the dugout always seem like Ericson's destiny?

"It looks that way now," he said, "but as a boy all I wanted to be was a star player. Unfortunately I got a bad injury when I was 21 and it never happened for me. But the positive side to that was that I started coaching the year after and, from there, making a career as a coach became my ambition."

Fatherly inspiration

Sadly, Ericson Snr - who died in 2002 - is not around to see the acclaim currently being lavished on his son. There is little doubt, however, that he provided an inspiring example to the man who will lead Sweden at Rio 2016.

"I often saw him working with his teams, how he dealt with star players, and how he approached the game and kept a group together," Hakan said of his father. "I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I learned a lot during those days about communication and handling different personalities.

"There was also a big tactical debate in Swedish football during that period that made me learn and think a lot about football. My father and another coach called Lars Arnesson were on one side, preaching a more technical style, while two English coaches - Roy Hodgson (the current England coach) and Bob Houghton - promoted a much more systematic and defensively organised way of playing. The funny thing is that I would say my team is more in the Hodgson and Houghton mould - certainly in defence - although our attacking play is much less systematic. We mix it up a lot in that respect."

And while Ericson might not be a chip off the old block in tactical terms, he believes that his man-management style owes much to having watched and admired his father's approach.

"One big similarity between us is that I look at the human being behind the player," he said. "Another is the way I look to put a united group together - especially going into a tournament. My father was very strong in those areas, and they are as important to me now as they were to him."

Whatever he is doing, Ericson's results - and that historic European trophy - speak for themselves. And with the Olympics now calling, images of gold medals and celebrating Swedes are sure to be the first items he packs for Rio.