Between football and hockey, there are more than 300 Swedish athletes playing in leagues outside Sweden. The question is, who's the best?
The top export from Sweden isn’t cars, furniture or moose.
It’s talent―sports talent―and fans of two sports in particular―football and hockey―are the lucky beneficiaries of Sweden’s exports. Whether it’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic racking up goals in the tough Serie A in Italy or Washington Capital's forward Niklas Bäckström hitting the nets in the National Hockey League, Swedish players are having an impact pretty much everywhere they play.
With so many Swedes in so many of the top sports leagues, the inevitable question is, who’s the best? Which Swedish player has the biggest―and most lasting―impact on his sport?
Here are some side-by-side comparisons of the top active players in football and hockey who earn their living outside Sweden.
Football 1. Zatan Ibrahimovic Ask anyone, especially Zlatan himself, who’s the best Swedish football player right now and the easy answer is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He won his third-straight Golden Ball as Sweden’s top player last year and is a fixture with AC Milan. About the only thing that matches his immense talent is his ego, which is his Achilles heel. Zlatan is actually on loan to Milan from Barcelona, where he signed in 2009. However, he received neither the playing time nor the accolades he thought he deserved and his attitude led to his move to Italy. This season, Zlatan has scored 10 goals in 16 matches and recently announced his intention to remain at AC Milan until the end of his career. Zlatan has been something of a bust internationally. He does well in qualifiers but seems to disappear when big tournaments roll along. Still, the fans love him and according to Rankopedia, a fan polling website, Zlatan tops icons Henrik Larsson and Nils Liedholm as the best Swedish football player ever.
Hockey 1. Niklas Lidström Arguably the greatest Swedish hockey player ever, Lidstrom is in a class of his own when it comes to style, skill and, frankly, class. In his 17-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, Lidström has won four Stanley Cups and six Norris trophies as the top defenseman in the NHL. He opened the door to the flood of Swedish players now in the NHL and turned the Wings into a mini-Swedish national team. His fellow NHL Swedes call him, “The Godfather,” because of his willingness to help new Swedish players adjust to life in North America. Teammate Tomas Holmström said it’s also because Lidström is so old, but the Wings captain shows no signs of slowing down. Going into this season, Lidström had 997 points in 1330 games. Website NHLSniper.com rates Lidstrom as the top Swedish NHL player of all time and ranks him second only to the legendary Bobby Orr as an NHL defenseman.
The Best: Hands down, it’s Lidstrom. Unlike the quirky, temperamental Zlatan, Lidström is the quintessential team player, the guy around whom a coach can build a team. Where Zlatan complains, Lidström works. Ibrahimovic might have an edge in sheer talent, but can’t even compare to Lidstrom as a leader, an inspiration and as a player to have a lasting effect on his sport.
Football 2. Johan Elmander Elmander is the player coaches love to have on their teams, provided they can figure them out. At 29, Elmander is finally coming into his own with Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League after bouncing from Sweden to Denmark back to Sweden then to Italy, Holland and France. Elmander is a team player, which sets him apart from his teammate on the national team, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in more ways than we can count. However, despite an inordinate amount of skill, Elmander’s unselfish style of play is almost too unselfish. Until this season, he had a tendency of letting others finish what he started, resulting in a less-than-expected goal total. This year is different. Assured of his spot with Bolton, Elmander has a team-high nine goals in 22 games. He is also on target for the national team, where he has 13 goals in 51 games, second only to Zlatan with 25 goals in 66 matches. Just as important, Elmander remains down-to-earth and always puts his team first.
Hockey 2. Henrik Zetterberg The Detroit Red Wings knew they had something special when they drafted Zetterberg in 1999. Although injury problems have plagued “Zetts” in recent seasons, the center says he’s 100 percent healthy this year and he already has 49 points in 44 games. He won the Conn Smythe trophy in 2008 when he led the Wings to the Stanley Cup title, the same season in which he scored a career-high 92 points. Zetterberg is the quiet man among the Swedes in Detroit and lets his on-ice performances speak for him. This year, he leads the Wings in scoring but offense isn’t what makes Zetterberg so special, it’s his ability to play two ways. Zetterberg usually draws the assignment of marking the opposition’s top forward. He is also a penalty killer, works the power play and is one the Wings’ 5-on-3 specialists. His willingness to give to the team has earned him league-wide respect and also drawn high praise from “The Godfather” himself, Niklas Lidström.
The Best: Although fairly equal, the edge goes to Zetterberg, mostly because of his consistency over the years. Both Elmander and Zetterberg are having similar seasons, but Zetterberg often draws double or even triple duty due to injuries on the Wings and his willingness to do anything for the team.
Football 3. Johan Wiland One of four Swedes playing for FC Copenhagen in Denmark, Wiland is set to take his rightful spot as the top Swedish goalkeeper right now, supplanting even Andreas Isakson as the No. 1 on the national team. Since moving to Copenhagen from Elfsborg in 2008, Wiland has done nothing except carry Copenhagen into the group stages of the UEFA Champions League twice. This year, Wiland is unbeaten in 19 matches, going 16-3-0, allowing just 15 goals. He played every minute of every game for Copenhagen and is now solidly in line to take over from Isaksson as Sweden’s No. 1 national team goalkeeper. Wiland’s best attribute is his willingness to play through injury and his ability to anticipate an opponent’s move.
Hockey 3. Henrik Lundqvist Arguably the best Swedish goalie to ever strap on skates in the NHL, “King Henrik” has conquered New York in a way few athletes have since the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. Lundqvist is “the guy” for New York Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella. He has played in 35 of the Rangers’ 45 games this season, winning 19. He leads the NHL with six shutouts, is tied for third in save percentage with a .927 mark and his 19 wins is fifth-best in the league. Lundqvist is the anchor on which the Rangers have rebuilt their team. About the only thing King Henrik has yet to experience is the rush of the playoffs. Despite his stellar play in goal, the Rangers have failed to advance beyond the second round of the NHL’s second season in four of Lundqvist’s six seasons in New York. Lundqvist is also the top goalkeeper for the Swedish Olympic and full national team.
The Best: King Henrik. Although Wiland is up-and-coming in goal, Lundqvist owns the position in hockey. This season, the fact the Rangers are third in their division is a testimony to Lundqvist as New York averages less than three goals a game. The 28-year-old Swede is also hugely popular among New York fans and the love affair is certainly mutual as Lundqvist freely admits to loving life in the Big Apple.
Football 4. Rasmus Elm The youngest brother of the three Elms that led Kalmar to the Swedish crown in 2008, Elm is currently playing for AZ Alkmaar in Holland, where has scored four goals in just 12 matches. It’s “currently” because teams are lining up to for the services of the player the media call, “the Swedish Beckham.” Liverpool, Valencia, Fulham, PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam are all interested in the 23-year-old midfielder and it is more than likely Elm will have a new address before February.
Hockey 4. Daniel and/or Henrik Sedin It’s hard enough to tell the Sedin twins apart off the ice. On it, the two remain identical in style of play and results. Daniel Sedin is third in the NHL in scoring with 57 points, Henrik second with 55. Henrik has more assists than Daniel―49 to 30, while Daniel has more goals than Henrik―27 to 16. The Sedins are the twin towers for the Vancouver Canucks, after Detroit they're the most-Swedish team in the league with five Tre Kronor on the roster. They have been successful since they entered the NHL four years ago, but have yet to translate that success into a championship.
The Best: Rasmus Elm. Sure, the Sedin boys keep scoring and scoring, but they have yet to engender the sense of wonder in others that Elm does. Rasmus has a touch that is very much like that of David Beckham, albeit without the Spice Girl hanging on his coat tail. The Sedins’ unwillingness to be apart makes them a plus and a liability for the Canucks, who can’t afford to split them up. Elm doesn’t carry that baggage, and in the long run he has more sheer talent than either of the twins.
Football 5. Markus Rosenberg With five goals in 14 matches, Rosenberg has paid off for Racing Santander since joining the Spanish outfit on loan from Werder Bremen. Rosenberg wants to play in Spain and sees each match as an audition to remain in La Liga. With fellow Swede Kennedy Bakircioglu, Rosenberg has Santander safely in the middle of the table of the Spanish Primera Division and has re-discovered the scoring touch that he lost while in Germany. His five goals is sixth best among all overseas-based Swedish players and has played his way back onto the national team.
Hockey 5. Loui Eriksson The No. 9 scorer overall in the NHL and top point-getter for his Dallas Stars, Eriksson is now a true star in the league. The 33rd overall draft pick in 2003, Eriksson has 11 multipoint games this season and has played in 260 (and counting) consecutive games for Dallas since Dec., 7, 2007. Eriksson is a perfect fit among his young teammates in Dallas. Known as much for his scoring touch as he is for his free spirit, Eriksson has helped put Dallas atop the Pacific Division. Just 25 years old, Eriksson has yet to reach his full potential.
The Best: Tie. Both Rosenberg and Eriksson are having breakout-type seasons. Rosenberg is playing for his future while Eriksson is living up to his own potential. Both are integral parts of their team, although Eriksson might gain a little from the fact Dallas wins. Rosenberg, however, gains high marks for helping keep Racing away from the relegation zone.
Notables Football Ola Toivonen, PSV Eindhoven, 11 goals in 16 games
Andreas Granqvist, FC Groningen (Holland), 8 goals in 19 games
Viktor Elm, FC Heerenveen (Holland), 4 goals in 15 games
Christian Wilhelmsson, Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia), 3 goals in 12 games
Albin Ekdal, Bologna (Italy), 1 goal in 11 games
Sebastien Larsson, Birmingham (England), 1 goal in 20 games
Hockey Niklas Bäckström, Washington Capitals, 11 goals, 29 assists, 40 points
Tobias Enström, Atlanta Thrashers, 8 goals, 31 assists, 39 points
Johan Franzén, Detroit Red Wings, 18 goals, 15 assists, 33 points
Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues, 15 goals, 16 assists, 31 points
Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators, 14 goals, 13 assists, 27 points
Alexander Edler, Vancouver Canucks, 5 goals, 22 assists, 27 points
FACT BOX Swedish Foreign Legion
Football Players overseas: 79
Players by country
Austria, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, United States: 1
Hockey Players overseas: 277
Players by League
KHL (Russia): 27
All others: 182