Today I write about a country not unlike our own, an ordinary sized country based in northern Europe of just over 9 million that defines itself with its beautiful countryside, over priced cities, and miserable weather. Yes I’m of course talking about Sweden. The land of the honourable Henrik Larsson, the not so honourable Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but perhaps more importantly, the land of an interesting football history.
Football sprung to life in Sweden in the early 1870’s when gymnastic clubs were established up and down the country as a result of inspiration from Scotland and England as locals decided they wanted teams of their own to follow. The sport grew quick roots in the big cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg where the first agreement of rules were recognized in 1885.
After that, the only way was up for the bright-eyed sport. Five years down the line and we have the first international game, two years after that the first official game with modern rules was played, and a further three years after that, the first Swedish national football tournament, the Svenska Idrottsförbundet (which literally translates to ‘Swedish Sports Federation’), founded in Gothenburg.
The Svenska Masterskapet was then set up in 1896 as the National football cup and was recognised as the country’s cup competition until 1925 when the Allsvenskan was set up. The only thing left to do was to then set up a national Football Association, which they did in 1904.
Intriguing named ‘the NSF section for Football and Hockey’ which was later officially changed to the Swedish Football Association, the association played a big part in the creation of Modern football embodiment. One of the seven original members of the first Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA to those of us who don’t speak Spanish) in 1904, which undoubtedly seemed like a good idea back then.
The country quickly picked up the reputation as dark horses in the World Cup, jumping past expectation by beating Argeninta in the 1934 World Cup to then lose to Germany in the quarter finals, and then again similarly in 1938 they managed to finish fourth in the tournament.
Despite these impressive displays, Sweden’s defining moment in history would come twenty years later as the country thoroughly placed their mark on world football when they hosted the sixth World Cup in 1958.
Sweden impressively finished top of their group beating a strong Hungary side 2-1, Mexico 3-0 and drawing 0-0 against a stubborn Welsh side. The side then went through to the second round (which was then the quarter finals) where they played the debuting Soviet Union who had knocked England out days before, brushing them aside 2-0. this put Sweden through to the Semi finals where they beat West Germany to book their place in the final against a fearless Brazil side that had previously thumped France 5-2 with an impressive hat trick from a bright young lad by the name of Pele.
The final took place in the Rasunda Stadium in Solna as 51,800 people watch the Swede’s take an early lead in the first four minutes only for Brazil to pull two back before half time. The game could have gone either way but when the teams came back on to the pitch, there was only one word to describe the second half: Pele.
The youngest ever player to play in a World Cup, notched up two of Brazil’s three second half goals. The first a lob, the second a volley after Sweden managed to pull a goal back, to kill of the game and introduce himself to the world. The game finished 5-2 in favour of the Brazilians.
The final of the 1958 World Cup is regarded by many as the greatest World Cup final in history. The first World Cup trophy for Brazil that sent them on their way to becoming the football power house that they are today. The debut of Pele, the greatest ever player, and of course the success story of Sweden’s dark horses to make it to the final to bow out respectively to such a fantastic side. Sweden put on a show, that would spark their country’s contribution in world football into life.
Swedish football established itself as a strong domestic league along side a national team that could through its weight around. National pride was evidently following from the ’58 World Cup as the next generation of Swedish football showed prestige in the 70’s. Sweden qualified for three consecutive World Cups from 1970 which was followed by Sweden’s first appearance in the European Cup Final in 1979 when Malmo FF reached the finals.
This ethos of Swedish sides punching above their weight carried into the 80’s, summed up by an impressive period in IFK Göteborg’s history in the early 80’s when they reached the final of the UEFA cup twice, winning it in 1982 against Hamburg 4-0 over two legs, and in 1987 where they beat that Dundee United side 2-1 on aggregate. Aswell as reaching the Semi finals of the European Cup in 1985 after loosing out to Barcelona on nothing more than penalties despite an impressive first leg 3-0 home victory.
The 90’s proved an end to an era for Swedish club football as IFK Goteborg qualified for the newly formed UEFA Champions League for the fourth time in five years between 1992 and 1997, reaching the Quarter finals in 1995 when they went out on away goals to Bayern Munich as the familiar face of close results against major European sides, proved hard to swallow. The national team also followed suit by reaching the Semi finals of the Euro’s in 1992, the most impressive performance from the Country so far, and the Semi finals of the 1994 World Cup where they got knocked out by eventual winners, and old foes, Brazil.
Since then we’ve seen a dramatic demise in European adventures from Swedish sides, with nothing to show but a group stage appearance in 2000 and a swift defeat in the last 31 of the UEFA Cup in 2007 from Helsingborg.
This is as often the case in football, down to money. Especially in smaller leagues around Europe, such as Sweden and even so in Scotland, where the rise of top tv deals in Spain, England, Italy and Germany has put a real strangle hold over the financial future of these medium-sized leagues.
Sweden is a good example of how much European football has directly changed over the past two decades due of the introduction of TV revenue.
The top division in Sweden, the Allsvenskan, only became fully professional half way through the previous decade to try and combat the fall of its national league. Where in the past when Swedish football could battle proudly against the best in Europe with its honest amateur sides, modern times have led to a league devoid of talent and promise and in desperate need of some professional restructuring.
The major problem (or lack of, depending on your footballing philosophy) is with the method of money allocation throughout the league. Unlike the SPL, English Premier League or the Spanish top division, the television revenue in Sweden’s top flight is handed out equally from top to bottom.
Imagine this May, Manchester United or Chelsea win the Premier League to only find that they’ll be receiving no more than Hull or West Bromich Albion. Many of you will be saying to yourself that it wouldn’t make much of a difference considering they make most of their money from the Champions League , but take away that revenue stream and you have yourself the problem that Sweden’s top sides find themselves in today.
With no financial incentive for winning the league and the inability to make any real dent in Europe. Sweden’s Allsvenskan has found itself in a situation where the league itself is impractically perfect in the sense of competition, but impossible to compete in Europe with sides from other leagues. This is apparent from the six previous winners of the league title, being six separate sides, without a single one of them managing to qualify for the Champions League group stages.
With poor performances, comes poor revenue, and with poor revenue comes a smaller wage budget than the previous year which funny enough coincides with the quality level in Sweden’s top league demising every year. The Swedish FA tried to combat this a few years back with the abolishment of the non-EU player quota stuck on 3 a season, as a desperate attempt to bring in some quality, regardless of whether it was Swedish.
The league now finds itself in a situation where without a quick solution to the inabilities of its side in Europe, it may find itself slipping down the UEFA coefficients as the successes of its clubs in Europe as lately as the 90’s seem like a day-dream of yesteryear, when those where the days.