After failing to reach the 1998 FIFA World Cup finals and exiting EURO 2000™ without a point to their name, Sweden have emerged as a talent-packed team who are proving one of the most difficult sides in the world to beat.
Lengthy rebuilding process
Sweden erupted in joy in 1994 when their team finished third in the World Cup finals in the United States but the rebuilding process was lengthy and cost the Swedes a place in France four years later, as they lost out in the group qualifying stage to Austria and Scotland.
But even then, there was a hint of better times to come as France were held to a goalless draw in a World Cup warm-up match just two months before being crowned champions of the world. Come the autumn and Sweden opened their EURO 2000™ qualifying campaign in style, defeating England 2-1 in Stockholm.
The stars of the USA 94 side, Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin, were forgotten as a new generation of strikers was unveiled in the dreadlocked form of Henrik Larsson, with the lanky Kennet Andersson still providing aerial dominance up front.
Unbeaten in qualifying
In 1999, Sweden won seven of their 11 matches and were unbeaten in their qualifying campaign. But that was as far as their recovery would go for a while. The Swedes looked star-struck when they met co-hosts Belgium in the tournament opener, going down 2-1 and losing captain and central defender Patrik Andersson, sent off 10 minutes from the end.
Sweden fell victim to their own cautious tactics in the second match against Turkey and could only muster a goalless draw, meaning they were obliged to beat Italy in the final match to stand any chance of progressing, something they failed to do, even though the Italians rested their best players, having already qualified.
Del Piero winner
Swedish hopes were still alive with the score at 1-1 in the 87th minute, but an Alessandro del Piero winner sent the Swedes home to lick their wounds and reflect on a disastrous 2000, in which they only won three of their 13 games.
Now joint coach alongside Lars Lagerbäck, Tommy Söderberg's side enjoyed a relatively comfortable passage to this year's World Cup finals, with Slovakia and Turkey the most difficult opponents in a qualifying group also containing Moldova and FYR Macedonia.
Victory in Istanbul
Sweden finally secured a place in the finals with a 2-1 victory over Turkey on a steamy evening in Istanbul in September. One-nil down with three minutes to go, Larsson equalised in the 87th minute and then AIK Solna's Andreas Andersson snatched the winner one minute into stoppage time.
Sweden finished their Group Four matches unbeaten, winning eight and drawing two and displaying a maturity that has ensured they will be no pushovers for any opponent in Japan. In fact England, one of their group opponents, have good reason to fear Sweden. The Swedes have not lost to England since 1968 and achieved a comfortable 1-1 draw in a friendly in Manchester last November.
Best yet to come
While Sweden have an impressive backbone in the form of Coventry City FC goalkeeper Magnus Hedman, Patrik Andersson of FC Barcelona, Arsenal FC's Fredrik Ljungberg and Celtic FC striker Larsson, the best may be yet to come. Söderberg may call on veteran midfielders Hakan Mild and Stefan Schwarz, both playing club football in England, but most Swedes are hoping to see more of talented strikers Kim Källström, just 19, and AFC Ajax's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, aged 20.
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