14 Aug Have the stars aligned for Sweden at the Women’s World Cup?
Officially, the Peter Gerhardsson era started when he first took charge of the Sweden women’s national team in autumn 2017, marking his first match with a win over Croatia to get the Blågult’s qualification bid for the 2019 Women’s World Cup off to the perfect start. Yet, inheriting a team that was entrenched in the typical Swedish 4-4-2 and playing a style the coach likened to an old-fashioned English system, it would take almost four years for the squad to finally begin looking like the real (attacking) deal under the 63-year-old.
It was a philosophy that saw his attacking players given freedom to express themselves and find their best instincts in key moments. The idea was to build on a strong defensive core that would act as a safety net and give a sense of security for their bold attacking play. Gerhardsson was clear in his ideals, but it took far longer than he planned for Sweden to be a team that could embrace an attacking outlook.
With one, ultimately, lacklustre tournament in the bag in 2019, Sweden stepped up to the plate for the delayed Tokyo Olympics and delivered an attacking masterclass in their opening match against a shell-shocked United States. The team seemed to be in cruise control through the group stage and into the knockouts when they unceremoniously dumped hosts Japan out of the tournament. Yet, instead of continuing on their trajectory after the 3-1 win, Sweden began to wobble, looking unconvincing (but getting the job done) against Australia in the semifinal, before the goals completely deserted the team by the time of the final against Canada.
That downward turn continued through the European Championships the following summer when the Swedes, who off of the back of their sprint to the Olympic final, had come into the tournament as favourites, were humiliated in Sheffield by England.
Even into the World Cup group stage, the Scandinavian powerhouse continued to ride their luck and put in less than compelling performances.
It took Sweden a late rally against South Africa to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, before they overwhelmed a crumbling Italy team that didn’t know how to stop the Swedes at set pieces. Having made wholesale changes for their third group game, the Scandinavians breezed through, with vital rest delivered to key players who would go on to hunker down and ride their luck against the USWNT in the round of 16. Some strong performances, a slice of luck and a record-setting match from Zećira Musovic saw the team into the quarterfinals and, for the first time in two years, Sweden looked like the attack-hungry beast that ended Japan’s hopes at the Olympics, this time eliminating the Nadeshiko from the World Cup.
For all the predictable and unscripted moments of football, sometimes there is a sense of balance and often of time being a flat circle. At the 2021 Olympics, up against the tournament darlings, Sweden came out to play and stunned the hosts, getting the goals and luck to reward their positive play — Japan were knocked out having played their best game of the tournament.
Two years later at the World Cup, Japan were again knocked out by the Swedes, but this time having played their worst — which is in no small part due to the dominance Sweden boasted in midfield, stifling the usually flowing Asian side. Japan had led Sweden to lose their spark two years ago, and now playing Japan might have given the Blågult their spark back.
In familiar territory of the latter stages of a tournament, Sweden enter Tuesday’s semifinal against Spain having just dispatched with the past two World Cup winners and will be high on confidence against a team that has never reached the last four of a major tournament before. Furthermore, with the Spanish issues off of the pitch over the past year well documented, Sweden seem a world away from their opposition — relaxed and in good humour.
Two years ago, when Canada’s Julia Grosso delivered her penalty to relegate Sweden to a silver medal on a stiflingly hot Tokyo night, there was a feeling that maybe Gerhardsson’s side had missed their chance, that the Olympics were the moment for Sweden and again the final ended in defeat.
Yet now, with Sweden having shown a range of ways of winning, riding high on success and with luck seemingly on their side, maybe this golden generation isn’t done just yet?