Niclas Alexandersson chuckles as he summons a memory of the goal he struck past England goalkeeper David Seaman at the 2002 World Cup finals in Japan. “When we played in 2002 there was a TV commentary saying I wouldn’t make England’s fourth team, which was probably true,” he says, “but after that I scored!”
That commentary was English and it drew knowing smiles when replayed on Swedish television. After all, as that 1-1 group-stage draw in Saitama showed, the Scandinavians relish the underdog role they will fill once more in tomorrow’s World Cup quarter-final. Indeed the view from Sweden is that, in more than one respect, England can be considered their ideal opponents.
“It suits the Swedish mentality really well not being favourites, it brings out the best in them,” says Alexandersson, the former Everton and Sheffield Wednesday winger. “It’s the same now. In England most people will think you’ll win quite easily and for Sweden that’s perfect. They’ll go out and work even harder to prove them wrong.
“There’s no question there are more well-known players in the England squad but together, Sweden always seem to get that extra bit out of every player.”
It is an argument that Lars Lagerback, Sweden’s coach for both the 2002 encounter in Japan and the countries’ 2-2 first-round draw at Germany 2006, is happy to elaborate. “I wouldn’t say England are the favourites,” he warns. “From my experience I played England seven times and I never lost against them.”
Lagerback, who was more recently co-coach of the Iceland side who defeated England at Euro 2016, identifies one particular reason for this record: the Swedish love of English football. It is more than 40 years since Sweden’s state broadcaster, Sverige Television, began broadcasting live First Division matches on Saturdays. At roughly the same time Abba were conquering the UK charts, the English game had already begun winning Swedish hearts.
“With teams like Sweden and Iceland everybody is brought up with the Premier League and we know English football really well, and have a lot of players that played in England,” says Lagerback. “It’s very easy when you come to prepare for England because everybody knows everything about the players so it’s a big advantage. If you look at other countries, with one or two exceptions almost all the players are playing in many different countries so it’s more difficult.”
Yet if this advantage remains, Lagerback sees a stronger England than before. “We were a bit better in the physical part of the game,” he remembers of previous matches. “England slowed down a little bit in the second half in 2002 and 2006 and even when we played them in 2016 with Iceland. But when it comes to working hard for 90 or 120 minutes they look really good now.”
It is not the only thing different, in Swedish eyes, about this England side. Alexandersson remembers England struggling with expectations – “when they do get something against them, they might feel the pressure a little bit” – yet Lagerback senses a shift. “You can see they have a really good attitude and they work really hard for each other,” he says of Gareth Southgate’s men. And if they got “a bit passive” at 1-0 against Colombia, Lagerback sees much that the Swedes must be wary of. “They’re very well organised defensively and play with big variation in offence. Now they have a lot of speedy players so can always threaten with deep runs in behind and put a question in the mind of the back four. But I think it will be a tight game. If you look at set-pieces, England are good and Sweden are really good so I expect a 50-50 game.”
It is not only Sweden’s record against England – two losses in the last 10 meetings – that brings encouragement but the efforts of Janne Andersson’s team en route to their first World Cup quarter-final since 1994. “There were questions before the World Cup but what they’ve done really well is the attacking part of the game,” Lagerback explains. “They don’t give their opponents many chances and they create a handful of really good scoring chances every game.”
And if this England team’s togetherness is a virtue the same can be said of the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic Sweden, according to Alexandersson. “Many Swedes thought when Ibrahimovic was no longer there we’d not be able to compete with the best but now the team spirit is really high and everyone’s doing that bit more,” he adds.
It was Ibrahimovic who hit all four goals in Sweden’s 4-2 success when the countries last met in 2012. The two men who have replaced him, Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, once shared Sweden’s goals in a 3-3 draw with England at the 2009 U21 European Championship semi-final; today their respective clubs are Al Ain of the UAE and France’s Toulouse and they have managed only one World Cup goal between them, but Lagerback notes that their aerial presence creates openings for others.
Alexandersson cites another virtue: “Berg and Toivonen work their socks off defensively. They won’t score the same goals as Ibra could but they will do the job defensively in midfield and that’s why Sweden are so difficult to score against – they have 10 players who all do their bit defensively.
“Ibrahimovic probably is individually the best Swedish player of all time but what seemed to happen is when he was in the team we thought everything should go through him, and the others did not get 100 per cent out of their games. Now they realise they have no big star so everyone needs to work harder.
“They keep surprising everyone,” he continues. “It was the same when they qualified – they beat France at home and knocked out Holland and then Italy in the play-offs. Now there’s a feeling that nothing can stop them.”
And now for the team they love to face most.