For many years, the USA and Sweden have been fixtures at the elite end of women’s football. Indeed, the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ has featured numerous and epic clashes between the North Americans and the Scandinavians. The pair were grouped together at the 1991, 2003 and 2007 editions of the tournament, with the Stars and Stripes coming out on top on all three occasions.
The familiar foes cross swords again in the first stage of this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 in Germany. Sweden currently lie fifth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, four spots off top nation USA, but only the brave or the foolish would bet on the Americans cruising past their European opponents in June.
Sweden captain Caroline Seger certainly sees things that way. "We’ve played the US several times, so we know them pretty well, and they also have a Swedish coach. Both teams know a lot about each other, which is good for us. We’ve beaten them before and we can do it again!" the player confidently predicted in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
Seger has been playing her club football in the USA since April 2010, initially for Philadelphia Independence, before joining forces with FIFA World Player of the Year Marta at Western New York Flash for the 2011 campaign. The 26-year-old midfield dynamo is clearly settled in the States – she happily calls the game "soccer" these days – and she also boasts inside knowledge and expertise of the game there.
"Something I’ve experienced in the US is this: by having them on the same team and watching them play, I’ve realised they’re human too. That's really changed my attitude. When I go back to Sweden to play with the national team, that’s something I can pass on to my team-mates," she said.
"Mentally, the US will always be strong, but they’re still human beings and they make mistakes. We just need to get over the fact that the US is a stronger nation than we are, even if they are really strong. Winning against the US at the Algarve Cup two years ago was a major thing for us, because we hadn’t beaten them in a long time," Seger explained.
Shifting up a gear
However, the imminent clash with the US girls at the FIFA Women’s World Cup holds no special significance for Seger. "It’s no big deal to me personally. I play against them regularly. The only difference is that I have friends on the opposing side, but the Swedish national team is my team. Nothing more than that."
The Sweden skipper readily admits there will be no easy games at this summer’s showdown. "All the teams going to the World Cup right now are good teams. You have to be prepared and ready to concentrate for the full 90 minutes. It’s gonna be a good tournament."
As to the potential winners, Seger regards the host nation as favourites, but not to the exclusion of every other team. "Germany are always the favourites. They’ve already proved they’re a great team. When they have to play well, they play well - especially in tournaments. I’d also mention the Canadians. They’ve made major changes to their football and the way they play. They are going to be very, very dangerous."
Mentally, the US will always be strong, but they’re still human beings and they make mistakes.
The Swedes were a disappointment at the 2007 finals in China and packed for home after the group phase. One of the most abiding images of the tournament was Lotta Schelin weeping uncontrollably on the Tianjin pitch, struggling to come to terms with her country’s premature exit. Caroline Seger has not forgotten that moment either.
"We’ve arguably not done as well as we wanted in tournaments. We’re a good team, and we know we can do better. We’ve played together for a while now, so going to big tournaments shouldn’t be an issue. But it’s getting tougher and tougher, and I think we Swedes need to step up our efforts. Sweden always has a good team, but if we could just shift up another gear, we could certainly be right at the top.”
*Crucial preparatory phase
*As a barometer of form, this year’s Algarve Cup was promising enough for the Swedes as they secured a top-four finish. Coach Thomas Dennerby’s side won two and lost one of their group games, before narrowly losing the third-place play-off 2-1 to fellow FIFA Women’s World Cup hopefuls Japan. Nevertheless, Seger is unwilling to read too much into the outcome.
"The Algarve Cup in general is a good tournament, where you get good games and where you can watch other teams play. You also get a feel for what you need to work on harder. But overall, it’s just a tournament that prepares your team for what comes next. I don’t think the outcome at the Algarve Cup is the important thing for us, and it won’t affect results at the World Cup. It’s just a great tournament where you get together and play some good games,” she told FIFA.com.
The likeable midfielder prefers to play down her role within the Sweden set-up. "I’m just one piece in the puzzle. Even if I do my job, I need ten more players doing their jobs as well. If everyone gives 100 per cent in every game, it means they’re playing to the highest possible level. My role isn’t any different from anyone else. OK, I’m the captain, so I need to lead by example and show the other girls that we can actually be just as good as we believe we can be. It’s up to each and every individual."
The captain clearly feels that the responsibility for how far the Swedes progress at Germany 2011, which kicks off just 70 or so days from now, lies solely and exclusively with the players. Seger for one is thoroughly looking forward to the challenge. "Germany is a country where women’s soccer is very big at this time. The national team has been so successful, and lots of tickets have been sold. I’m really looking forward to the World Cup."
And perhaps she will fulfil one of her own personal targets while in Germany? "My main goal is just to keep on developing, have a great World Cup where I play good football, and hope that people around the world see I’m a great soccer player."