Many people like to identify national characteristics in a nation’s football style. The Germans are unspectacular but hard working and efficient. The Spanish are creative and individually brilliant but not as effective collectively. The English are direct with daggered fighting spirit but live off former glories. The Italians are sophisticated and elegant, but also cynical and corrupt. Obviously these theories rely on stereotypes rather than reality and there are some obvious contradictions (for example Catenaccio is highly organised, something few Italians are ever accused of being) but it is still a fun way of analysing football. So what is Sweden?
The popular stereotype of the average Swede is that they are quiet, modest, pedantically law-abiding, and tirelessly hard working. Accordingly one of the most defining characteristics of Swedish football is discipline. In the same way a Swede will supposedly patiently wait at a red light on an empty street, on the pitch they’ll never dive or commit a cynical foul. Swedes follow the rules. They commit the least fouls and very rarely get sent off. At the 2008 European Championships Sweden conceded the least number of yellow cards and third least fouls. Nordic clubs are also nearly always amongst the beneficiaries of UEFA’s Fair Play Award, which rewards good disciplinary records with extra UEFA Cup places. I’ve only ever seen one player being penalised for diving in an Allsvenkan match, and the offender was Brazilian.
Another defining characteristic is the importance of the team over the individual.
Swedes are team players and they work together for the benefit of the collective. A Swede won’t complain about high taxes because they know the money is being used for the benefit of broader society, and a Swedish footballer will curtail any desire for personal glory and stick to their prescribed role in the team plan.
Rules and the sense of duty to the collective whole: they’re the foundations of both the nation’s football culture and the modern Swedish welfare state. Like many socialist countries it stifles creativity, spontaneity and individual improvisation. It encourages conformity, and thus football players are typically unadventurous. There is no room for individual glory. Those who stand out, who speak their mind or don’t quite fit the mould, are rarely looked upon favourably. Zlatan Ibrahimović is the antithesis of the typical Swedish footballer. He might be a brilliant individual player with a lot of flair but doesn’t always work well in a team structure or adhere to internal discipline. Thus his turbulent relationship with the Swedish media and public.
Tactics wise Swedish football us quite similar to English football. It isn’t as physical but clubs often play a fast direct style. Most managers come from the school of thought that the most effective way of scoring goals isn’t through a slow build up of play through possession football, but by moving the ball forward as quickly as possible with a minimum number of passes. Accordingly long ball is common. Centre backs typically look to hammer the ball forward, while strikers try to catch the opposition on the counter attack.
The similarities with the English are no coincidental. English managers such as Bob Houghton and Roy Hodgson (who will be discussed further in another blog entry) have been hugely influential in Swedish football. English football has been televised in Sweden since the 1960s, and many of today’s managers, including former national manager Lars Lagerbäck and Sven Göran Eriksson, were raised on a diet of kick-and-rush in ankle-deep mud.
Lars Lagerbäck resigned as national manager last year after Sweden failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. For the past ten years his style of football was considered conservative and boring, but it was practical and it got results. The 2010 World Cup was the only major tournament that Sweden didn’t qualify for under Lagerbäck’s reign. Boring but functional: sound familiar?