"When you go to a training camp dressed like this, kids always ask you: 'Did you coach Zlatan?'" laughs Sweden coach Roland Larsson, wearing the familiar yellow cross of his nation on his habitual coach's attire. "When I tell them 'No', they turn away – they're so disappointed."
While his lengthy career path has never crossed with that of his country's most famous player, Larsson may well receive more recognition in the future. The 51-year-old has guided his team to the last four of the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Sweden's first finals appearance at this level, and although his players may not be household names yet, Larsson can see huge potential which could turn them into fan favourites of the future.
"I haven't had a team with this much potential to reach the senior team before. They are very talented these players, and when I say that, I mean they have the mental capacity, focus and attitude – they want to learn and understand," says Larsson, who feels Zlatan Ibrahimović's failure to shine at youth level should serve as a warning to his squad that U17 success does not automatically translate into superstardom.
"We speak about that with the boys. We tell them: 'You're a national team player, but you have ten years' practice to get to the level Zlatan is playing.' A lot of players at this age have people telling them they're good, and then they just disappear. You have to remind them that, yes, they are good, but they're not there yet. The boys have to be aware of that. They have to know that they own their way of getting there. Sometimes they say, 'It's the coach's fault I didn't make it.' Take responsibility for yourself."
Responsibility is a word that often pops up in Larsson's conversation. A former journalist, he began coaching at 15 because he "thought it was interesting to work with people". After a decade writing for a newspaper in southern Sweden, he moved full time into the dugout ("It's more fun"), drawing heavily on the experience of mentor and friend Tom Prahl at Trelleborgs FF before joining the coaching staff of the Swedish Football Association (SvFF) in 1998. The jobs and the players may have changed, but giving his team an active role in how they function has always been the leitmotif of Larsson's approach.
"I think it is about tradition, [the idea] that the coach always has the answer, but we don't," he says. "Because we don't play. The experiences from the pitch – it's the players who have that. If you work like that, and involve them, they have a lot of good ideas; it creates something. Then they get motivated, and are part of the tactics. If you have involved players, and they are motivated, then they play better together."
It is a formula which, when employed by the products of Sweden's revamped and flourishing youth system, has taken Larsson's squad into the last four, even though he acknowledges stepping into the tournament with some trepidation. "I was a little bit afraid, [wondering] 'Are we ready for this?' But after the first game, I thought: 'Yes, we are'." All of a sudden, his side are looking forward to Tuesday's semi-final with Russia as another potentially tough test on the road to the 17 May final.
"We were celebrating reaching the semi-finals, but we didn't celebrate as if we were finished in the tournament, because the boys are looking forward to something more," explains Larsson. "This is really good. They're fantastic because they take steps forward, and I'm really proud of them. They're good players, a good team."
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