20 Sep 2021
Sweden’s coach Peter Gerhardsson talks about Tokyo 2020 and World Cup qualifiers
Discusses Caroline Seger and Hedvig Lindahl’s decision to waive international pensions
Reflects on changing Sweden’s way of thinking and embracing their status among the best in the world
By winning Olympic silver last month, Sweden matched – at least statistically – what they had achieved in Rio five years earlier. But anyone who has watched the two tournaments will know that the identical results highlight the very different methods used and performances produced at each event.
The silver-winning Swedes in 2016 were tough to beat but negative in the outlook and, by their own admission, not very fun to watch. “We basically defended ourselves throughout the tournament,” captain Caroline Seger recently reflected. The contrast to the attacking, adventurous class of 2021, who swept away the world champions in their opening match in Japan and remained on the front foot all the time, could hardly be sharper.
And if the difference between the two teams was crystal clear, so was the reason behind it. Despite spending his entire 44-year football career in Sweden, Gerhardsson has long resisted and rebelled against his home country’s established tradition of direct, defense-focused and rigidly structured football. After publicly apologizing as a national neglect for the lack of attention to attacking creativity on Swedish training plans and tactical boards, this former striker has built his reputation on undermining these norms.
The result is that while Sweden again lost gold – lost in a heartbreaking way a final that they had dominated – there was a real, justified pride in having been transformed into a team that, in the words of its coach, “controls the ball and controls games” .
The only thing that worried him after the Olympics was that Gerhardsson would have to plan for the next step in this development without two of his most influential and impressive players: Caroline Seger and Hedvig Lindahl. The former, 36, had been left desolate by missing a potentially match-winning penalty, while the latter, 38, strongly suggested that the tournament be her last.
Fortunately, given the convincing evidence that this duo’s lasting value for the Swedish cause, no one has chosen to follow fellow record-breaker Carli Lloyd to international retirement. Both were named in Gerhardsson’s squad for Sweden’s first two WC qualifiers for WC 2023 for women ™ 2023, and they were even joined by 37-year-old Nilla Fischer, who missed Tokyo 2020 due to the arrival of her second son.
With the first match in the initial campaign successfully negotiated in Slovakia on Friday, Gerhardsson sat down to reflect on the Olympics, the dilemma of his star veterans and the change of a team mentality.
FIFA.com: How did you find the last week with the squad. Have you felt any hangover from the Olympics? Peter Gerharsson: I do not think so. Maybe some people still feel the after-effects – it’s a very individual thing how you move on after such great moments. But when I speak for myself, I have felt very positive. The result was one thing and of course it was hard to lose the way we did. But the achievement was something else, and even though we all desperately wanted to win, I think time has made us happier about how we reached that final and got these silver medals. We played at a very high level throughout the tournament, and when you think about how tough the Olympics are in women’s football, I think everyone – from the medical team to the technical staff to the players – can be proud to have done a very good job. For me, it was only a couple of days holiday and I was already looking forward to this new challenge to come to the World Cup.
Have you just come from playing such high-level matches in an elite competition, is there a challenge in motivating your players to produce the same levels in qualifiers against much lower ranked opposition?
We have already talked about this, even though our Olympic trip ended in Yokohama in the final, it started already in 2017 in a qualifier away to Croatia. Winning that match was the start of a road that led us to the final in Japan because in order to qualify for the Olympics we needed to go to the World Cup – which is big in itself of course – and then finish as one of the top three European teams. So the next journey begins now and the games we play are really important. Whether it is the United States, Slovakia or Georgia (the Swedes’ opponents tomorrow), we prepare in exactly the same way, with the same professionalism and the same desire to win.
Your team received a lot of praise from neutrals and from technical experts watch the matches in Japan. Is it gratifying for you, as someone who has made a great effort to change Sweden into a more attacking and attractive team to watch?
It is. The most important thing in this game is to win matches but if you can do it in a way that people like it is even better. My coaching is based on an attitude that is not what you would call typically Swedish. In this country, we often start discussions about tactics and so on by talking about defense. For me, it’s a mindset that can work: if you focus so much on defending, you’ll go out on the field defending your brain. I wanted to change that mentality. For me, it was about starting with a focus on what we want to do with the ball.
It’s a different way of thinking and I think it creates players with a different view. I need brave players to play that way, but I have also had to be brave myself to give them the freedom to make decisions on the pitch and, for example, play out of our own penalty box. We also want to be a physical team, very aggressive when we try to win the ball back when we lose it, and I always say that one of my best defenders is our center forward, Stina Blackstenius. But it’s more about an attitude, being desperate to win back the ball to start playing again, than some big work on our part. During training, we still do about 85 percent of our work focused on when we have the ball. The result, I think, is a brave team and brave players within that team.
Even if you mention the Canada performance as one of your best, the 3-0 victory over the USA – and the dominant way – seemed to change the perception of Sweden almost overnight. Has it been positive and will you be happy to go to the European Championships and hopefully the next World Cup as one of the favorites?
Absolutely. You often hear in Sweden, in many sports: “Yes, we like to be underdogs and we perform better in that role.” I do not agree with that. To me, if you’re an underdog, it’s because you’ve been a loser before. If you are the favorites, something has made you favorites and it is because you have done something very good. We are in second place in the world rankings now and that means we will be favorites against pretty much everyone except the US now. And I think we should embrace it – because we deserve it. It is not normal in Sweden, at least in football, to be in this position. But let’s accept it and enjoy it. We will not win the matches because we are second in the world, but I like to see ourselves there because it shows that we have done something good.
You were the most consistent team during the tournament in Japan, and you did not play badly in the gold medal match. But are their lessons to be learned from the way you allowed it to slide, after being a before and of course at the top in the first half?
When I look at all the games in Japan, I actually think that the performance against Canada was one of our best. The first half and extra time were especially good for us; second half was a little more even. If we had scored a second goal in the first half with one of the chances we created, I think it’s a different story. But sometimes football is like that and that’s a fascinating aspect of this game. A good performance does not always mean that you will win the match and the saga, where Caroline Seger does the penalty and we win gold, does not always happen. When you are on the wrong side of it in football, it can feel unfair. But sometimes you can also be on the right side and that is part of the reason why this game is so fascinating for all of us.
You mention Victory there. It was a nice surprise to see both her and Hedvig Lindahl in your squad for these qualifiers. Did you have to do a lot of convincing to get them to play on?
No, I do not work like that. First of all, I wanted to give them time; not to rush them to decisions. And I’m not one of those coaches who asks the players, ‘Are you ready to get involved now for the next big tournament?’ For me, it’s just a matter of choosing a squad for each individual window. So I did not ask Caroline, Hedvig or anyone else: ‘Can you play the next two years, or four years?’ I only came to them a few days before I named the squad and said: ‘Can you play in these two matches against Slovakia and Georgia?’ I asked them because these are two very important matches to get to the next World Cup, I need my best players and right now Caroline and Hedvig are two of the best we have. I wanted them to play and fortunately they were both motivated and happy to be part of the squad.
I’m a former player myself, my wife too, and I know it’s not an easy time when you get to the end of your career. If you are a rock star, you can keep playing until you are 75, 80 years old. For a football player, it is different and you have to think about when you want to finish. Sometimes that decision can be made for you, and the players know I will take them out when they are not good enough anymore. Caroline Seger knows that if she is not among the 11 best players in Sweden, I will not play her – simple as that. But when I choose a squad, I do not look at age. I look at ability first, but also passion: do these players want to be here and give everything for the team? And for the young people, it is very important for them to see players like Caroline and Hedvig who show that passion and give 100 percent in every moment and show that they love being part of the national team.
You also have some very exciting young players, with Hanna Benninson one of the few who has made great strides abroad since the Olympics. Are you happy to see players like Hanna challenge themselves in that regard?
I’m yes. We now have 16 players playing abroad and you can see that they are all taking positive steps. It is important for us that our players are with clubs that do a good daily job with them to continue the development they have had with their Swedish clubs, which has been very good. You can already see the benefits for people like Magdalena Eriksson, a defender who has strikers like Sam Kerr who tests her every day in training. It will only improve you as a player, and the more players we play for top clubs, the better for the national team.