Sweden’s Brazilian entertainers

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The Poles like to think of themselves as the Brazilians of European football. At times, they have been known to chant impatiently during games: “We are Polish and we want a goal.”

But Sweden, for a Scandinavian nation famed for social democracy, the charismatic miserablism of Ingmar Bergman’s movies and pornography would seem to have as good a claim. If you find this risible, you just watch this goal against Uruguay from the 1974 World Cup.

The player who flicks the ball up and smashes it into the net is Ralf Edström, one of my favourite foreign strikers of the 1970s, a preference – I was an impressionable child – based almost entirely on that one goal.

Ralf Edström, or is it Mick Channon?

They also played in yellow, like Brazil, but didn’t win anywhere near as much, so it was easier for me – supporting a trio of teams (Nuneaton Borough, Leicester City and England) who were accustomed to the absence of silverware – to identify with them.

If you scroll down, there is a great picture of Edstrom here looking a bit like Mike Channon, but less like a racehorse and more like a rock star.

Edström was no fluke. In the 1950s, Sweden produced the technically brilliant Gre-No-Li forward line (Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedlohlm) that won the 1948 Olympics. And then there was Kurt Hamrin, the Little Bird who dazzled on the wing in Serie A and, in the 1958 World Cup, ran through the Russian defence “like an inspired mole,” as Brian Glanville put it. But they were before my time, so I adopted Edström.

When he smashed that goal against Uruguay, Edström was playing for PSV where, scoring 55 goals in 112 games between 1973 and 1977, he became a firm, fan favourite. He wasn’t that prolific for Sweden, 15 goals in 40 games, but he scored twice against Uruguay in 1974 and his goal against West Germany briefly gave the Swedes hope of a place in the third place play-off.

He was a bit of an idol in Sweden where he officially endorsed a football game called Ralf Edström Cup Football whose memory has been lovingly preserved on

Conditioned by Edström to expect flair from the Swedes, I rejoiced at USA '94 in the subtlety of Tomas Brolin, Jonas Thern and Stefan Schwarz. Indeed, I spent a year when Stefan Schwartz was at Arsenal, trying to decide what exactly was so cultured about his sweet left foot.

I never quite got to the bottom of it. He was one of those players who looks classy, even if they’re not really in the game, and I wasn’t surprised when he moved on. Anders Limpar was a bit of a cult hero at Highbury for similar reasons: he exuded class but probably showed that to greatest effect with a 50-yard reverse pass as Everton won the FA Cup in 1995.

Brolin’s demise from golden boy to joke was more surprising. The first blow was the foot injury he suffered after the 1994 World Cup. The second may have come when, after helping Leeds destroy a Manchester United side that contained Beckham, Keane and Cantona, he was dropped by Howard Wilkinson against Derby because he wasn’t suited to the “heated atmosphere” of an FA Cup tie.

It had obviously never occurred to the parochial Wilkinson that World Cup semi-finals can get a bit heated. After that it was all “Brolin, Brolin, Brolin,” more jokes about his weight than Elvis had to endure and a final appearance, as a goalkeeper, for a Swedish side in the summer of 1998.

Brolin nets against Bulgaria at USA '94 

Still, Brolin has at least enjoyed his retirement. The marvellously nicknamed Lennart ‘Nacka’ Skoglund, who won the Serie A title twice with Inter in the 1950s, and regarded himself as an entertainer, used to tour Sweden’s amusement parks in the summer doing the old ‘two crown’ trick where he would drop a coin and kick it into his shirt pocket.

There’s a statue outside his home in Katarina Bangata where every 24 December, on the anniversary of his birthday, people gather to celebrate Christmas and honour his memory. A playboy and an entertainer, he was almost as mythologised as George Best over here. He died in 1975 when he was just 46 but, as one fan noted, the real death had come earlier: “Nacka lived for applause, when the applause ended, Nacka died.”

As Zlatan Ibrahimovic can testify, being the golden boy of Swedish football, with a technique to die for, isn’t easy. The Swedes have had plenty of players of whom a commentator could say: “If he was playing for Brazil….” But, in a thoroughly Swedish way, they haven’t had as much fun as the Brazilians.

Which brings us back to Ingmar Bergman really.