- Sweden beat Italy 1-0 on aggregate in Russia 2018 play-off
- The team is returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2006
- The Swedes’ coach and captain were in tears afterwards
Joy abounded in the Sweden camp as Janne Andersson’s side pulled off the first major shock of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ play-offs last night.
A doggedly determined 0-0 draw in Milan secured the visitors a 1-0 aggregate win over Italy, consigning the four-time world champions to a first qualifying failure in six decades. Sweden, for their part, are returning to the global stage after missing out on the 2010 and 2014 editions.
The significance of the achievement was not lost on Andersson, the little-known coach who has masterminded their revival after the retirement of talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“I cried a few tears,” the Sweden boss admitted. “Look at some of the older players who felt that this was the last chance to make it to a World Cup - and now we did it. It’s indescribable. We have many heroes tonight.”
Among the most heroic was Andreas Granqvist, Ibrahimovic’s successor as captain, who was a colossal figure in central defence. The 32-year-old, who plays his club football for Russian side Krasnodar, can now look forward to a World Cup debut he feared might never come.
“This is the biggest thing that has happened to me,” admitted Granqvist, who collapsed to the ground in tears at the sound of the final whistle. “For those of us that are older, this is probably the last chance to play at a World Cup, so to succeed in these circumstances is an unbelievable joy.”
There was, however, a price to pay for the Sweden skipper, who was forced to honour a promise to his team-mates.
“I said to the lads in the dressing room that if we got to the World Cup they could shave [my hair] off,” he said. “I thought they’d forgotten it, but John [Guidetti] and ‘Vigge’ [Victor] Lindelof shaved it off straight away!”
Though shut out during the play-off, striker Marcus Berg was another of Sweden’s qualifying heroes, scoring eight times during the group stage.
“I‘m so proud of us,” he told Swedish television. “We have believed in this, we know how strong we are. We believe in what we do and we help each other in every situation.”
Berg had little opportunity to shine in a match dominated by the Italians, with Sweden enjoying just 25 per cent of possession and four shots to Gli Azzurri’s 23.
“We had no weapons left,” Andersson admitted. “We just had to sit there and hope we could hang on. We couldn’t do it in any other way.”
But while Sweden may lack the star players of past generations, their coach riled at suggestions that Ibrahimovic might be tempted out of international retirement ahead of Russia 2018.
"This is incredible! [Ibrahimovic] stopped playing with Sweden one-and-a-half years ago and we are still here talking about him," Andersson said. "We need to talk about the great players we have in this team, I believe.
"When Ibrahimovic was here with us we played a different style of football. He has decided to leave international football, and he is a great champion, but we had to adapt and we found another style."