The Swedish Under-21 national team won its first-ever UEFA European Under-21 Championship July 7 after knocking off Portugal in a penalty-kick shootout. AIK goalkeeper Patrik Carlgren was the hero as he stopped a pair of spot kicks in the shootout to give Sweden the win.

Much like the World Junior Hockey Championships, the UEFA U-21 championship offers a glimpse into how well a country is developing its next generation of players and also creates a feeding frenzy among large European clubs seeking new talent. The Swedes, however, were different. Unlike Sweden’s hockey team, which features a number of established or up-and-coming NHL stars, the U-21 football team was a squad of no-name players, at least outside of Sweden.


Those no-names, however, coalesced as a team much faster than their opponents and put the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s domestic football league, squarely in the spotlight. Nearly every member of the U-21 side either plays in or recently left the Allsvenskan, proving Sweden is capable of producing players who can compete on the world stage.

“We are a small country and it's a long time since we won anything, so it's really big for the country,” said forward Isaac Keise Thelin, who left Malmo last summer to play in Holland. “We didn't surprise ourselves. We surprised Europe. We talked about winning the tournament inside the camp but outside we were humble. Now we stand here as champions and we always believed in it.”

The Swedish victory might finally put enough pressure on senior team head coach Erik Hamren to veer from his tried-and-true formula of using overseas-based experienced players at the expense of younger, hungrier footballers. Although about a dozen of the Under-21 side played for Hamren this past January in a winter tournament in Dubai, only Keise-Thelin and Alexander Milosevic have established themselves at the senior level. The Under-21’s best player, striker John Guidetti who plays for Manchester City, was on the cusp of breaking into the senior ranks when he missed a year of football due to a food-borne virus.

Those three aside, Ludwig Augustinsson looks determined to throw down a serious challenge for the left-back position, especially with Hamrén's first choice, Martin Olsson, hampered by injuries. Expect Augustinsson to be ready should Hamrén call.

Oscars Lewicki and Hiljemark, at the heart of midfield, were a tireless engine-room duo in the tournament. After Anders Svensson's international retirement and Rasmus Elm's abdominal problems, the senior side would welcome players like the Oscars: smart, energetic and gifted on the ball.

The Under-21s could also inject a good amount of spirit to a senior team that often seems bereft of any real pride. It was pride in themselves and belief in Ericsson’s playing system that made the difference for the Swedes in the Czech Republic, where the blue and yellow were long shots to even make it out of the group.

Sweden opened with a surprising, last-minute 2-1 win over Italy that saw both sides reduced to 10 men. Guidetti scored an equalizing goal while Keise-Thelin hit the game-winner from the penalty spot four minutes from time. Sweden then faced England, dropping a 1-0 decision that had many not wearing blue and yellow believing the Scandinavians were headed home. Sweden’s final group match was against Portugal and once more, a late goal saved the juniors as Simon Tibbling scored with a minute left to play to lift Sweden to a 1-1 draw and second place in the group. In the semifinals, Sweden crushed Denmark 4-1 on goals from Guidetti, Tibbling, Robin Quiason and Hiljemark.

Against Portugal in the final, Sweden simply out-ran and out-worked an opponent that was technically superior and, player for player, more gifted. The Portuguese, however, lacked the cohesiveness of the Swedes and this, more than anything, allowed the blue and yellow to absorb long periods of Portuguese attacks. Portugal held the ball for 62 percent of the time in the first half and 54 percent in the second. Possession, however, does not equal goals and Sweden shut down every attempt on goal.

Following a scoreless 90 minutes, the game went into overtime and Sweden had the best chances for a win, with Abdullah Khalili just missing on a redirection of a Guidetti pass. When neither team could find the net in overtime, the two teams went to penalties and Carlgren came up huge, stopping William Carvalho and Ricardo Esgaio.

“Right now we are everybody's heroes,” Carlgren said. “It feels amazing. The feeling of saving the penalty – I just wanted it for the team. There's a great team spirit so I am so happy for everybody, not just me because I saved the penalties but the team. We've been underdogs in every game but that is the strength we have. I am so happy I can't find words right now.”