Teamwork makes Finals dream work for plucky Sweden

Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist (right) and midfielder Sebastian Larsson celebrating at the San Siro on Monday after securing their passage to Russia 2018 at the expense of four-time world champions Italy.
Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist (right) and midfielder Sebastian Larsson celebrating at the San Siro on Monday after securing their passage to Russia 2018 at the expense of four-time world champions Italy.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MILAN • Sweden's players literally jumped for joy at the final whistle in Milan after Jan Andersson's side hung on for a 0-0 draw against four-time champions Italy on Monday that secured a place at next year's World Cup Finals in Russia.

Jakob Johansson's deflected strike in Stockholm was the only goal over the two legs of the European play-off, meaning Italy miss out on the World Cup for the first time since the Swedes hosted the tournament in 1958.

As the coach was being interviewed by Swedish TV, his players invaded the pitchside studio, crushing the desk in front of the broadcasters as they danced with joy.

"I cried a few tears," Andersson said after his players had left to continue their celebrations on the pitch. It was the first time Sweden had reached the Finals since 2006.

"Look at some of the older players who felt that this was the last chance to make it to a World Cup - and now we did it. It's indescribable," he added.

A key figure in the mammoth defensive effort that delivered the draw they needed was Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist, who fell to the ground in tears as the referee ended the game.

"For my part, this is the biggest thing that has happened to me and for those of us that are older, this is probably the last chance to play at a World Cup, so to succeed in those circumstances is an unbelievable joy," the 32-year-old said.

Sweden may have surprised the pundits but striker Marcus Berg said they believed all along that they could make it.

"I'm so damn proud of us," he said. "We have believed in this. That's the key - we know how strong we are. We help each other in every situation."

There was also speculation that Sweden's record goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic may come out of retirement for Russia 2018.

The 36-year-old departed the national team after a disappointing group stage exit at Euro 2016, ending an international career that saw him score 62 goals in 116 matches.

After the game on Monday, he posted a picture on social media with the caption "We are Zweden".

By yesterday, it had over a million likes on Instagram, but Andersson did not seem entirely positive about a possible return.

"Zlatan is our greatest player of all time but he has chosen not to take part," he told a news conference yesterday.

"These guys who did take part have performed fantastically. I have a gang that has done fantastic, we can talk about them instead."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Teamwork makes Finals dream work for plucky Sweden'. Print Edition | Subscribe