Football / World Cup USA '94: Stoichkov and Dahlin the danger men for the underdogs: Henry Winter on the maverick forward at the heart of Sweden's renaissance

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The Independent Online
THE uniform of the maverick has once again caught the eye at the World Cup parade.

True to type, those adorned by No 10 shirts are experiencing a medley of emotions. From the misery of Maradona, Valderrama and Etcheverry to the elation of Hagi, Owairan and Roberto Baggio. From the frustration of Rai and Wegerle to the proud stance of Matthaus, Scifo and Bergkamp.

There is one other noteworthy No 10, currently assailed by contrasting feelings: Sweden's increasingly excellent Martin Dahlin, who awaits 'a last-minute decision' on a calf problem before tonight's semi-final against Brazil. Having been suspended for Sweden's group-stage draw with the guardians of the game's spirit, missing out again would be excessively cruel for this 20-year-old Pele devotee.

The graceful, if occasionally troubled, product of a Venezuelan musician and Swedish psychologist, Dahlin was a natural recruit to the No 10 fraternity formed by Pele.

Six years ago, Dahlin's future as one of his country's greatest players appeared a formality. His career nurtured by two perceptive Englishmen, Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton, Dahlin earned accelerating plaudits and a championship medal with Malmo in 1988. His elevation to the national ranks was immediate and he became the first black player to represent Sweden.

Then, inexplicably, as Dahlin stood on the threshold of sustained national acclaim, came a slump of confidence and form, leading on a downward spiral towards his absence from Italia '90. 'That was the worst year of my career, my confidence was at a very low ebb,' he recalled.

Disappointed at not being able to emulate his two World Cup heroes, Mario Kempes and Pele, Dahlin's irritation was exacerbated by Sweden's guileless display.

Fast forward to USA '94. Sweden's emergence as a significant force has been assisted by Dahlin recapturing and developing an undoubted attacking talent. Self-belief has replaced proliferating doubts, for both player and team. After four goals in as many tournament games he hit seven in qualifying), Dahlin needs one more strike - probably a header given his current tendency - to surpass Sweden's all-time individual scoring tally of 20.

His resurgence has been remarkable. A make-or-break move to Borussia Monchengladbach looked disastrous when he failed to settle. But gradually the goals came. As did a place in Euro '92, the turning point for Dahlin, according to Sweden's astute manager, Tommy Svensson. No goals but plenty of what stats junkies call 'assists'.

'That was the start of the new era for Martin Dahlin,' Svensson said. 'He had a couple of good performances even if he did not score. He has worked hard, matured as a human being and as a footballer, and has gained experience playing in Germany. When he started scoring goals that increased his self-confidence, and that's very important for him.'

An exiled idol to Swedes, the mobile striker has entered the world's memory bank during USA '94. Good in the air, with what professionals term 'quick feet', Dahlin is close to becoming an exceptional all-round striker, providing he learns, a la Lineker, how to escape suffocating marking.

Seeking a target man, Mike Walker was keen to bring Dahlin to Everton, but negotiations foundered. Goodison's loss should be Italy's gain.

America has certainly been impressed, greeting him with 'Yo, O J', a reference to Simpson, the incarcerated gridiron great who Dahlin allegedly resembles. Minus ear-ring, the Swede bears a closer affinity to David Rocastle yet the O J tag has stuck. 'They say it's a compliment, (as) he's good-looking,' Dahlin explains.

As if he needed anything other than a No 10 shirt to set him apart.

(Photograph omitted)