Football: Mjallby: `Easing up would be a betrayal'

Phil Gordon talks to a Swede determined to enforce neutrality
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The Independent Online
JOHAN MJALLBY can scarcely disguise his uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood action hero Dolph Lundgren. England could hardly have a better man to rush to their rescue as the final seconds tick away on their Euro 2000 cliff-hanger.

The Celtic player was the man who began England's Group Five torment with that winner in Stockholm a year ago in Sweden's 2-1 victory, so it would be highly appropriate if he were to rectify the situation by helping to beat Poland on 9 October to allow Kevin Keegan's side safe passage into the play-offs.

However, Mjallby and the rest of his team-mates intend to take care of the Poles not as a favour, but simply as a matter of course: the 26-year- old midfielder bristles at the suggestion that Sweden will take their foot off the pedal against the Poles simply because they have already qualified.

It is an error of judgement that at least one Englishman is ready to put right. John Barnes, Mjallby's boss at Parkhead, points out there are no half-measures with the granite-jawed midfield enforcer. "If you saw Johan in training," said the former England international, "you would realise that he won't pull out of anything or against anyone. I think Johan and Henrik [Larsson] are insulted by suggestions they won't try their best."

Barnes' words carry some weight, given that Mjallby took out his new Celtic team-mate the Bulgarian Stilian Petrov in training in the week before the countries met in Stockholm last Saturday. A sniping aftermath followed via respective national newspapers, with Petrov claiming Mjallby had shown him no respect and the Swede replying with a chilling smile: "Anyone who wants to take something away from the Rasunda Stadium will have to go through me and be prepared for pain."

"I saw the incident in training," explains Barnes, "and it was a 50-50 ball. But Petrov came out of it injured." Mjallby insists he is unable to alter his style whether it is friend or foe, which is why Celtic paid AIK Stockholm pounds 2m for him after he had headed the winner which began Glenn Hoddle's demise last September.

When told that all of England will become Swedes for a day on 9 October, and that many of his adopted Scottish friends want Mjallby's team to roll over for the Poles, the player simply smiles and says: "Swedes are neutral at all times - we don't take sides.

"Historically, we don't have this kind of conflict that Scotland and England have. Sure, we make jokes about the Norwegians or the Danes, but I think the last time there was any bother was in the seventh century with Russia. Helping Poland does not interest us.

"There will be a stadium full of people who expect us to win, to finish off the group in style. To ease up would be to betray our country; it would be to betray our profession. If you think about how a result would affect another country, then that is cheating. Anyway, the Sweden fans are looking for a performance from us and they are entitled to be entertained."

Larsson, Mjallby's friend and colleague, will be the man England hope can puncture the Polish defence in a way Alan Shearer and Robbie Fowler failed to, though if he does the dreadlocked striker may lose some of his street credibility around Parkhead. "Henrik told me that he got a round of applause from the Scottish players when he came into the dressing- room after Sweden beat England," Mjallby said.

Barnes, though, is trying to redress the balance, if not in Anglo-Scottish relations, then at least in helping England. "I told the boys to get some rest because they had a big game coming up - they thought I meant Kilmarnock instead of Stockholm," he laughed.

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