Football: Swedes place faith in science

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WHILE THE England players have been encouraged to put their faith in Eileen Drewery, their Swedish opponents will rely on a more scientifically- based school of preparation - psychology.

Swedish football has succoured many of Britain's most innovative coaches, notably Roy Hodgson, who began his managerial odyssey with Halmstad 23 years ago. The Blackburn Rovers manager quickly learnt that in football the mind plays as big a part as the feet.

"It was freezing, about minus eight. It was also very damp because the training ground was by a river," he said of his first day in Sweden. "I'm on a pitch, one of those sandy all-weather ones, the like of which I have never seen before. The guys were wearing balaclava hats, four layers of clothing and gloves. And as far as they're concerned, I was going to be their coach, psychologist and physical educator."

A tough environment to work in, but a rewarding one, according to Stuart Baxter, the coach of AIK Stockholm, who joined the Swedish club from Vissel Kobe in Japan at the start of the year. The former Preston North End and Dundee United defender started his coaching career at Orebro in 1984 when Hodgson left for Malmo. He has never looked back.

"I was a typical British player, a good professional, who cared about my job and about losing and winning. But when I sat in the dressing-room before a game I was anxious and worried. None of the coaches I worked with in Britain did anything to relieve that.

"When I moved abroad, my game improved immeasurably. It wasn't until I began to study sports psychology that I discovered why. So when I started to coach, the first thing that I wanted to change was the environment my players worked in," adds Baxter, who has been influenced by the work of the Norwegian sports psychologist Willy Railo.

Baxter vividly remembers visiting Hodgson at Malmo and watching the Swedish international Jonas Thern train. "There was a player who had everything in a mental filing system and just pulled out that little bit extra when he needed to. Michael Jordan has the same attitude. When he goes out on the basketball court, he thinks that he can run through people. It's not confidence, it's not arrogance, it's just a state of mind."

This belief in the importance of the player's psychological preparation is widespread among Swedish coaches. Lazio's bespectacled coach Sven-Goran Eriksson has often talked about the disparity in the time allocated to physical and mental preparation in football.

It is an approach that has proved highly successful considering that ice hockey is Sweden's main sport. In the last six years Sweden have reached the European Championship semi-finals and won a World Cup bronze medal. Prior to this, they finished fifth in the 1974 World Cup and were beaten finalists in 1958.

The Swedes have regrouped since failing to qualify for France 98. Most notably Tommy Svensson, arguably their most successful coach ever, has made way for the former Under-21 coach Tommy Soderberg. Talented youngsters like Jorgen Pettersson and Fredrik Ljungberg, who played under Soderberg for the Under-21s, have graduated to the senior squad and recent friendly results have included wins over Denmark and Italy and a draw with France.

The current side is not as strong as the one that did so well in USA 94 but, one thing is for sure, come five o'clock, the Swedes' minds will have been finely attuned for this opening qualifier for Euro 2000.