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The big interview: Tomas Brolin – "I was bullied at Leeds, but I don't regret joining them"

Tomas Brolin

Photography: Pontus Orre

On the list of weird gifts FourFourTwo has been given down the years, this is definitely up there. Tomas Brolin has just reached into a bag and revealed something very unexpected: a vacuum cleaner nozzle.

Even as he hands it over to us, we’re imagining the conversation with airport security as we explain why we’re taking such a bizarre item back to London as hand luggage. “Er, Tomas Brolin gave it to us? Yes, the Tomas Brolin…”

Forget star names like Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic: only one Swede has been named in a World Cup All-Star Team since 1958 and that man is Brolin, thanks to his performances at USA '94.

Tomas Brolin Sweden 2 Euro '92

Brolin’s now one of the finest vacuum salesmen in Scandinavia, and excitedly shows his product to FFT. “I’ll give you a present so you know what I’m talking about – we sell more than 130,000 each year and this one is the best,” says the 48-year-old, as we convene at the Hotell Kristina in the lakeside town of Sigtuna, a few miles north of Stockholm.

He was only 28 when he surprisingly swapped football for this new venture, bringing his playing days to an end after a move to England with Leeds United went horribly wrong and exposed him to ridicule after some increasingly peculiar incidents. He’s ready to tell his side of the story…

You made your Sweden debut in April 1990. Did you think you had a chance of going to the World Cup at the start of that year?

Gustaf Ekholm, via Facebook

I had my own little dream, yes. I played for GIF Sundsvall but we got relegated. Norrkoping won the title and contacted me, so I went there in January 1990 and the first game was against Gothenburg, the favourites to win the league, live on TV. We won 6-0 and I scored a hat-trick. The manager of the national team [Olle Nordin] was watching and he had one match left before the World Cup where he could try me out, at home to Wales. I scored twice in Stockholm, and when he picked the squad for the World Cup, he couldn’t leave me out!



1984-86 Nasvikens IK

1987-89 GIF Sundsvall

1990 IFK Norrkoping

1990-95 Parma

1995-97 Leeds

1996 FC Zurich (loan)

1997 Parma (loan)

1998 Crystal Palace

1998 Hudiksvalls ABK

How did it feel to score in your first ever World Cup match, against Brazil?

Karin Stenbock, via Facebook

I was only 20 years old, so to make my World Cup debut against a country like Brazil and then score was just fantastic. It was against Claudio Taffarel – I didn’t know we’d be in the same Parma team two months later! Unfortunately we lost 2-1, and then we lost 2-1 to Costa Rica and Scotland too, but for me personally it was a good World Cup.

You joined Parma on the back of your displays at the 1990 World Cup – how did the move happen?

Andy Chatham, London

There was interest from Germany and Spain as well, but when Parma phoned I wanted to go there, as it was Italy. To play in Serie A in the '90s was a very big thing – all of the best players were there. Parma were a perfect fit. As a footballer in other Italian cities you couldn’t go out because the fans were hanging around, but Parma was quiet and you could live close to a normal life.

Parma became really popular during the ’90s. What was so special about that team?

Scott Dunning, Salisbury

We were a young side and just wanted to attack all the time. A lot of teams in Italy were scared to attack – it was 0-0 football. We shocked many clubs when we played like we did. Parma were from a little town who’d never been as high as Serie A before. The aim was simply to remain in the league in the first season.

We didn’t have a training facility, and each morning we didn’t know where we would be training. We would change at the stadium, then travel in a minibus to this pitch or that pitch, almost different every day during the winter. But we had a remarkable first season and finished sixth. Then in the second year we beat Juventus in the Coppa Italia final. It wasn’t only Parma fans who liked us – the whole of Italy found us exciting.

Tomas Brolin Parma 2

When Graham Taylor substituted Gary Lineker against Sweden at Euro '92, did that give you the boost you needed to finish the job?

Stuart Steelyard, via Facebook

No, it didn’t give us a boost. When you’re in the game you don’t think about who’s out or in, but I think that was Lineker’s last minutes playing for England, right? I’m not sure what would have happened if he had remained on the pitch, but we had a very good team. It was a huge win for us and I scored quite a nice goal as well…

I love Barry Davies’ legendary ‘Brolin! Dahlin! Brolin!’ commentary for your goal against England at Euro '92. Have you heard it?

Ese Agboaye, via Facebook

I heard about that, yes. It was a special goal – one-touch all the way and a nice shot from me in the end. I played with Martin Dahlin many times and the more you play together, the easier you’ll find each other. Everyone maybe expected France and England to qualify from that group but it was Denmark and Sweden – a big surprise. After that we thought we could get through to the final, so it was very frustrating to lose 3-2 to Germany in the semi-finals.

Your winning goal against England led to The Sun infamously putting a turnip on Graham Taylor’s head. Did you feel bad about that?

Steven Ross, Wigan

No, I didn’t know anything about that – during that time we were so focused on our own world. How the English mass media treat their players and managers, I don’t bother…

What was Faustino Asprilla like in the dressing room at Parma?  

‘Spurs Lover’, via Twitter

Tino was a brilliant guy. He was our clown in the dressing room and such a fantastic player. You never knew what he was going to do – sometimes that was good, but sometimes it wasn’t so good because even we didn’t know what he was going to do! One year we had a week off and Tino smashed a bus door in Colombia. His foot was a little bit broken, so he was out for a few weeks.

Parma won the 1993 Cup Winners’ Cup Final – how big an achievement was it for the club?

Paolo Todrani, via Twitter

It was maybe the biggest achievement in Parma’s history. They won more trophies but that was the first one. The final was at Wembley against Royal Antwerp. I’d never played there and nearly the whole of Parma made the trip. It was fantastic.

Tomas Brolin Parma 1

NEXT: "I had trained with him and thought: ‘Oh shit, this guy is 17 and he’s maybe already the best’"Who would win: your Parma team or the 1999 UEFA Cup-winning vintage of Buffon, Cannavaro, Thuram, Veron, Crespo and Chiesa?

Jeff Burton, Southampton

That’s difficult to say. In ’99 there were more star players, but in the early-90s we probably had a different spirit. You never know, sometimes the spirit wins against the more experienced players.

You reached successive Cup Winners’ Cup finals but lost to Arsenal in 1994. Should you have won that?

Becky Leighton, London

When I look back over my career, that’s the game we should have won. Arsenal did the right thing, though – they scared our strikers, Tino Asprilla and Gianfranco Zola. Arsenal were very aggressive and kicked them quite well, I think! But that’s the game – no problem.

I missed two incredible chances at 0-0 – one of them hit the post. If we’d gone 1-0 up, I think we would have won fairly easily. Arsenal would have attacked, we’d have enjoyed more space and could have scored four or five. But Alan Smith scored a brilliant goal and after that they defended very well. Arsenal won 1-0 and that’s what we heard in the whole of Copenhagen, with the fans singing: ‘One-nil to the Arsenal!’

You scored a great goal from a rehearsed free-kick against Romania in the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals – how much did you work on it?

Kris Taylor, via Facebook

It was a secret… we’d done that free-kick at Parma and Sweden’s manager, Tommy Svensson, had written it in his notebook. Two days before the Romania game, he took out his book and said: “Tomas, I’ve seen you do this one.” He told me that we couldn’t practise the free-kick during training because people would spy, but if we got a free-kick in the right area, we should give it a try.

Someone would pass the ball around the wall, and then I was supposed to cross the ball back in to give Martin Dahlin or Kennet Andersson an open goal. However, during that match I got there and thought: ‘Shit, I have all the goal just for myself. I have the open goal, so I’ll take a shot.’ That wasn’t the idea – I came up with my own idea and scored! For a little country like Sweden, it was amazing to reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1958.

After reaching the semi-finals in 1994, did you think Sweden could go all the way and win the World Cup?

Sebastian Sjostrom, Gothenburg

Of course. But several players were a bit injured and against Brazil you can’t have that. Then captain Jonas Thern got a red card and we thought, ‘Shit, it’s hard with 11 vs 11 against Brazil, now it’s 10 vs 11’. We lost and heads were down, but I was one of the first ones to say: “We’ve had a brilliant tournament, let’s play like hell in the third place play-off. We can’t go back without a medal.” To beat Bulgaria 4-0 was massive. Not many people have a World Cup medal. I was fourth in the Ballon d’Or vote that year, too. Not bad!

You broke your foot in November ’94. How big a turning point do you think that was in your career?

Eddie Green, via Facebook

Everyone says that, but for me it wasn’t that, because an injury is an injury and eventually you will come back. Everyone told me I’d be back after eight or nine months, but I was back after five months and three weeks.

Tomas Brolin Sweden 4

You were at Parma with Gianluigi Buffon when he was only 17. Was it clear early on just how good a keeper Gigi would go on to become?

Domenico Peri, via Twitter

Definitely. I had trained with him and thought: ‘Oh shit, this guy is 17 and he’s maybe already the best’. Gigi was confident, the right height and he made right decisions. He was an experienced player when he was still just a teenager. It was amazing to see.

Why did you leave Parma in November 1995 and sign for Leeds?

Ian Worthington, Batley

At the end of my five years with Parma, the coach [Nevio Scala] and me weren’t on the same level. I was keen to play, so I had to look elsewhere. I loved Parma. I wanted to stay, but the Bosman ruling was coming in and I think someone wanted to sell me because my contract was running out.

I went to speak to Leeds and asked manager Howard Wilkinson: “So where do you want me to play?” He replied: “I see you as a midfielder – a player in the middle taking care of our game.” I really liked that position and thought: ‘OK, if you want to play me like that, I’ll come’.

But I didn’t ever play in that position for Leeds. Never. When I first arrived, Tony Yeboah was injured, so of course I had to play up front until he had recovered, but after that I never got to play in the role that I’d been promised.

Tomas Brolin Leeds 1

Your first goal for Leeds was bizarre – scoring with your face while lying flat on the floor. What do you remember about that?

Steve Maine, Rotherham

That was a very nice header! A Sheffield Wednesday defender tried to kick it out and he kicked it against my head. It was a good first goal.

(At 3:10.) 

Why do you think things didn’t work out for you in England?

Adam Bagshaw, via Facebook

My position was one of the main points, and poor management. I liked Yorkshire and the fans were amazing. I still follow Leeds like a supporter. They need to get back to the Premier League because the fans are incredible – 30,000 and 35,000 at home games even now. I remember being on the bench for the 1996 League Cup Final against Aston Villa – it was so frustrating, but the fans kept signing my name because they wanted me on – I’ll never forget that. They knew something wasn’t right, and that it wasn’t only my fault. Fans are clever like that – they all understood that something strange was going on with the Leeds management.

It was reported that you deliberately played badly in a 5-0 loss at Liverpool, in protest at being played on the right. Was that true?

Sean O’Neill, via Twitter

No, I never played badly on purpose, but I couldn’t play my best in that position and I told the manager so beforehand. That was Wilkinson’s way of telling me: ‘I decide here’. I’d scored both goals in the game before that against West Ham and everybody was saying Tomas Brolin was one of Leeds’ best buys. Then he put me on the right at Anfield and I was out of the team – it was strange.

Did you really play for £800 a week at FC Zurich, then pay some of your own money to rejoin Parma, just to secure loan moves away from Leeds?

Anthony Selby, via Facebook

Yes. At first I went to Zurich to get away from Leeds because they didn’t treat me like a football player. Then I had a great five months back at Parma under Carlo Ancelotti. I liked feeling that the coach believed in me, and we almost won the Serie A title in 1997.

Tomas Brolin Leeds 2

NEXT: "That was a good start for me under George Graham at Leeds..."There was a rumour going around that you once missed Leeds’ pre-season training camp because you hit a bird with your car. How big was that bird?

Jamie Laws, Norwich

It was a really big bird! The car window was smashed and I couldn’t see where I was going because of the sunlight. You can’t just leave the car in the middle of the motorway, so I missed the flight to England. I was an hour late for the first training session and they fined me one week’s wages. That was a good start for me under George Graham at Leeds! One hour late and I got fined.

I wasn’t going to risk my life to get to the first training session, but obviously someone wanted me to do that. [FFT: Did you think it was weird when the media claimed that you had actually driven into an elk?] I wasn’t blind, it definitely wasn’t an elk. A few years later, though, I did hit an elk and it was a scary experience – the car was completely destroyed.

Is it true that George Graham confiscated your passport to stop you going to Sweden, but you managed to get back there anyway?

Cathy Watson, via Facebook

Yes, he did a few things like that. These days you would describe that behaviour in a particular way, although I won’t say the word. How did I get back to Sweden without the passport? Well, I was Tomas Brolin!



1990-95 Sweden (47 caps, 27 goals)

It was reported that Leeds wouldn’t let you back into Elland Road to watch any of their matches for free. Did that really happen?

Tony Tilson, Skipton

Yes, that’s right too. That happened at a few matches, but I had friends who had a VIP box so they let me in there. Was I shocked when it happened? There were a lot of shocking things that happened under that management, so in that case I wasn’t too surprised, I just had to laugh. You know the word to describe that behaviour. I won’t say it. No, actually, I will say it. It was bullying. Do you do that sort of thing to a player on your own team? I don’t think so. I’d almost forgotten a lot of these things that happened over the years, but it’s all coming back to me now.

Do you regret joining Leeds?

Carlos Sanchez, via Facebook

No I don’t, because when the manager tells you that you’re playing in a certain role, in my world you’ve got to trust him. I can’t regret that the management was poor during that period – that wasn’t all down to me.

Given how things had gone for you in England, why did you decide to return and play for Crystal Palace?

Nick Day, via Twitter

I had almost decided that I would stop playing football then, but the Crystal Palace owner Mark Goldberg called me. He was a huge fan of me and said: “Come and train with us for one week.” Then on the Thursday, after two days’ training, Steve Coppell asked: “Can you play Saturday?” I thought: ‘What the hell?’, but it was great that I had a manager who only needed to see a couple of training sessions and thought I could play in his team.

I wasn’t very used to that! I had a great time at Crystal Palace, but we had quite a lot of injuries and went down at the end of that season [1997/98]. I was assistant manager at the end of the season. Mark Goldberg asked if Attilio Lombardo and myself would take the team. I said: “Of course, I’ll help you if you want.” It was a strange but good experience.

Tomas Brolin Crystal Palace

Do you think the way you’re portrayed in the English media is fair? Did all the talk about your weight upset you?

Owen Davies, via Twitter

It was all a load of bullshit, because you don’t sign an overweight player. Otherwise they’d be better looking at the way Leeds and Crystal Palace do their medicals! I no longer have to worry about the English media, as they didn’t know the true story and no one wanted to hear it. They were doing the exact same thing that Leeds were doing – bullying, and if they think that’s OK, that’s not my problem. I think the English press has always been like that and I’m not sure it will get better. It’s their way. Bullying is the right word for the English press. No one has written about this. It’s the first time I’ve ever said it – I’ve been waiting for 20 years.

Why did you retire at 28?

Allan Adams, via Facebook

At first it was fun to go to training every day with Crystal Palace, but by the end it wasn’t as fun any more. I wondered: ‘Shall I do this next season?’ I thought about it during the summer and decided to stop. It wasn’t because of injuries. If you want to continue playing at a high level you’ve got to train every single day, but I wasn’t so keen to keep doing that.

I had other projects in my head – when I stopped playing, an inventor came up to me with his new idea about vacuum cleaners and I opened that company. If by the December of that year I’d wanted to play again, I would have come back. But that feeling never came and now it’s 20 years ago. Everyone says 28 is young to retire, but it depends on what you’ve done in your 28 years as a footballer. I’d done quite a lot.

Why did you start in goal in your last ever professional appearance?

Joe Brown, via Twitter

That wasn’t a professional game. I have a brother, Hakan, who played in Sweden with Hudiksvall. I thought it’d be nice to play with him. I said: “If you ever need a goalkeeper, I’ll play.” When we were young we would both play at home, one shooting, one in goal, so we were good goalkeepers as well! I played one game in the league and one in the cup for my brother’s side. I really enjoyed it.

Tomas Brolin Ballon d'Or

Do you still like playing in poker tournaments?

Donald McCrae, Glasgow

I was involved in poker for a while as I was a name for a betting firm. Now I don’t play poker very often, but it was great fun. I played it for around 10 years.

Why did you post a naked picture of yourself doing snow angels on Instagram a few years ago?

Bryan Joseph, via Facebook

Here in Sweden, we will do the sauna and then you throw yourself out in the snow. But I wasn’t naked – I had snow on my body, just not very much!

You produced a record with Dr Alban. Any idea what he’s actually a doctor in, or is it like Dr Pepper or Dr Seuss?

Craig Riding, via Twitter

He’s a doctor in dentistry. I’m still friends with him. I’ll organise three or four events in Sigtuna every year with live music, and he has sung here at my parties. Making that record was a lot of fun. Life is too short to do boring stuff – if something isn’t fun, then I won’t do it. Being a footballer stopped being fun for me, so I stopped playing. A lot of players kid themselves that they enjoy it just to stay a part of the football circus, but I’m not that kind of person and I had other ways to have fun in my life.

This feature originally appeared in the August 2018 of FourFourTwo. Subscribe! (opens in new tab)

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