Love Letters To The European Union: Please Don’t Take Him Just Because You Can.

To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. For our final journey, what better destination than the land that has given the United Kingdom such a wealth of culture, from ABBA and Ace of Base to the traditional Saturday afternoon argument in IKEA. Hurra Sverige!

 

The Players: Gre-No-Li

Grenoli

If a footballing nation is lucky it’ll produce one extraordinary talent in every generation. Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked up the baton from Henrik Larsson, who took on the mantle from Kennet Andersson. There’s currently little sign of John Guidetti carrying the torch any further. Improbably, in the post-war years and throughout the 1950s, Sweden could boast three. Born almost exactly a year apart, Gunnar Gren (31st October 1920), Gunnar Nordhal (19th October 1921) and Nils Liedholm (8th October 1922) transformed not only the face of Swedish football, but the fortunes of one of Italy’s most famous clubs, sealing their place as football’s most unique trio.

Gren was the trickiest of the three, earning fame in the local Gothenburg newspaper at the age of thirteen by winning a ball-juggling contest. Had this happened eighty-five years later, it might have been the beginning of a lucrative career as a “football freestyler”, but as it was the youngster was given the choice of joining the circus or honing his all round game. Opting for the latter, he went on to join local side Gårda BK, impressing in his three seasons at the Överåsvallen and earning his first cap for the national side in a 3-2 win over Finland in 1940. By the following year, his reputation had soared enough to convince IFK Gothenburg to recruit his services, and he would go on to repay their faith by firing them to the national championship in his first season. Any hopes of the Blåvitt dominating the domestic league were quickly extinguished when IFK Norrköping emerged as the strongest side in Sweden, winning five of the next six championships thanks largely to a pair of exciting young strikers.

Nordhal was the most natural goalscorer of the Swedish triumvirate, and had made his name in the amateur leagues at Hörnefors IF with a remarkable record of 1.66 goals a game over three years. At Degerfors IF, the young forward plundered another fifty-six goals in four seasons, before earning his move to Norrköping and quickly becoming the most devastating striker in Swedish football. Ninety-three goals in ninety-five appearances helped the VitaBlå to four league titles, and from 1946 he was aided and abetted by playmaker Liedholm.

Blessed with vision, elegance and an immaculate passing range, Nils Liedholm joined Norrköping from neighbours IK Sleipner and promptly won back-to-back league titles, along with a debut call-up to the Swedish national team. By the time the 1948 Olympics had arrived in Great Britain, all three players were regulars for the Blågult. 

Though Italy and Great Britain began the tournament among the favourites, the Swedes set out their stall in the first round of the Olympic Football tournament, beating a good Austria side 3-0 at White Hart Lane, with Nordahl helping himself to two goals in the opening ten minutes. In the quarter-final of an unbalanced competition, South Korea were put to the sword at Selhurst Park. Four goals for Nordahl and another three shared between Gren and Liedholm saw Sweden record an emphatic 12-0 victory, and stake their claim for gold at the tournament. With neighbours Denmark brushed aside in the semi-final, it was left to Gren (twice) and Nordahl to see off Yugoslavia in the final, and put Sweden at the top of the podium.

Predictably the trio’s performances in the Olympics aroused interest from abroad, and Gunnar Nordahl was the first to be tempted away by AC Milan, joining the Rossoneri in January 1949. The move promised fame and fortune, but also brought an end to his international career, with professional players prohibited from representing Sweden. He would finish with a jaw-dropping 43 goals in 33 games, though the best years of his career were ahead of him. On the insistence of Nordahl, who had hit the ground running in his first few months in Milan, the Italian side signed up Gren and Liedholm, and the three Swedes quickly earned the nickname Gre-No-Li, a tribute to the on-field connection they shared.

Within two seasons of securing their Scandinavian imports, Milan were lifting their first Scudetto for more than forty years, and would go on to win three more league titles during the 1950s. Though Gren departed in 1953 for Fiorentina and a season with Genoa before returning to Sweden towards the end of the decade, Nordahl and Liedholm would give the best years of their careers to the club, and write their name into AC Milan history. Affectionalely nickamed il pompiere (the fireman), Nordahl would spend his time in red and black setting incredible goalscoring records, becoming the first (and so far only) player to win the Capocannoniere award for Serie A’s top goalscorer five times, and firing his way to the top of Milan’s goalscoring charts. His record for most goals in a season stood for sixty-five years before Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain surpassed it in 2016. Though he spent the final two seasons of his career at Roma, Nordahl is still considered one of the greatest strikers Milan has ever seen.

Liedholm, the so-called ‘Professor’ would continue his association with the club long after hanging up his boots. Widely considered the provider of ammunition for Nordahl, Liedholm’s passing accuracy was second-to-none, allegedly going two years from joining the club  before misplacing his first pass, an act which drew a standing ovation from the crowd. Playing on til the age of 40, Liedholm took a place on the coaching staff at Milan, before being given the manager’s job in 1963. Initially unsuccessful, the Swede would learn his craft in the lower leagues of Italy with Verona, Monza and Varese, before returning to Milan in 1977 and ending the club’s ten year wait for a Scudetto in 1978. He would also go on to win a league title with Roma in the 1980s.

For Liedholm and Gren, there would also be an international swansong. With Sweden awarded the hosting rights for the 1958 World Cup, the football association were quick to avert the chances of a national embarrassment by relaxing the rules around professionalism and inviting two of their most famous exports back into the fold. Though both reaching the ends of their careers, Gren and Liedholm played their part in taking Sweden to the final, the former scoring a vital goal against West Germany in the semi-final, while the latter would open the scoring against Brazil in the final, only to watch on as a teenage Pele inspired the South Americans to victory. Though denied a storybook ending, their contribution to the world of football could not be understated. For Milan, and for Sweden, three was the magic number.

 

The Game: Sweden 2-1 England, 1992

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Sadly the legacy of Gre-No-Li wouldn’t spur Sweden on to become regulars at the latter stages of international tournaments, failing to qualify for either World Cup in the 1960s, before embarking on a 24 year run in which the second group stage in 1974 would be their sole achievement. Not even the introduction of a secondary tournament, Henri Delauney’s brainchild the European Championships, could aid their ambitions, as they failed to qualify for the first eight editions. In 1988 however, a Euros berth was bestowed upon them, as the nation was chosen over Spain – who had already been awarded the Summer Olympics – to host the 1992 edition of the competition. An abysmal showing at Italia ’90, where they lost all three group games and finished below even Scotland, raised fears that there would be no repetition of the 1958 heroics. An overhaul was needed.

In came manager Tommy Svensson, who’d earned his stripes in the Swedish Allsvenskan by leading Östers to three championship titles in four seasons between 1978 and 1981, before a spell with Tromsø in Norway. Svensson’s immediate concern was freshening up his squad, making young strikers Kennet Andersson and Martin Dahlin the focal point of his attack, and bringing in up-and-coming defenders Patrik Andersson and Joachim Bjorklund, who also happened to be the new manager’s nephew. Where previously Sweden had relied on a more defensive and pragmatic style of play, Svensson encouraged his team to try a more fluid passing approach, with forwards dropping deep to link with the midfield while still using the physical advantage to nick goals from set pieces.

In his first few months in charge, Svensson oversaw some impressive performances, including a 6-0 demolition of Austria, and back-to-back victories over neighbours Denmark and Norway. Though they were hardly tipped to pull up any trees come the tournament, three wins on the spin in the lead up to Euro 92 did at least offer the home support some encouragement. There was also the added excitement of the new golden boy of Swedish football, who’d been catapulted into the limelight thanks to some impressive displays in Serie A. Tomas Brolin was singled out as Sweden’s danger man.

Brolin had announced himself to the world in Italy two years earlier, scoring against Brazil at just twenty years of age. His perfomances in the World Cup encouraged Parma to shell out £1.2m to secure his signature from Norrköping, and the young Swede immediately developed an effective partnership with Alessandro Melli at the Il Tardini, combining with the Italian to fire Parma into the UEFA Cup in his first season. Initially used as a striker with the national team, Svensson saw the potential of Brolin in a deeper role, allowing him to feed off second balls as well as set the tempo of the play. Winning his first piece of silverware in the 1992 Coppa Italia final, Brolin arrived at the tournament with the national team’s hopes on his shoulders. He wouldn’t disappoint.

Drawn in a group with a transitional France side, last-minute invitees Denmark and England, Sweden started the tournament tentatively. A first-half Jan Eriksson goal in the opening game against Michel Platini’s France was cancelled out by Jean-Pierre Papin’s equaliser, but a slice of Brolin magic against the Danes put Svensson’s team in the driving seat. If they could avoid defeat against England, they’d be into the semi-finals.

Off the back of Italia 90, England should have made their way to Sweden with hopes of bringing home the trophy, but while manager Graham Taylor had started his reign with a twelve game unbeaten run, it had taken a last-gasp Gary Lineker goal to seal the Three Lions’ place at the tournament, and a pair of wretched goalless draws meant that Taylor would have to go for the jugular against the hosts. Without the mercurial talent of Paul Gascoigne to call on, and a rag-tag squad that lacked sparkle, the Swedes would have fancied their chances heading into the game.

They got off to the worst possible start. Neil Webb’s long ball forwards was flicked on by David Batty, and Lineker’s cross was met by a mis-hit volley from David Platt to give England a fourth minute lead. Half-time news of Denmark’s lead over France soothed Swedish fears of elimination, but Svensson’s second half gameplan smacked of guarding against complacency. Six minutes after the break the Swedes earned a corner, which Eriksson met with another towering header to level the scores. The goal at once deflated England and injected new life into the hosts, and from then there only looked like one winner.

With their hopes of progression flagging, Taylor went for the nuclear option, replacing Gary Lineker in what would be his final appearance for England, and bringing on the aerial threat of Arsenal’s Alan Smith. The change made little difference, as Sweden continued to teem towards Chris Woods’ goal. The decisive strike took its time to arrive, but when it did, it was worth the wait. Picking up the ball halfway inside England’s half, Brolin began to drive towards goal, laying off to Klas Ingesson before picking up the return, as the white shirts in his path parted. Another slick one-two with Dahlin on the edge of the box gave the Parma player a clear sight of goal, while Barry Davies did his best Dolly Parton impression on the BBC.

“Brolin…Dahlin…Brolin! BROLIN! BRILLIANT!”

As deft as you like, with the outside of his right foot, Brolin flicked his effort into the top corner before racing off in celebration and basking in the exultation of the Råsunda Stadium. Sweden’s supporters saluted their new hero, and England were vanquished. They would return home to headlines of ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’, while their conquerors would welcome Germany on the same ground five days later.

That victory over England would prove to be the apex of the tournament for Svensson’s men, as world champions Germany overpowered them in the semi-finals. Brolin would add another goal to his tally with a penalty, seeing him finishing as joint top scorer, but it wouldn’t be enough to see Sweden through to the final. All things considered, it had been a successful summer.

Euro 92 would prove to be Brolin’s pinnacle too. Slowly falling out of favour at Parma, an ill-fated move to Leeds United would prove the beginning of the end for the increasingly erratic playmaker. Three goals at the 1994 World Cup helped his nation to third place at the tournament, but within a year he had played his last game for the national team. He retired at 28. Though often cited as a cautionary tale of wasted talent, Brolin’s name will last forever in Swedish football history thanks to that balmy night in Solna.

 

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