FourFourTwo meets the man hoping to make Iceland the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup, former Sweden and Nigeria coach Lars Lagerback...
With his steel-rimmed glasses and neatly cropped grey hair, Lars Lagerback cuts a scholarly figure on the touchline. Speak to him about the men who first educated and inspired him in Sweden, though, and he talks with a youthful enthusiasm befitting the squad he has taken to the brink of the World Cup finals.
If Iceland, a country with roughly the same population as Nottingham, make it to Brazil next summer, it will represent one of the biggest shocks in qualifying history.
Should a squad including Tottenham's Gylfi Sigurdsson, Cardiff's Aron Gunnarsson and Rotherham's Ragnar Sigurdsson manage a win over two legs against Croatia, it will spark the biggest outpouring of national delight since the country gave the British a good old-fashioned humping in the Cod Wars (go check Wikipedia).
For Lagerback, it will also see him line up on world football’s greatest stage alongside a man who played a key role in his development as a coach and a manager, namely our own Roy Hodgson.
The England boss – who’s already shopping for his factor 50 and keeping his fingers, toes and eyes crossed that Wayne Rooney lasts the season – helped shape Swedish football in the 1970s alongside fellow countryman Bobby Houghton.
- Date of birth 16 July 1948
- Place of birth Katrineholm, Sweden
- Clubs managed Kilafors IF, Arbra BK, Hudiskvalls ABK
- Nations managed Sweden, Nigeria, Iceland
- Did you know? Lagerback led Sweden to five consecutive major tournaments between 2000 and 2008
Between them, ‘Bob and Roy’ as Lagerback refers to them, revolutionised Sweden’s football style and had a profound impact on the way younger players and coaches were developed.
Among the devotees to two men who had for the most part utterly failed as footballers themselves, was an angular figure in his mid-20s cutting his managerial teeth in Sweden’s lower leagues.
“As Swedes we always follow English football and I’ve known Roy since he came to Sweden in the 70’s, Lagerback tells FourFourTwo. “I’m very pleased for him (that England have qualified). We’re a similar age and Roy had a really big impact on me, as did Bob Houghton who came to Sweden two years before.
“I had a good relationship with both Bob and Roy and they came with some new ideas for Swedish football both in training and the way that they were playing.
“The main influence before their arrival came from Germany, but they changed all that. Their playing philosophy and also their training philosophy had a huge impact. The older generation perhaps didn’t like the way they played but my generation and the generation that followed really took its lead from Bob and Roy.
“I took a lot from both men. One of my best friends played under Bob (at Malmo) and I spent a lot of time there when he was in charge.
“It’s hard to really emphasise just how much the work of both of them influenced the game in my home country.”
By 1980 – the year after Houghton had led Malmo to a European Cup final against Nottingham Forest – two of Croydon’s finest exports had left Scandinavia for a dysfunctional Bristol City.
Although the English pair probably wished they hadn’t bothered, back in Sweden, Lagerback was beginning his rise from obscurity as a player to a coach who, like Hodgson, would go on to manage his home country despite a playing career that never extended beyond the exceptionally ordinary.
What Lagerback is currently achieving is anything but, and a victory against Croatia in Reykjavik on Friday night could represent another chapter in the kind of football fairytale that many of us feared we had seen the last of - the kind of fairytale that Hodgson and Houghton first piloted in Sweden all those years ago.
“Roy still means a lot to people in Sweden and at the clubs he worked at,” says Lagerback. “If you look at what he achieved at Halmstad, it’s nothing short of remarkable. Even now they’re really just a small club, probably on a par with Swansea in the Premier League, but he took them to the title twice in four years and completely transformed them.”
If Iceland go through, the presence of Lagerback and Hodgson will give Sweden’s fans at least two reasons to pay attention at next summer’s World Cup – regardless of whether their team make it through their own two-legged play-off against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
It’s great for football that the small countries can still make an impact if the players work hard and are well organised
That mouth-watering match-up between Zlatan Ibrahimovich and the Real Madrid star will not, however, distract Lagerback from his own task of taking Iceland to their first major tournament.
And if they do upset the odds against a Croatia side still reeling from defeat to Scotland which led to the sacking of manager Igor Stimac, then Lagerback will surely never have to shell out for a cod fillet again.
“The people here have gone football crazy, the tickets sold out in three hours,” he says.
“There’s huge interest in the match, everyone is looking forward to it. There’s a capacity of 10,000 in Reykjavik but I wouldn’t expect the atmosphere to be described as hostile, the fans are just looking forward to the biggest match in the country’s history.
“It’s great for football that the small countries can still make an impact if you’re lucky with a great generation of players, if the players work hard and you’re well organised.”
Despite what some Liverpool fans might say, those are two traits that have typified Hodgson’s approach to the game since he arrived on Swedish shores in 1976 (fresh from a stint in charge of Carshalton Athletic).
And the omens suggest they could well be enough to take Lagerback’s men past Croatia.
“The last two games in qualification were against teams with new coaches,” he says. “My assistant said before the draw that we would have Croatia for that very reason. Going to Croatia is very tough but when you have these play-off matches and you start at home it’s so important to keep a clean sheet.
“Even if it’s a draw, a zero-zero, you always have a good chance. Of course a win would be perfect but you have to careful and hopefully not let them score on the night. If it’s a tight game then we have the advantage of playing that first game at home but you have to adapt to any situation. That’s what we’ve done so far.”
If they succeed then two old friends can look forward to a potential reunion in Brazil next summer.