SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

FOOTBALL

The day a naked Swedish footballer caused an unexpected scandal

In 1949, a Swedish football player made international headlines when he dared to bare in Brazil.

The day a naked Swedish footballer caused an unexpected scandal
Scroll down for the whole image. Photo: PrB/TT

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

Brazil would seem to be one of the last places in the world where a bit of nudity could cause offence, never mind create an international uproar. And yet that is exactly what happened 70 years ago when Swedish football player Sven Hjertsson dropped his drawers during a match in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Faced with a broken waistband and unwilling to depart the field and leave his team a man down during the close match with Fluminense FC, the 25-year-old defender for Malmö FF made the decision to do a quick change near his team's goalpost.

From the Swedish point of view, the brief nudity this entailed was insignificant. Based on what the Swedish players, coaches and journalists had seen on Brazilian beaches during the 1949 tournament, they clearly assumed the Brazilians would feel the same way. What happened next proved just how vastly different the two countries' views of acceptable nudity were.

“The next day, the Swedish 'Naked Shock' took up full pages in the [Brazilian] megacity's newspapers. The upper-class Fluminense… had never been involved in anything like this,” journalist Henrik Jönsson explained in a 2009 article in the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan.

Recommended reading for Swedish history buffs:

In retrospect, it's difficult to say who was more shocked: the Brazilians by Hjertsson's mooning or the Swedes by the Brazilian reaction to it.

“It was a scandal! The Swedish journalists who were on the trip told us about the uproar. People went and confessed after the game. Dad thought it was ridiculous. On the beach, the Brazilians had minimal swimwear,” recalled former Swedish football player Bertil “Klumpen” Nilsson, whose father Sven Nilsson was a Malmö FF coach, in the Sydsvenskan article. “Hjertsson's white butt became the big topic of conversation when Dad came home. No one understood the Catholic double standard.”


The incident laid bare Sweden's and Brazil's different approaches to nudity. Photo: PrB/TT

In the end, Malmö FF lost the match 2-1. The team – the first from Sweden to be invited to Brazil – did not have an easy time in the tournament. The effects of a long flight, difficulty adjusting to the hot and humid climate of Brazil, and a serious bout of diarrhoea that decommissioned half the team during the first week, had all taken their toll. Champions at home in Sweden, the team nonetheless left Brazil without a win.

READ ALSO: Ten rules for getting naked in Sweden

As for the “Naked Shock”, it seemed only to burnish Hjertsson's reputation back in Sweden, and perhaps even overshadow his legacy to some extent. During his 12-year career at Malmö FF, the team won gold four times in the national championships. He also played 13 times for the Swedish national team, which was considered one of the world's greatest football teams between 1945 and 1950. In 1950, the year after the incident in Brazil, Sweden ranked third in the world ranking, ahead of Brazil in fourth place.

Hjertsson died in 1999, but the photo of him from 1949 lives on as a singular glimpse into international football seven decades ago.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google’s questions

Why is Sweden called Sweden? Why is Sweden so depressing? Why is Sweden so rich?  In a new series of articles, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you type "Why is Sweden..." into the Google search engine.  

Why is Sweden called Sweden? The Local answers Google's questions
Why is Sweden actually called Sweden? Let's find out. Photo: Google screenshot

The short answer to “why is Sweden called Sweden?” is that it’s not. It’s called Sverige

When The Local asked Henrik Williams, a Professor of Scandinavian Languages at Uppsala University, he also gave the question a short answer: “Because it’s inhabited by Swedes.” 

We can trace some form of the name back to at least the 13th century, when it was called Swearike in Old Swedish. That translates to “the kingdom of the Swear”.

Two thousand years ago, some of the people living in what is now known as Sweden were called Svear or Suiones, depending on which language you spoke and on how you spelled things (spelling varied greatly). 

The Roman historian Tacitus gives the first known description of the Svear in a book written in the year 93 CE, Germania

Everything comes down to this word, Svear, the name of the people. It means ‘we ourselves’. The Svear lived in Uppland just north of where Stockholm is now, until about the 11th century when they started expanding their territory. 

“It’s very common that people call themselves, either ‘we ourselves’ or ‘the people’” said Professor Williams. 

“We are ‘the humans’ and everybody else is something else. Everyone else is ‘them'”.

Of course, nobody uses the word in that way now, but it still forms the basis of the word Sweden.

The 8th century epic poem Beowulf gives the earliest known recorded version of the word Sweoland, land of the Swear

But at that time, there was no Sweden. Instead, the land was occupied by little kingdoms of Swedes and Goths (in present-day Götaland) and warring tribes of Vikings.

It’s unclear when the King of the Swear started referring to himself as the king of a country called Sweden, but it was probably around the time the country adopted Christianity in the 11th century. 

“Sweden” only came into regular use after 1750, when it replaced “Swedeland” in English. But in Scotland, “Sweden” had been used since the beginning of the modern era.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 17th century, people would use Sweden as the name of the people, and Swedeland as the name of the country. 

The first attested use of ‘Sweden’ was in a Scottish timber accounting log in 1503, which refers to “Sweden boards.” 

Most countries went from the Old Norse word Svíþjóð (which is still used to describe Sweden in Icelandic today) and turned it into something in their own languages, like the Old English Swíoríce, the Middle Dutch Zweden and High German Schweden

But it’s not called Sweden everywhere. 

In Finnish, Sweden is Ruotsi, in Estonian it’s Rootsi, and in Northern Sami Ruoŧŧa.

This comes from the root-word Rod, as in modern day Roslagen the coastal part of Uppland. It means rowing, or people who row. And because Finland was invaded by people from Roslagen, that’s how Finns referred to them. 

SHOW COMMENTS