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Sweden were once a footballing powerhouse. Now, like the U.S., they face a fight to keep up

The United States’ failure to defeat Portugal on Tuesday was a setback in many respects.

It was a terrible performance, with Portugal only denied a famous win by the width of a post. It was a psychological blow, meaning the U.S. still haven’t beaten an established footballing nation in this Women’s World Cup. It means they will play their round-of-16 match in the early hours for supporters back home.

Most troublingly, it means their opponents in that match will be old foes Sweden.

The U.S. and Sweden have developed a fierce rivalry in recent years, which in itself is testament to Sweden’s ability to punch above its weight. This should, on paper, not be a rivalry. The two nations are not geographically close. The U.S. has a population of 330 million compared to Sweden’s 10 million. The U.S. are the most successful side in Women’s World Cup history while Sweden have never triumphed.

Yet this has become quite the grudge match. After Sweden, managed by former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage, defeated the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics on penalties, goalkeeper Hope Solo famously responded by calling them a “bunch of cowards”.

(Photo: Steve Bardens-FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

The defeat haunted the U.S. for the next couple of years. Some revenge was achieved in 2019 with a 2-0 group-stage win over Sweden, although their opponents rested several key players, with both already assured of qualification. Two years later, at the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo, Sweden started their run to the final with a 3-0 thrashing of the U.S.

The history of this fixture actually goes right back to the beginning of the Women’s World Cup, although at that stage, things were somewhat friendlier.

These sides were each other’s first-ever opponents at this tournament, played in China in 1991 — a somewhat ramshackle competition with sides badly underfunded and lacking the know-how for a fortnight in an unfamiliar country. The U.S. were better prepared, having brought their own food to the tournament. The two sides were staying in the same hotel and when Sweden got wind of the U.S.’s stash of western food, they approached them to enquire whether they would kindly donate some of their pasta… ahead of the game between the two sides. The U.S., charitably, agreed. They still beat Sweden 3-2.

The gesture wasn’t forgotten. After the U.S. arrived back at their hotel late in the night after defeating Norway 2-1 in the final, Sweden — who had stuck around to contest the third-place play-off game — had spelt out a message on the floor with their yellow football socks, saying ‘congratulations’. There was, at that point, a bond between the two teams.

Maybe, in 2023, they have something in common once again. The past couple of years have been marked by a concern from the U.S. about the rise of women’s football in western Europe. Whereas once the NWSL was the dominant league in world football, now things are uncertain. The poor performances against the Netherlands and Portugal, not even among the most fancied European sides, gives credence to the sense that western Europe may have caught up and possibly even surpassed the U.S.

But Sweden feel the same. They have a grand history in women’s football. They won the first European Championship, in 1984, defeating England on penalties in a game broadcast live on SVT, the public broadcaster. Sweden reached the World Cup final in 2003 and their domestic league has traditionally been among the strongest in Europe: according to UEFA’s coefficients, their top flight was ranked as the best league in Europe in 2003-04, the second-best between 2004-05 and 2010-11, and the third-best between 2011-12 and 2017-18. Like their Nordic neighbours, an emphasis on gender equality in the country as a whole resulted in a strong women’s side.

Sweden’s influence on modern women’s football is obvious. Three Swedes managed major nations at this tournament — Tony Gustavsson with Australia and Pia Sundhage with Brazil, alongside Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson. There are Swedish players at seven (Barcelona, Wolfsburg, Bayern, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Juventus) of the top 10 clubs in Europe according to UEFA’s coefficients. The list of overseas World Cup 2023 players who have played their club football in Sweden at some stage includes Pernille Harder, Caroline Graham Hansen, Danielle van de Donk, Jenni Hermoso, Ali Riley, and, most notably, Marta.

In February 2004, the Brazilian pitched up at Umea, 500km north of Stockholm, in -10C (14F) weather. After initially complaining that it was impossible to play because she couldn’t feel her feet, Marta stayed with Umea for four years, then later spent another two with Tyreso and three with Rosengard. Sweden became her home. The greatest player in women’s football history, judging by her record five World Player of the Year awards, now has Swedish citizenship.

But those days are gone. In UEFA coefficient terms, Sweden is now behind the traditionally dominant five nations from men’s football — France, Germany, Spain, England and Italy. Next year, it is set to fall behind the coming force of Portugal, neighbours Denmark, too, and is fighting to stay ahead of the likes of Austria and the Czech Republic, who barely register on the world stage. Sweden’s only representative in last year’s Champions League, Rosengard, finished bottom of their group with no points, having previously been accustomed to reaching the quarter-finals.

This isn’t an entirely new issue — Sweden’s players were aware of the growing problem at the last World Cup. “It will be difficult (for the Swedish league to remain competitive) if people don’t invest,” said playmaker Kosovare Asllani. “We see it now with the U.S. They are doing very well if you compare it to other national teams and companies are just pouring money in because it makes them look good. You need to have people who invest and believe in the product because that is the future. All that is needed is investment… this is why Sweden is losing ground when it comes to crowd numbers. More investment is needed in the club teams in Sweden, clearly.”

The only thing that has changed is that the NWSL might no longer be the model league.

Asllani’s focus on investment makes sense, but the elephant in the room is that Damallsvenskan clubs are restricted by the most fundamental part of Swedish football — the 51 per cent rule, which states clubs must be majority-owned by supporters. It is equivalent to a similar rule in German football but is probably even more of a sacred concept, as seen, for example, four years ago, when Malmo played the first ‘derby’ against Copenhagen.

Earlier this year, former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt was surprisingly elected as the new head of the Swedish FA after a low-profile campaign where he spoke little to the media to explain what his vision was. Reinfeldt was the leader of the Moderate Party, a free-market party, and therefore his election prompted suspicion among fans that he would seek to abolish the 51 per cent rule. At his first press conference, he was immediately forced to clarify that he respected it.

The 51 per cent rule is Swedish football. The men’s sides are no longer strong in European terms, but their league is more competitive than almost anywhere on the continent. Four different teams have won the Allsvenskan in the past five years, with the most recent being a first triumph for Hacken. Ticket prices are low, crowd numbers are strong, and the atmospheres are excellent.

There are several benefits to supporters being fan-owned, from moral concerns about dodgy owners to more practical issues — Sweden is the biggest men’s league in Europe that doesn’t use VAR because clubs must vote through such a change, the fans own the clubs, and the fans hate VAR.

But ultimately, large-scale investment in clubs is difficult with this system and now women’s clubs are falling behind. It’s difficult to find anyone in Swedish football who will go on the record and suggest the rule is holding back the women’s game — saying something in public would be sacrilege. But, privately, there are people who would like to see some form of exemption for women’s football, to be able to attract private investment and sustain its position at — or at least near — the forefront of European football.

“The Swedish league is lagging behind,” conceded Caroline Seger — still going strong in Sweden’s midfield after 235 caps — a couple of years ago. “Economically, it is very difficult to compete in Europe now those leagues have decided to invest and when their clubs have men’s teams with great financial strength. The Swedish league needs to think about how to take the next step for how we can compete, but perhaps on a different level. I think we’ll go in the same direction as the men’s top flight — we will become a development league for the next generation.”

That’s what is happening. Swedish women’s football is undergoing a transformation, roughly comparable to the Dutch league in men’s football over the years. Whereas it was once capable of producing sides who could win the European Cup, now it might have to accept its status producing and scouting young players it can hope to sell on to the leagues that now dominate European football.

That means they’re having to be increasingly clever in their scouting, finding emerging players from across the world. One club who are placing a heavy emphasis on scouting through analytics are Stockholm-based Hammarby, currently sitting third in the top flight.

“We need to adjust,” says Pablo Pinones-Arce, a veteran of Hammarby’s men’s side and now manager of the women’s side. “We’ve been one of the best — if not the best — league in Europe before. It’s not a long time ago that we had a lot of big players in Swedish football and we need to adjust because other clubs are putting more money into it.”

At the start of last year, Hammarby signed the relatively unknown 20-year-old Australia central midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross from Melbourne Victory. They’d been tracking her for a couple of years. She’s now broken into the full Australia side and might yet become one of the players of the tournament on home soil and command a serious transfer fee.

“We don’t have the possibility to take on players like that later,” said Pinones-Arce. “If we’d waited… well, she was part of the Olympic squad. When she came she wasn’t a starter for the Matildas, but now she is. We need to be doing a job with players a little bit earlier than Swedish clubs were used to and we need to be putting money into our academies — we need to develop homegrown players.”

Kyra Cooney-Cross playing for the Matildas at the Women’s World Cup (Photo: William West/AFP via Getty Images)

Pinones-Arce, though, in keeping with most in Swedish football, does not yearn for an end to the 51 per cent rule. “We should be proud of the way it has been working. I think we have been developing good players. I still think we will be able to do that. For me, it’s more about doing a proper job in the clubs, developing the coaches, making sure you have a full-time academy, like we do in the boys’ academies. Money should be invested in both academies.”

Of course, there’s a difference between Sweden having a strong domestic league and a strong national side. When a league gets too strong, with too many foreign players, people suggest it holds back the development of homegrown youngsters. Besides, Sweden continues to be a leading country in terms of sporting opportunities for girls. The domestic league is still growing impressively in terms of television revenue and crowd numbers, it is just that it simply isn’t growing at the pace of England’s Women’s Super League and Spain’s Liga F and Swedish players are, in general, highly adaptable and happy to go abroad in order to reach the top level.

Equally, though, young Swedish players used to develop in academies and then be immediately competing against some of the most renowned players in Europe. Now, only the best will be selected by foreign clubs and gain experience at a higher level. It was also considered a particular blow in the Nordic countries that the joint Sweden-Denmark-Norway-Finland bid to host Euro 2025 was overlooked in favour of Switzerland. At a time when women’s football has exploded across Europe, it would have been nice for the nations who supported the women’s game from an early stage to play host.

It would be overly dramatic and somewhat cliched to suggest this is this group’s last chance to win a major tournament. Considering there’s an Olympics next year and a European Championship the year after, it would also be inaccurate. But on a wider level, and in World Cup terms, Sweden finds itself slipping back. Having finished runners-up at the past two Olympics and been defeated semi-finalists at the most recent World Cup and Euros — and in light of growth in other nations — there’s a particular desire for this group to bring the trophy back to Sweden.

(Top photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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