Football: Soderberg vision going to plan

European Championship: Sweden's coach brings adventurous approach to Wembley on Saturday
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The Independent Online
WHILE England have stalled, dropping coaches and points, Sweden have moved swiftly through the gears on their journey to reach the Low Countries for next summer's Euro 2000.

The Scandinavians are in the Group Five driving seat. The only team with a 100 per-cent record, they lead Kevin Keegan's side, their nearest rivals, by five points. Even if Sweden lose Saturday's game at Wembley, with home games to come against Bulgaria and Poland and an away day in Luxembourg, it is more than probable that England will have to qualify via the play- off route.

"There is no pressure on us," the Manchester United winger Jesper Blomqvist said. "We will be able to go and just try to get a good result. If we don't manage it, fine, we will still have three games to correct things."

It should not come as too much of a surprise that Sweden have travelled so well since launching their campaign with a 2-1 win over England in Stockholm last September. Their footballers, much like the Saab marque, have an understated yet desirable look about them.

Sweden, like France, has become an exporter of football talent. While the 22 players that make up Keegan's squad all play in England, Tommy Soderberg, the Swedish coach, has to keep tabs on a group of players that are dotted around Europe. Out of a 21-man squad, only Roland Nilsson and Andreas Jakobsson play for indigenous clubs. "We think it is important for them both as individuals and as players that they finish their studies as well as their football education," Soderberg said earlier this week. "And that they have also played for a few years in the Allsvenskan [the Swedish Premier League].

"Then we want them to accept the challenge of going abroad in order to develop further. For example, Daniel Andersson and Yksel Osmanovski at Bari and Fredrik Ljungberg at Arsenal have all done well this season."

It is only in the last two years that Sweden's top division has become fully professional. Before Blomqvist played for Milan, Palma and United he turned out for IFK Gothenburg. When he was not skipping past David May in the 1994 European Cup, he was usually to be found working as a bank clerk in the morning, before he switched to mathematics classes at university.

"It's an integral part of the Swedish mentality," Blomqvist said. "We need something to do and it's better than lying in bed all day."

Not that this desire to keep idle feet busy has always produced results. After reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1994, Sweden failed to qualify for last year's finals in France. Having also missed out on Euro 96, Tommy Svensson, Sweden's most successful coach, made way for Soderberg, who had been in charge of the Under-21 team and had previously led AIK Stockholm to the title in 1992. Blomqvist and Celtic's Johan Mjallby believe that Soderberg's appointment has been crucial to Sweden's Euro 2000 success. "We needed some fresh blood," Blomqvist said. "Soderberg believes in getting a good group of players together and by doing that then the individual will improve. Svensson was the other way around, he worked more with the individual."

Mjallby added: "Soderberg's biggest strength is to get all the players feeling good and be friends. He's laid back and easy to talk to."

It is a mark of Soderberg's relaxed attitude that he remains phlegmatic about Sweden's topsy-turvy form during the 1990s. "For a small country like Sweden it is quite normal for us to have our ups and downs, we can never compete on the same high level as Germany, Italy and England."

Soderberg is relaxed, but also something of a perfectionist. Asked what is the hardest thing about being an international coach, he replied: "Not having enough time to attend to everyone's needs."

Swedish perfectionism might churn out dependable footballers like a car production line, but the down side is that the finished product does have a somewhat predictable look about it. Stuart Baxter, AIK Stockholm's current coach, who guided the club to the title at the end of last year in his first season in charge, believes that this homogeneity reflects Swedish society. "The Swedes are raised with this huge safety net and it has taken Swedish footballers a long time to cut the umbilical cord," he said. "Nobody goes poor. If you lose your job you still get 99 per cent of your salary. That sense of security doesn't lend itself to the risky business of becoming a professional sportsman.

"Swedish footballers like this safety net. They are always talking of the coach believing in them. That is far removed from British professionals, who never get to know what the manager is thinking.

"AIK train 10 times a week, but even now a couple of the players run their own businesses while others are also studying."

According to Baxter, the exceptional individuals in Soderberg's team are Celtic's Henrik Larsson and Ljungberg. "Those two can do something. At home to Poland, when Sweden were struggling, Ljungberg produced something really special."

Baxter points out that Soderberg has been influenced by the success of the Norwegian club, Rosenborg Trondheim. "Sweden is a very conservative country. If you make changes and you fail, people point the finger and say: `That serves you right for trying to be cocky.' That tends to dampen the ardour of coaches.

"Soderberg was brave. He had this vision of making the typical Swedish 4-4-2 a little bit more flexible. He's got Stefan Schwarz as a midfield libero, with three in front of him as well as the two strikers.

"Strangely Mjallby, who has been playing as a central defender for Celtic, has evolved into the attacking midfield player. I don't think that was planned, it just came about during the England game."

England last beat Sweden back in 1968 and, if that dismal record is to change, nothing less than top gear will be required by Keegan's side on Saturday. It is no wonder that Mjallby concludes by saying: "It is going to be hard for the other countries to catch us."

SWEDEN'S RECORD

1998

24 January: USA 1 Sweden 0

29 January: Jamaica 0 Sweden 0

25 March: Spain 4 Sweden 0

22 April: Sweden 0 France 0

28 May: Sweden 3 Denmark 0

2 June: Sweden 1 Italy 0

19 August: Sweden 1 Russia 0

5 September: Sweden 2 England 1

14 October: Bulgaria 0 Sweden 1

1999

10 February: Tunisia 0 Sweden 1

27 March: Sweden 2 Luxembourg 0

31 March: Poland 0 Sweden 1

28 April: Rep of Ire 2 Sweden 0

27 May: Sweden 2 Jamaica 1

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