The Allsvenskan opened April 4, and if the pundits are right, Kalmar could have a short reign as champion.
Kalmar FF won its first-ever Swedish soccer title last year as it led the league almost from gate to gate. The team with the smallest stadium in the Allsvenskan was the biggest story in Swedish sports as Kalmar used a trio of Brazilians and a core of young Swedish players to dominate the league.
Head coach Nanne Bergquist, however, learned the hard way the lessons other championship coaches such as Tom Prahl, Magnus Haglund and Zoran Lukic already know: To the victors come the spoilers.
“It’s very difficult in Sweden to keep a winning team together,” said Prahl, who won a pair of titles while managing Halmstad. “The best players always want to go abroad and it is the main way for some teams to make money. Plus, once you win, you are no longer a secret. Other teams know about you.”
Kalmar lost five starters from its championship team last season. The biggest losses were leading scorers Patrik Rosengren and Victor Elm, who went to Dutch club Heerenveen, and Brazilian Cesar Santin, who joined FC Copenhagen. Combined, the three players accounted for 43 goals last year.
Bergstrand kept most of his defense intact, including goalkeeper Peter Wastå, but how he makes up for the losses in offense is the big question. Kalmar lured Uruguyan Daniel Mendes away from AIK and signed up-and-coming Brazilian Lourival Assis, but even Kalmar captain Henrik Rydström admits the newcomer,”Isn’t all that spectacular.”
“He is good, but he is no Cesar or Ari (Ferreira),” Rydstrom said. “At the same time, however, he is the kind of player we need, someone who will be there for every match and someone we know.”
Still, Kalmar remains the team to beat in the Allsvenskan. Bergstrand is the master of “plug and play” football. He knows how to create a strategy and get his players not only to buy into his plan but execute it as well. Despite the player losses, Kalmar still has its core from last year’s championship side, and with Champions League matches coming up this summer, has the chance to continue to add top-level players.
The teams with the best chances to unseat Kalmar are 2006 champs Elfsborg and 2007 titlists Goteborg.
Elfsborg, on paper at least, could well be the strongest team in Sweden. Elfsborg lost Johan Wiland, the best goalkeeper in Sweden last year, to FC Copenhangen in Denmark. To replace him, head coach Magnus Haglund picked up former Hammarby net minder and current Australian international goalkeeper Ante Covic.
Covic knows Swedish football and Swedish conditions and should fit seamlessly into the team. Elfsborg also has English youngster James Keene. The striker missed most of last year with a knee injury and says he is ready to take his frustration out on the rest of the league.
“I haven’t felt this good in years,” Keene said. “The whole team feels ready. There is this spirit, and mentally I think we’re stronger than we were two years ago.”
Goteborg is just as confident. Although head coach Stefan Rehn watched as his captain, Niclas Alexandersson, retired, the Angels really only lost peripheral players. Goteborg brought back almost its entire team from its improbable 2007 championship and with another year’s experience, could well be on its way to restoring the glory days at IFK.
Helsingborg could also have a strong season. Henrik Larsson returned for one more year while former Swedish international Magnus Arvidsson joined HIF from Halmstad.
Expectations are also running high around AIK, which went through yet another offseason overhaul, both on the field and in the front office. Underachieving Malmo picked up a pair of Brazilian stars, but doubts remain as to the rest of Roland Nilsson’s squad.
At the other end of the table, BK Hacken and BP Brommapojkarna returned to the top flight, but those returns are likely to last just one season.
For complete Allsvenskan coverage, go to www.nordstjernan.com.