Football: Schwarz an import at the controls: Simon O'Hagan meets the adaptable Swede hoping to have a high profile at Highbury

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IT'S BEEN the close-season when English football has gone truly cosmopolitan. From all over the world - Romania, Bolivia, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany - top players have suddenly decided that this is the place to be.

There is an irony here. This, after all, was the summer when England were locked outside while football's biggest bash was in full swing. You might have expected it to make the nation even more insular, yet as a repository of foreign talent England continues to grow, not just in quantity but quality.

That, perhaps, is the big difference between this summer's transfer activity and what was happening before. Foreign players are nothing new to the English game; Norwegian left-backs have been dutifully plying their trade over here for years. But it was deemed inevitable that the superstars went elsewhere, to Italy or Spain or France. 'We can't compete with them' was the refrain on every manager's lips as they gazed wistfully across the Channel, and when the maverick Eric Cantona turned up at Leeds United in 1992, he seemed to be the exception that proved the rule.

Now, when a bidding war opens for one of the world's best players, English clubs do not have to drop out after the first round. Television money has made them richer and there is a feeling that the game itself here has become more open and skilful, attracting the sort of players who would once have seen the Continent as the natural home of sophisticated football.

The result is a summer in which England has had its biggest ever intake of leading foreigners. Men like Jurgen Klinsmann and Bryan Roy, who might look strange and wondrous beings to English fans as they turn out on a wet Tuesday night at Wimbledon, but clearly don't think there is anything odd about it themselves.

Stefan Schwarz, the Swedish midfield player who joined Arsenal from Benfica for pounds 1.75m in June, fits exactly into this new class of foreign player whose conceptual geography has changed significantly in the last couple of years. Italy does not loom quite so large on the map now. Ask Schwarz why he chose Arsenal when the chance came to leave Benfica, and he has a ready answer and a simple one: 'Great club, great players.'

A nice, quiet, polite boy is our Stefan, very much in the mould of Swedish sportsmen. Even little Gillingham, Arsenal's opponents in a pre-season friendly last week, received the full weight of his compliments after he had helped his team to a 3-1 win. After his impressive showing in last weekend's Makita tournament, this performance, though unspectacular, was full of the assurance that Arsenal will be looking for as they attempt to wrest the Premiership title from Manchester United.

Schwarz is 25, but seems to have been around longer having already played in two World Cups and a European Championship. He started out playing for his local club Kulldal before spending a year as a junior professional with Bayer Leverkusen. Schwarz has a German father and the Germans were keen for him to switch nationalities. But then came the chance to return home and join Malmo, and by 1989 he was winning the first of his 36 caps, establishing himself alongside Tomas Brolin, Martin Dahlin, Roger Ljung and Jonas Thern in the most successful Swedish team for years.

Even though the 1990 World Cup was a disaster for the Swedes, the young Schwarz acquitted himself well enough to catch Benfica's interest, and off he went. Schwarz had all the qualities you associate with the best Swedes - sound technique, hard running, rock-

solid in the tackle. Hardly surprising then that he should appeal to George Graham, even if Graham's first experience of him was a painful one, Schwarz having been a member of the Benfica team which knocked Arsenal out of the European Cup in 1991.

Roland Nilsson, the former Sheffield Wednesday defender who was a team-mate of Schwarz's during this summer's World Cup, describes him as 'powerful, quite physical, one of those players who loves to work'. If all this makes Schwarz sound a bit dull, then Highbury could be in for a bit of a surprise. Very much a defensive midfield player in his early years - he even played at left-back for Malmo for a period - Schwarz has a creative side, Nilsson says, plenty of skill, and dispatches a fierce left-foot shoot from his muscly but mobile six-foot frame.

What about Schwarz's temperament? The hurly-burly of the English game can test even the most sanguine of characters, and beneath Schwarz's calm, courteous exterior Nilsson detects a tendency to get frustrated when things are not going his way, which is reflected in a fairly high booking rate for Sweden - even in the more

laissez-faire pre-World Cup era. He was cautioned four times in Sweden's World Cup qualifying campaign and when it comes to looking after himself will have little to learn.

'He could be very hot-

tempered,' says Berndt Rosqvist, one of Sweden's leading football commentators. 'But he's a winner,' he adds, pointing to a telling statistic about Schwarz - that of the 15 matches in which he has played since Sweden began their World Cup qualifying campaign in 1992, none has been lost.

Schwarz was a key man in Sweden's advance to the semi-finals of this year's World Cup, even if his contribution ended at the quarter- final stage when he became one of the many to fall victim to overzealous refereeing - in this case by England's Philip Don - which resulted in his being sent off for two bookable offences. But as George Graham says, 'he proved he was a quality player'.

Rosqvist compares Schwarz to the Brazilian midfielder Mauro Silva, very much a controlling influence who holds the team together. For an English equivalent, Rosqvist nominates Paul Ince. 'Stefan has become a better player since playing for Benfica. He has acquired what you might call split vision, the ability to weigh up a number of passing options simultaneously.'

Any suggestion that Schwarz is the sort of player who Arsenal might go out of their way to accommodate is dismissed by the man himself. Individualism is not exactly Arsenal's way and Schwarz knows that. 'I'll certainly be fitting in with the system here,' he says, and there is no doubt that Schwarz's adaptability, both on and off the field, was a big factor in Arsenal's going after him.

A more relaxed figure would be hard to find. Schwarz says a lot of this has to do with the help the club gave in finding a house for him and his family - he has a Portuguese wife and a 21 2 -year-old daughter. He is slowly working his way through Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch - 'a very interesting book' - and relishing the prospect of playing bigger matches than he was used to in the Portuguese League. But he has noticed, even in the phoney war of pre-

season friendlies, how much quicker and more competitive the English game is than anything he has experienced before.

John Jensen, Arsenal's Danish midfield player, says Schwarz has remarked on this, and he has had to warn him that if he thinks the game is fast now, just wait until the season proper begins. 'I told him just to stay relaxed, not to get dismayed by the speed of it all. He's going to find it difficult after two or three games when he realises what it's like, but he's a very strong player, very competitive and I'm sure he'll settle in well.'

Schwarz is experiencing exactly what Jensen went through when he joined Arsenal two years ago. Then, Jensen says, it took him six or seven months to feel really able to cope. 'The pace of the game is so great,' Jensen says, 'and if you play 60 games a season you just can't keep it up. If you're going to survive you can probably only aim to play maybe 40 games at the highest pace, and that's what Stefan will need to understand.'

There is also a little bit more work to be done on his English. But in the international language of football, Schwarz is already as fluent as you can be.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)