They share the same last name, and there is no mistaking the impact Fredrik Ljungberg and Hanna Ljungberg had on the development of Swedish football.
Fredrik Ljungberg paved the way for a new generation of talented young Swedish players when he signed in 1998 what was then the biggest transfer deal in Swedish history with Arsenal of the English Premier League. His deft moves and technical ability opened European eyes to what Swedish players could do, dispelling forever the stereotype of the big, slow Swedish footballer.
Hanna Ljungberg’s impact could be even bigger. She became – and remains – an icon in women’s football. Her speed, technical ability and will to win made her a role model for an entire generation of Swedish players, male and female.
This summer, both players retired from international football as injuries finally caught up with them, ending a pair of careers that shined brightly from European Championships to World Cups to European Cup play.
Now, America is calling both players, although only one answered the call.
On Oct. 28 Fredrik Ljungberg took a surprise step in his career when he signed a two year, $5-million deal with the expansion Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer. The 31-year-old decided to join Major League Soccer despite friends telling him to remain in Europe.
"I'm really happy to be here, I feel so welcomed by everybody," he said. "I'm coming here because I want to play football and I see this as a great experience, and I want to make it a better league and develop it.”
The deal made instant headlines in the football world. Although West Ham of the English Premier League released him over the summer, Ljungberg remained a target of European clubs. Before injuries limited his playing time and effectiveness in the past three years, Ljungberg was arguably one of the best midfielders in the world. He was a star midfielder for nine seasons with Arsenal as the team won two league titles and three FA Cup championships. Arsenal’s fans recently voted him No. 11 of Arsenal's top-50 players of all-time.
Late in his Arsenal career, and last season playing for West Ham United, Ljungberg became injury-prone and his appeal to the top clubs in Europe appeared to be diminishing. He put some of those concerns to rest by captaining Sweden in the Euro Championships last summer, but the Swedes failed to advance out of group play. Still, his play for Sweden rekindled interest in the former Halmstad player.
“Fortunately, I had many opportunities and offers from around Europe and the rest of the world during the last few months, including Seattle to play in MLS,” said Ljungberg. “After thoughtful consideration, I decided this opportunity with Seattle was the right one for me. Seattle is a great city. I know this part of the world quite well.”
Sounders co-owner and Hollywood director Joe Roth compared the signing of Fredrik Ljungberg to the deal that took David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the summer of 2007.
“I would say in terms of significance to the league, he is certainly one of the two significant European players to come so far,” Roth said. “It was my promise to the city of Seattle that we wouldn't come on as a straggling expansion team.”
Roth said he believes Ljungberg could not only recapture his glory days of Arsenal but could lead Seattle as MLS continues to seek improvement in its level of play.
“Having Freddie in the center of the field is going to help us get there,” Roth said. “It's a great honor. It's going to help us as we get on our feet, and not act like an expansion team.”
Fredrik Ljungberg said he believes he is up to the challenge.
"I felt if I was going to do this, it's a sincere thing, and to really help the people over here with soccer, I should go now," Ljungberg said. "I shouldn't go in three years time when I'm past my peak. I feel really happy to be here. The club itself has such great ambition and the fans over here are very passionate about their team.”
Ljungberg signed as Seattle's designated player. His pay does not count under salary cap calculations. MLS introduced the rule ahead of the 2007 season, allowing Los Angeles to sign former England captain Beckham.
Roth and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, as well as a number of minority owners including comedian Drew Carey, back the Sounders.
Ljungberg is the fourth Swede to give MLS a try. Thomas Ravelli and Jan Erixon played in 1995-96 for the now defunct Miami franchise while Anders Limpar came over to America in 1999 to play for Colorado.
Hanna Ljungberg decided to take a different path. Ljungberg announced her retirement from international football on Oct. 29, ending a 10-year international career that saw the face and scope of women’s soccer change forever, not only in Sweden but in the world.
Hanna, 29, scored 72 goals in 130 internationals and lead Sweden to the finals of the 2001 European Championship and the 2003 World Cup. Her speed, technical ability, and utter will to win made her an icon of the women’s game and turned heads wherever she played.
Although a target of the proposed new professional women’s league set to begin play in the U.S. next spring, Ljungberg said she would not follow in her male namesake’s footsteps.
“No, it’s not something I want to do. I don’t even talk about it,” she said. “There has been a lot of talk about a new American league for some years, but I don’t know. I think our league is so strong. I know there are a few players going over but our league is quite strong. It just gives some other players more options.”
Ljungberg said she wants to concentrate now on playing for Umeĺ, her club side in Sweden, and on completing her degree in physical therapy. She said she made the decision over the summer when a hamstring injury forced her out of the Olympics.
“After 13 years of playing both for the national team and the club team, I feel my body today feels better if I focus only on continued success with Umeĺ IK,” she said. “I have had a fantastic career with the national team and I want to thank all the players and coaches whom I’ve gotten to know.”
Ljungberg now plans to concentrate solely on playing for UIK, her club team of the past 13 years. Umeĺ won the Damallsvenskan title once more this year and played Linkoping Nov. 1 in the final of the Swedish Cup.
While she earned her reputation on the field with her booming right foot and blazing speed, off the field Ljungberg became an instant ambassador and ardent advocate for women’s soccer. Her sense of humor and intelligence made her a favorite among journalists for interviews, and her passion for the game allowed her to become a mainstream sports figure rather than one confined solely to the women’s game. She said now, with more time on her hands, she would like to even more promulgate women’s football.
“I hope that next year I can get to know some of the fans who’ve always supported us and also get some new supporters for (women’s football) and for Umeĺ IK,” she said.
Ljungberg’s decision came as something of a surprise. Praise quickly poured in for Ljungberg, who won seven domestic and one European Club championship with Umeĺ.
“The Swedish national team has Hanna Ljungberg to thank for a lot,” Sweden national team head coach Thomas Dennerby said. “I have the greatest respect and understanding for Hanna's decision, even if we had hoped that she would play one more year.”
She is to play one more year, although only for Umeĺ.