For Sweden, the Right Way to Play Is the One That Wins

by Pelican Press
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Peter Gerhardsson’s plans for Monday evening sounded blissful. He had set some time aside for a swim. He would have a bite to eat, and then retire to his room at Auckland’s palatial Cordis Hotel to listen to some music.

He also wanted to make further inroads into “Resonance,” the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s examination of how we interact with the world. Gerhardsson is enjoying it enormously; his readiness to discuss it makes that abundantly clear. He figured he could fit all of that in and still be in bed by 9 p.m. He does have a World Cup semifinal to coach on Tuesday, after all.

Should that last prospect have been causing Gerhardsson, the manager of Sweden’s women’s soccer team, any sort of stress or strain as he addressed the news media a day before his team plays Spain at Eden Park, he hid it extremely well.

He has, after all, been here before: This is his fourth major tournament in charge of his homeland, and it is the fourth time he has made the semifinals. Sweden finished third in the 2019 World Cup, won the silver medal in the 2020 Olympics, and then reached the last four at last summer’s European Championship. By this stage, it is familiar ground.

He was relaxed enough, then, not only to discuss his reading material but the philosophical imprint of Johan Cruyff; the art of scrapbooking; and his longstanding — if, being completely honest, slightly dwindling — tradition of calling his mother before games to solicit her advice. (He does not do it quite so often now, he said, because he is “old enough to make my own decisions.” Gerhardsson is 63.)

Only once did he betray even the merest hint of irritation: at the lingering perception that Sweden’s progress to the semifinals past both the United States, the reigning champion, and a widely admired Japan side has come in a fashion that might not be described as aesthetically pleasing.

Sweden’s leading goal scorer, for example, is Amanda Ilestedt, a central defender who would not have been regarded before the tournament as an obvious contender to win the World Cup’s Golden Ball. “Nobody was expecting her to do that,” her teammate Fridolina Rolfo said.

Ilestedt, though, has now plundered four goals — a tally bettered in the tournament only by Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa — all from set pieces, either at the first or second remove. She has proved particularly adept at emerging victorious when the ball is ricocheting around the penalty area in the aftermath of a corner or free kick. Or, in Gerhardsson’s rather more poetic rendering, “picking up the fruit when it has fallen from the tree.”

That, in part, illustrates why Sweden has proved such a magnet for euphemism. Gerhardsson’s team has variously but consistently been described throughout this tournament as “direct,” or “effective,” or “physical.” Jorge Vilda, the Spanish coach, added “strong” to that list.

All of these words mean the same thing: Sweden is a set-piece team, a long-ball team, a percentages team. The allegation is unspoken, but it is loud, and it is clear: Sweden might be winning, but it is doing it in a manner that is — on some moral or spiritual or philosophical level — wrong.

Somewhere beneath his placid surface, that suggestion clearly irks Gerhardsson. “One of our strengths is set pieces,” he said Monday. “Both in the offense and in the defense.” He became just a little more animated. “It is not just a strength: We have players who are very technically skilled at it. We practice a lot.”

It is not all they are, he said, noting, “It is just one way for us to win games.” But even if it was, would that really be such a problem? Gerhardsson wanted to make this point very clearly: Set pieces, he said, “are part of the game.”

They are, of course. His logic is impeccable. His job, and that of his players, is to win soccer matches. It is not to win in any particular style. No one type of play that achieves that goal is more virtuous than any other. Besides, aesthetics are subjective: Gerhardsson, for what it is worth, likes Sweden’s mixture of high pressure and dogged, intense marking. “It is good football for me,” he said.

The faint disregard for Sweden, instead, says more about soccer’s fashions than it does about the inherent worth of the team. Unlike its opponent on Tuesday, Spain, Sweden does not claim to espouse or symbolize any particular philosophy. It is concerned less with how the game as a whole should be played and more with how any individual match might be won.

If it has an identity, indeed, it is a reactive one. “We are very good at adapting,” the midfielder and captain Kosovare Asllani said. “We have a very good team around the team. They do a lot of work for us to prepare the tactics to face any team in the tournament. We have different ways to face different games. They allow us to be fully prepared for anyone.”

That flexibility meant the Swedes could not be physically intimidated by the United States and could not be undone by Japan’s slick, inventive counterpunches. They might have required a penalty shootout, settled only by the narrowest margin imaginable, to overcome the U.S., but against Japan they were in a position to grind their opponent down. Ilestedt opened the scoring from a corner. Filippa Angeldal settled the game with a penalty.

It was put to Gerhardsson that Spain might best be thought of as a combination of those two opponents: just as strong, just as imposing as the U.S., but no less technically gifted than Japan. He agreed. Spain is a wonderful team, he said. He has always been a Cruyffian at heart, an admirer of the intricate, technical soccer that Spain has come to represent.

He did not sound intimidated. He did not sound troubled at all, in fact. The thrust of the book by Rosa on his night table, as Gerhardsson explains it, is that we — as humans — are not good at accepting that we do not know what is going to happen. To him, that has always been the beauty of soccer: It is unpredictable.

An unheralded Sweden team might get past the United States and Japan. It might run into Spain, long hailed as women’s soccer’s coming force, and be expected to be swept aside by its sheer philosophical purity. Or it might turn out differently. “Maybe they are the perfect opponents for us,” Gerhardsson said of Spain. He does not know. He is OK with that. He is, in fact, entirely relaxed about it.

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