- Roland Nilsson helped Sweden finish third in 1994
- The Swedes were the top scorers in USA by some distance
- Nilsson relives that tournament and discusses Russia 2018 hopes
Roland Nilsson knows both sides of the FIFA World Cup™. He played every minute – all 930 of them – of Sweden’s 1990 and ’94 FIFA World Cup campaigns, and his experiences in those editions could not have contrasted any more starkly.
In Italy, the right-back was part of a team sent packing, bruised and humbled, after failing to collect a single point. Four years later, he returned from the World Cup a national legend, having been a mainstay of a swashbuckling side that outscored everyone en route to finishing third.
“In 1990, it was our first World Cup in 12 years. I think that showed,” he reflected. “There are lots of things you need to get right, on and off the field, at a World Cup, and we got too many of those wrong in Italy.
“But we took those mistakes away, learned from them, had a good EURO in ’92 and, by the time the World Cup rolled around again, we were ready. In USA, it was totally different; all of our preparations were spot-on and that meant the players were able to focus on our football.
“That was a wonderful time for us, and I thought it was a great World Cup. The atmosphere, the stadiums, the pitches – it was all fantastic. I have so many good memories from it.”
Neutrals across the world will also fondly remember a Sweden team that lit up that sun-kissed tournament. Several of USA 1994’s most thrilling matches featured the adventurous, free-scoring Scandinavians, and Nilsson looked back on the pick of them with FIFA.com.
Group stage – Rose Bowl, Los Angeles
“A good start is so important at these tournaments and that game was huge for us. We were 2-1 down well into the second half, and if we hadn’t got that equaliser, you never know how things might have turned out. But we had a lot of attacking talent in that side with players like [Tomas] Brolin, [Kennet] Andersson, [Martin] Dahlin and [Henrik] Larsson. Even when we found ourselves behind in matches, we never worried.”
Round of 16 – Cotton Bowl, Dallas
“The conditions in Dallas were tough. It was so hot and we thought that Saudi Arabia would be more used to that than we were. But we talked to their players afterwards and even they were saying, ‘We never play in this kind of heat’, which tells you something. It was a massive game for both teams and we played some good football, and scored some very good goals.”
Quarter-final – Stanford Stadium, San Francisco
“That was probably the highlight for me. We had been 1-0 up and lost a very late equaliser to take the game to extra time. Then in extra time they went ahead and we had a man sent off, so it wasn’t looking good. But that was when our fighting spirit came through and we got an equaliser through Kennet (set up by a Nilsson cross). Even then, we missed our first penalty in the shoot-out, so we didn’t make life easy for ourselves. But [Thomas] Ravelli saved, we kept on scoring, and then he saved again. The feeling was incredible.”
Semi-final – Rose Bowl, Los Angeles
“The Romania game had taken so much out of us, and we also had one day less to recover than Brazil, so they were a bit fresher than us. We had drawn 1-1 against them in the group phase but they were a great side and, realistically, we needed every bit of power in our bodies to beat them. We also had a player sent off and that meant we spent the last half-hour just defending. It’s very difficult to do that against a team like Brazil and a striker as sharp as Romario. All he needed was a moment, and one bit of space.”
Third-place play-off, 16 July - Rose Bowl, Los Angeles
“After the semi-final, we all felt we hadn’t shown - or been able to show - what we were capable of. So we were motivated and determined not to go home without showing what that team was all about. In the end, we were able to finish the tournament on a big high. All four of our goals came in the first half too – we really meant business. It was a great performance and a fantastic achievement to finish third.”
Expectations are more modest as Sweden approach Russia 2018. While the team of 1994 had the attacking talents of Brolin, Dahlin, Larsson et al, the current side is more functional and relies heavily on organisation and team spirit.
But those attributes did see them through a dramatic qualifying play-off win over Italy, and Nilsson – who these days coaches the nation’s U-21s – believes beating Korea Republic in their opening match could propel Janne Andersson’s side onwards.
“It’s like we found in 1990 and ’94: get a good start, build some momentum and you never know,” he said. “I think that first game will be really vital.
"This Sweden team are a good, hard-working group and they did brilliantly to come through that play-off against Italy. It will be tough for them to match what we did in 94, we all know that. But if they can get the right blend and enjoy a bit of luck and a good start, they can do well.”