Sweden are in finals for 10th time
Sweden conceded a mere three goals and remained unbeaten as they made their way into the World Cup finals for the 10th time in their history.
What they may lack in Latin ball artistry and African athletic prowess, Sweden more than adequately make up for with a solid defence, an indomitable fighting spirit and a cunning, meticulously-planning coaching duo.
Another distinct feature, and possibly a relative advantage, is Sweden's closely-knit squad void of any eccentric superstars -- instead there is a broad and deep pool of players, most of whom know each other well and blend together in varying formations.
The 23-man squad named last Friday contained a mix of youth and of experience with captain Patrik Andersson and midfielder Hakan Mild boasting 168 international caps between them.
Unbeaten in their last 18 internationals, Sweden are drawn in the World Cup's toughest group, with Argentina, England and Nigeria, and most experts feel the team have a sporting 50-50 chance of making it through to the last 16.
After that, just as for any team going that far, anything is possible.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swede who has taken England to the World Cup finals, was impressed by his countrymen after their 1-1 draw with England at Old Trafford last November.
"Sweden's strength is that they are very disciplined and aggressive. They don't give you time to play or the space to play in. You can understand why they are in the World Cup," he said.
The Sweden team that won European qualifying group four ahead of Turkey, Slovakia, Macedonia, Moldova and Azerbaijan are several notches better than the side that failed to reach the second round of the European championship finals in 2000.
The disciplined defensive strength of Andersson, now with Barcelona after winning the European Cup with Bayern Munich last spring, the relentlessly dynamic midfield work by the likes of Arsenal's Fredrik Ljungberg and the goal hunger of Celtic's Henrik Larsson and Heerenveen's Marcus Allback make Sweden tick.
Players, team officials and commentators also praise an iron-willed team spirit, which has seen Sweden turn looming defeats or draws into victory on many occasions -- most notably in their penultimate qualifier in Istanbul on September 5.
A goal down for most of the second half, Sweden staged a great fightback in one of soccer's most inhospitable venues for visiting teams to score twice in the final four minutes for a 2-1 win which guaranteed them first place in the group at Turkey's expense.
"It is too good to be true. This team never gives up," Larsson, European club soccer's top scorer in 2000-01 who equalised in the 87th minute, said after the match.
Sweden's coaching duo Tommy Soderberg and Lars Lagerback have earned a lot of credit for instilling confidence and building morale among their players, who got off to a shaky start in the early stages of the qualifiers in 2000.
Sweden raised their game and even shone last year, playing less defensively than in the past and with greater imagination as they booked their tickets to Asia.
Soderberg and Lagerback are among the few national soccer coaches who have led their teams to back-to-back European championship and World Cup final tournaments without losing a qualifying match.
Sweden won eight and drew two of their 10 World Cup qualifiers. They made it into Euro 2000 with a record of seven wins and one draw from their eight matches.
"Swedish football is going strong and it seems that we are getting even better," Soderberg said in February.
The hard working and disciplined Swedes tend to play well against free-wheeling opponents such as England while teams such as Italy, Argentina, France and Cameroon give them a much harder time.
Sweden surprised everyone by coming third in their last appearance in the World Cup finals, in 1994 -- their best showing since reaching the final at home in 1958.