Times are changing in Scandinavia and a heavy reliance on the old guard is coming to an end for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Ahead of the next round of internationals, Charlie Anderson reflects on the changes.
After a World Cup in which Scandinavia’s only representative, Denmark, exited at the group stage, international football in the region must be described as in transition if not actually in decline.
Norway haven’t qualified for a major tournament in ten years, and have turned to their most successful manager to lead them from the wilderness once again. Sweden approach the future with trepidation, having reached the end of a cycle after the consistent but ultimately uninspired tenure of Lars Lagerbäck. Finland have never qualified for a major tournament – likewise Iceland. Denmark themselves look a little more promising, but there’s no telling how they will cope with the international retirement of Jon Dahl Tomasson.
There has been Scandinavian representation at every World Cup and European Championship since 1984, but the continuation of that record looks far from guaranteed.
It was bad news, then, when the Euro 2012 qualifying draw condensed all the Scandinavian teams (Faroe Islands aside) into just two groups. Norway, Denmark and Iceland are all together in Group H with Portugal and Cyprus. Sweden and Finland will likely have to battle it out for second place in Group E – the Netherlands will be the overwhelming favourites, while Hungary will also provide stiff opposition alongside Moldova and San Marino. So what are the qualification prospects of the Scandinavian sides? Here’s an overview of the teams ahead of the first round of Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Egil “Drillo” Olsen was Norway manager from 1990 until 1998, during which time the team qualified for both the ’94 and ’98 World Cups. He departed after the second-round exit in France, with his assistant Nils Johan Semb leading a little-changed squad to the 2000 European Championships. Since then, however, it’s been a barren period for Norway, and Olsen is now back in charge. As though his status as an archetypal 1990s long-ball merchant needed confirming, “Drillo” had a brief spell managing Wimbledon. His tactical approach will be tested to its limits in the upcoming qualifiers – Norway will be without the giant John Carew for their opening game in Iceland. Although the team will lack their most physical presence up front, Carew’s absence will likely give new Hannover signing Mohammed Abdellaoue a chance to impress the coach ahead of the crucial encounter with Portugal in Oslo on Tuesday. Olsen’s preference for long, diagonal forward passes means that Brann striker Erik Huseklepp, who scored both Norway’s goals in the 2-1 friendly win over France, will likely be deployed high on the right side.
Things are far from ideal for Iceland themselves – due to fitness concerns, Eiður Guðjohnsen has been dropped from the squad to face Norway and Denmark, while first-choice goalkeeper Árni Gautur Arason is struggling with injury. Iceland finished last in their World Cup qualifying group, and it will be a huge ask for them even to finish above Cyprus this time around.
There’s a rich footballing history between the two countries, and many of the current Iceland squad ply their trade in Norway. Recent encounters have been close, and this will be a fascinating and potentially critical opener to both teams’ campaigns.
Sweden’s new coach Erik Hamrén has something of a conundrum - how much of the old guard should be retained, and how much moved on in favour of younger talents? It looks as though Euro 2012 will be the last tournament for the likes of centre-backs Olof Mellberg and Daniel Majstorovic and joint-captain Anders Svensson and, although strikers Johan Elmander and Zlatan Ibrahimović (you may have heard of him) will probably last the next World Cup cycle, they will be under pressure to perform like never before. There are four strikers in the current Sweden squad – Elmander, Ibrahimović, Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg. Toivonen and Berg are a formidable creator-finisher pairing at PSV Eindhoven and, should Zlatan or Elmander fail to perform, the benefits of a strike partnership with a well-established understanding is not something Hamrén is likely to ignore for long. Luckily Sweden’s start to the campaign should be relatively straightforward – a manageable home tie against Hungary on Friday followed by San Marino on Tuesday – so there is at least some time for the new coach to settle on his best side. After that, however, the honeymoon is over for Hamrén. It’s straight in at the deep end for the Swedes in October, with a trip to Amsterdam and a date with the World Cup finalists.
There is a pervading sense that Finland should perhaps have achieved more on the international stage. Despite recently producing a generation of talented players in the 1990s - the likes of Jonatan Johansson, Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen – they’ve still never qualified for a major tournament. Their Scottish coach Stuart Baxter finds himself relying heavily on experience – even now the squad includes Jonatan Johansson, Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen, all well into their thirties – but, happily, there’s more to be said for Finland. Teemu Tainio and Mika Väyrynen will do the legwork in midfield, creating space for Litmanen to drag his creaking limbs through one last qualification campaign. Niklas Moisander looks a good long-term prospect in the defence and there is both quality and potential in goal, a position in which Finland traditionally excels.
Nevertheless, Finland faces an uphill struggle to qualify. The Netherlands look likely to qualify as group winners, leaving Baxter’s team to battle it out with Sweden and Hungary for second place. While qualification would be a miracle, third place in the group would represent an excellent result for Finland as they attempt to make the most of their experienced players while also ushering in a new generation. Their campaign kicks off in Moldova, a tough but not insurmountable task, before a visit to Rotterdam to face the Dutch.
Given their status as Scandinavia’s only representative in South Africa this summer, it’s perhaps to be expected that Denmark would be the best-equipped side in the region going into the qualifiers. Denmark have a great range of talents – the graceful, ball-playing defensive partnership of Simon Kjær and Daniel Agger are protected by experienced midfield destroyer Christian Poulsen, while further upfield there’s the hugely exciting Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen. Experienced coach Morten Olsen has been at the helm for a decade, and it’s difficult to see Denmark as anything less than second-favourites for the group – perhaps even favourites, given the turmoil Portugal find themselves in. It’s a gentle start for the Danes with just one game, an eminently winnable one at home to Iceland on Tuesday.
A combination of transitions and the unfortunate qualifying draw means that hopes of a Scandinavian revival at Euro 2012 look slim. But one thing that could count in their favour is continuity - Norway, Denmark and Finland have all retained their coaches, while Lars Lagerbäck left his post at Sweden of his own volition. It’s not the most fashionable of traits, but the lack of knee-jerk reactions following a disappointing qualification campaign or tournament is likely to count for something. Scandinavian football stands decidedly at a crossroads - the direction in which it will now turn remains to be seen.
Charlie writes regularly for IBWM, but if you’d like to read more from him please visit The Carvalho Peninsula.