Roaring Vikings and big angry mooses

It's never easy turning up for work after your team has lost, especially if it's been a local derby.  But on the international stage where patriotism is the word?  Ouch!  Layla Carlsson on being Swedish.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010; the day the world’s eyes are fixated on the rescue of the Chilean Miners, a group of 33 men whose unity and strength has been admirable. After an evening of EURO 2012 qualifiers that saw mindless violence in the stands and on the streets of Genoa, the rescue operation in Chile sort of puts things in perspective. My suggestion is, send those Serbian hooligans down into that mine for 69 days and see how well they cope. Lord of the Flies scenario, very likely.

It’s also the day after various victories and defeats in EURO football-land. While some have celebrated wins, others are licking their wounds and hanging their heads in shame. Take Sweden for instance, who received a bit of a spanking by an unleashed Netherlands and got beaten 4-1.

The following reflects the thoughts and feelings of yours truly, a Swedish girl living in, oh irony, the Netherlands.

Blue- yellow, ‘blå-gul’ in Swedish. The colours of the Swedish flag. For Swedes who reside outside Mother Svea, these colours speak to the melancholy heart in a way that makes the folks back home snicker at that much sentiment. I once embarrassingly choked up during a visit to, of all places, IKEA, at the sight of a wall with a hugely blown up photo of a typical Swedish scene; a little red house in a forest, a stone fence, a couple of cows and a flag pole with the flag proudly hoisted.

Blågul is also the nickname of our national football team. Sweden can not boast about having legendary icons like Cruyff or Maradona, but we brought forth some outstanding players like Henke Larsson, Fredik Ljungberg and The Zlatan in recent generations, to name but a few. And like any other country when qualified for a big tournament, we get out hopes up, sadly setting ourselves up for disappointment. Still, even when doom is already lurking around the corner, my silly heart fills with love at the sight of the flag and the team.

During the reign of Lars Lagerbäck as head coach, Sweden qualified for five consecutive tournaments, but mostly played a very defensive game that made the supporters cringe, especially over the last two or three years. Some even called it cowardly, myself included. There was no bite; no fist. Instead of roaring Vikings or big angry mooses, the players looked more like dazed and confused tourists who have accidentally arrived in Sweden on Midsummer’s Day when everybody is drunk and disorderly. Lagerbäck was seemingly settling for draws during qualifying for the World Cup of 2010 and finally got the hint, resigning after his men failed to qualify.

Erik Hamrén took over as head coach, dusted the players off and opened all windows to let some fresh air in. His Sweden would be ‘a new Sweden’; a team that would play offensive football and win back the hearts of the fans. With two consecutive wins – over San Marino and Hungary – the big test was yet to come; vice- World Champion The Netherlands were up next. The message coming from the Swedish camp was that we highly respected the Dutch team, but weren’t afraid of them.

Fairly optimistic, I thought “Bring it on! Heja Sverige!” and put on my 2006 blågul shirt, ready to cheer for my men.

What followed was a humbling lesson in football. It pains me to say it, just as much as it hurt like hell to watch my Vikings being reduced to a bunch of clutzes. Being defeated 4-1 is a deception of epic magnitude. But, being an eternal optimist as well as a cynic, I am thinking that perhaps it will pay off in the end if they learn from it. There is still time to work on what went wrong – basically everything – and better they find out now than during the group stage of the European Cup.

“Why do you Swedes always have something blue and yellow on you?” someone asked me once, referring to a ribbon in said colours attached to my hand bag.

The answer is simple, it’s a feeling of being connected; a feeling of belonging to a quirky country where people dance around a May-pole in June and the Christmas tree in December, holding hands in the circle and hopping around while singing a song about frogs, baffling any outsiders who witness the spectacle.

Whenever Swedes run into each other outside the mother land, we forget how reserved we can be at home and there is a funny form of instant bonding. Because we are Swedes, and we are, uhm, special. We enjoy abiding rules just as much as we love rebelling against them when no one expects us to. We say ‘no’ to the Euro currency, but always wait for the green traffic light before we cross the street. And just once in a blue moon, we would love to go completely crazy. That’s what we expect, no, crave, my dear blågul.

During the World Cup of 1994, I was on vacation in Sweden. The Swedish team was on a roll, only to be stopped by Brazil in the semi-finals. The average reaction on the street was “Well, that was to be expected, it was too good to be true.” The Swedes hid their disappointment behind a shrug and a beer, while preparing themselves for the team’s last match.

The opponent for the battle for third place was Bulgaria, the surprise of the tournament. Armed with dill crisps and apple cider, the boyfriend and I settled before the TV in our hotel room in a sleepy little town called Värnamo. I was still a bit heart broken over losing the semi finals, but as my boys played with heart and determination and saw it rewarded with no less than four goals, the pain began to subside. It slowly began to sink in that Sweden had just won third place in the World Cup.

Bursting with pride, I stood in the open window waiting for something of a reaction from my fellow Swedes, needing to share that feeling of pride but not expecting much. It was quiet outside, even if we were in the town centre. Not a sound... Until that first cheer rose; a cautious one, as if the person was afraid of the sound of his own voice breaking the serenity of the silence. Then came another cheer; louder, bolder, followed by more battle cries and car horns honking. Heja Sverige! Someone lit a firecracker. More cheers. There was singing. It wasn’t exactly crazy Holland of the 1988 European Cup, but there was noise outside coming from all these otherwise so reserved Swedes, and it was somewhat touching.

Celebrations lasted for about 30 minutes, and then it seemed as if Värnamo went to sleep. But something had changed; it sizzled in the air. We had won the bronze, blågult received a well-deserved heroes’ welcome when they returned home, and all over the country, in quiet little towns such as Värnamo, people had been running around in the middle of the night celebrating. The day after the match, the good town’s people had calmed down again; they seemed almost ashamed of so much emotional outburst the night before.

Ah yes, silly Swedes. We wear a yellow shirt that does not flatter our fair complexion, and blue-yellow Viking helmets made of velveteen. The defeat might have sobered us up, but there is always hope. And if Sweden manages to win something in the future, I will smile and think of that one first, cautious cheer that sounded in Värnamo on a summer night in 1994.

Layla writes regularly for IBWM.  You can read more from her here and make sure you follow her on twitter @LaylaCarlsson