Pressure? What pressure?
The Swedish Under-21 national soccer team certainly didn’t seem to feel any as it advanced to the semifinalsof the UEFA Under 21 European Championship.
by Chipp Reid
The tournament features some of the top players born in 1986 from England, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Spain, Finland, Belarus and Sweden. As the host country, Sweden did not have to qualify for the tournament, meaning the team has not played together since 2006, when it lost 5-0 to Serbia in a qualifier for the 2007 tournament.
Three years and no competitive matches? No problem, said defender Mattias Bjarsmyr, who plays for IFK Göteborg in the Allsvenskan. The defender pointed to friendly games Sweden played earlier this year against Italy and Spain – both draws – and a 3-0 win over defending champions Netherlands last November – as proof of Sweden’s quality.
“We have beaten or drawn against the very best,” Bjarsmyr said. "We've matched Spain, Italy, Netherlands, that's what we have got to back up our goal of reaching the semi-finals. It does matter that we've only played friendly matches and not had to qualify, but at the same time we've been able to build up something good and we feel we've been up against tough opponents."
Sweden played in a group with Belarus, Italy and Serbia, the latter of which came in as favorites to win the European title. The Blågult (blue and yellow team) opened June 16 against Belarus, played Italy June 19 and finally faced Serbia June 23.
Unlike the senior team, which draws its players literally from leagues around the world, the Under-21 is very much a Swedish team. Only five players on the roster earn a living outside of Sweden and just three of them outside of Scandinavia. Co-coach Jörgen Lennartsson said he thought the speed and quality of Sweden’s opponents could come as a surprise.
“Most of the players will have to raise their game a notch or two,” he said, “because this championship is on a higher level than what they are used to.”
Still, the Under 21s are something of a new breed of Swedish player. Most have grown up in an Allsvenskan that has a decidedly Latin and African influence. Gone is the plodding, long-style of play in favor of quick passing and ball possession. Gone, too, is the distant personality. Most are more similar in personality to Göteborg midfielder Pontus Wernbloom than they are to sports icons Björn Borg or Annika Sörenstam, and Wernbloom, with his trademark laugh a devil-may-care attitude, certainly sticks out in a crowd.
“I guess I'm a manic depressive or something,” Wernbloom said, unleashing a laugh that belied any serious concern over his mental health. “One minute I'll be furious, the next I'll just laugh.”
The 22-year-old is a bundle of energy on and off the pitch. He is set to join Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in July and like his teammates, he doesn’t mind showing his passionate side.
"I find it boring when athletes don't show their feelings," says Wernbloom. "Everyone claims to love their sport, so why not show it? Of course there's pressure at this level, but you've got to have fun as well."
It’s an attitude the entire team as it set out to at least reach the semifinals. After opening with a 5-1 thrashing of Belarus, the young Swedes lost to Italy 2-1, setting the stage for a showdown with Serbia.
The Serbs posed something of nemesis for the Swedes. Serbia blasted Sweden out of the 2007 tournament with a 5-0 thrashing of the Blue and Yellow in an October 2006 qualifier. When the two teams met June 23, however, the Swedes had more than revenge on their minds. The Blågult team had to beat Serbia to advance to the semifinals.
Pressure? What pressure?
Striker Markus Berg, who also has had time with the senior national team, struck just seven minutes into the match to give Sweden an early lead and while Serbia threatened, the FC Groningen forward made sure his team never surrendered its lead.
Berg scored twice in the match, giving him five goals in the tournament, while Ola Toivonen scored once to put the match away.
“There had been talk ahead of the match about the importance of the first goal,” Berg said. "If they had scored first and got their fans behind them, it would have been really tough. But we scored the first and also the second, so it was a really good start."
Berg, who scored a hat-trick in Sweden's opening 5-1 win against Belarus, has struck up an effective partnership with Toivonen who scored his second of the tournament against Serbia.
“I'm just slightly behind him now," said the 22-year-old Toivonen. "Marcus is a fantastic finisher; he scores from nearly every chance he gets."
With the win, Sweden reached its stated goal of going to the semifinals. Now, the team is looking ahead to reaching the final for the first time in its history. To get there, Sweden must beat England June 26 at Gamla Ullevi in Göteborg.
“I had tipped England as the eventual champions actually, but we'll try to stop them from becoming that,” said Berg. “They're a very good team; nearly all of them have Premier League experience. I think only one player in the Swedish team [Martin Olsson of Blackburn Rovers FC] has that. It will be interesting. If we can raise our game another few notches, we'll give them a really tough match.”
Pressure? What pressure?
Marcus Berg scores the second of his two goals in the game June 23 as he led Sweden to a 3-1 win over Serbia in the UEFA Under 21 European Championships in Malmö. Bildbyrån photo/Lennart Mansson