Amateurs & A Yorkshireman: Sweden’s World Cup Finalists

Led by an Englishman ignored by his own country, Sweden embarked on a historic run to the World Cup final on home soil. Like their revolutionary manager, they’re oft forgotten outside of their homeland…

Following the 1958 World Cup final, the Swedish FA informed their English head coach, George Raynor, that he would be relieved of his duties. Far from being an acrimonious disagreement between two parties, this was the Swedes being self-aware. There was no way Raynor wouldn’t have offers flooding in from back home.

They were wrong.

As was the norm for Raynor, his talents were ignored on English shores. Sent to Scandinavia as essentially a six month helper by the FA, the Yorkshireman had taken the Swedes to gold in the 1948 London Olympics, third place in the 1950 World Cup (where England lost to the United States) and then bronze at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics as well as the remarkable World Cup run in ’58.

He had achieved all of this with a fully amateur national team as well. The Swedish FA had a rule in place that professionals could not play for the national team meaning that Raynor had to do without some of Sweden’s greats throughout the early 1950s.

Left winger Lennart Skoglund was one of Raynor’s key men in 1950 and his performances, especially in the opener against Italy, caught the attention of clubs across the world. Brazilians Sao Paulo tried to prize him away from Sweden but he eventually joined Internazionale and was ruled out of international contention.

Striker Bror Mellberg was another who had left Sweden after the World Cup in 1950 with his career abroad taking him to Italy and France where he was a consistent goalscorer.

Then there was the AC Milan trio – “Gre-No-Li”.

Nearly 40 years before Rijkaard, Gullit and van Basten ruled the San Siro, Milan’s success was thanks to their Swedish triumvirate Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm.

Gren was a creative attacking midfielder with remarkable intelligence and awareness, earning him the nickname “Il Professore” (“the professor”) and a stellar Serie A career.

Nordahl was the goalscoring machine the likes of which Serie A had never seen before with numerous records that took decades to break – most goals in a single season (35) which stood until 2016; most goals for a single club in Serie A (210) which was also broken in 2016; Serie A top scorer five times; third-most Serie A goals (225); most by a foreigner and most efficient (0.77 goals/game).

Liedholm was the conductor. He was in remarkable physical shape, playing until he was 40 in an era where that was unheard of, and was, to put it simply, an unbelievable player. Legend has it that it was two years before Liedholm finally misplaced a pass for Milan and, such was the rarity of the event, the game stopped for five minutes as the fans gave Liedholm a standing ovation. Not only that but Liedholm also had an eye for goal, bagging 81 in over 300 games from midfield.

And yet, despite this generational talent, the Swedish national team mirrored the domestic league (Allsvenskan) in being completely amateur. Raynor worked wonders with the national team, his studious approach to tactics and preparation was a match made in heaven with the Swedes and, despite having to rebuild his side every two years, he achieved remarkable results.

George Raynor leading training

The Swedes were a crossbar’s width away from defeating the mind-bogglingly brilliant Hungarian side in 1953 in Budapest. Raynor’s plan of man-marking Nandor Hidegkuti had worked brilliantly and he passed this information on to England manager Walter Winterbottom a couple of days later in Vienna. Like English football in general, Winterbottom chose to ignore Raynor and, days later, England were embarrassed by the Hungarians in “The Game of the Century”.

That draw in Budapest would be a high point for Sweden. Raynor would move into club management in Sweden and Italy with mixed results. The national team would struggle, failing to qualify for the 1954 World Cup as they hamstrung themselves with the amateur rule.

Fearful of being embarrassed on home soil in 1958, the Swedish FA turned the game professional in 1956 with Raynor returning to the national team in time for the World Cup. Yet, the idea of foreign-based players playing for the national team still took the FA and the public some convincing:

It would have been impossible for us to meet world-class opposition without such performers as Liedholm, Gren, Hamrin and Skoglund. Some people thought it wrong to play these ‘Italians’ as the side was not representative of Swedish football. Perhaps it wasn’t, but it was representative of the footballers Sweden produced

George Raynor

Selecting them also didn’t mean they’d show up. Raynor had to go cap in hand to the Italian clubs to ensure that they released the players he was going to select. The charm offensive worked and he was able to select five foreign based players in his squad.

Even with those players in the squad, the make-up of the 22 was symptomatic of the issues the amateur rule had imposed on Sweden. The average age of the squad was 29 with only four being under the age of 27. Despite this experience in years, the average number of international caps in the squad was just 16. Only Gren and Liedholm remained from the great Olympic team of a decade earlier and they were 37 and 35 respectively. Only goalkeepers Tore and Kalle Svensson (no relation), Skoglund and Bror Mellberg had played in a World Cup previously.

Still, this was a Swedish side loaded with quality with their legendary head coach on the touchline as well. Gren and Liedholm may have been closer to 40 but they were still phenomenal players. Kurt Hamrin, at 23, was already one of Sweden’s best players on the right wing while, on the left, Skoglund’s ability was unquestionable. Up front, they had a plethora of choices with Mellberg, Arne Selmosson and Agne Simonsson all capable goalscorers.

The Swedes were solid and well-drilled but had enough individual quality and flair to play some good football. They cruised through Group 3, dispatching Mexico 3-0, thanks to a Simonsson brace, and Hungary 2-1 courtesy of a Hamrin brace. The 0-0 with Wales was inconsequential as they set up a quarter-final tie with a Soviet Union side that had beaten England in a play-off to get to that stage. Hamrin and Simonsson’s goals saw them move on to the semi-finals where a huge test lay ahead.

West Germany had shocked the world four years previously. Rank outsiders four years previously, they had defeated the incredible Hungarians in a game dubbed “The Miracle of Bern” to win the World Cup. They were a good side in their own right, led by the lethal Helmut Rahn up top and the exciting Uwe Seeler. The Germans had seen off some tough competition to that point too – topping a group containing the much-fancied Argentina, Czechoslovakia and Northern Ireland before beating Yugoslavia in the quarters.

Their quality showed early in the semi-final too as Hans Schäfer opened the scoring midway through the first half. Sweden never faltered though, pressing the Germans until Skoglund swept the ball home before half-time. With the game winding down and the Germans down to nine after Erich Juskowiak’s red card and Fritz Walter’s injury, Gren picked the ball up on the edge of the area and blasted an effort into the top corner to give Sweden the lead. Then, with two minutes to go, Hamrin stepped up to score one of the most famous goals in Swedish footballing history.

Receiving the ball on the right, he looked to walk out the clock with no Germans pressuring him. Sensing the pressure arriving from Schäfer, Hamrin took off towards the byline. He was too strong for the rather cynical bodycheck from Schäfer and took quick for the agricultural challenge from Horst Eckel in the area. Carrying on along the byline, he sized up keeper Fritz Herkenrath, feigning to pull it back to Simonsson before dinking it past the committed keeper at his near post. It was a special goal from a special player and sent Sweden to the World Cup final.

In the build-up to the final against the fearsome Brazilians, Raynor noted that if Sweden scored first then Brazil would “panic all over the show”. Brazil, led by teenage phenom Pelé, had yet to fall behind in the tournament and had also struggled to break down the stubborn Welsh defence in the quarter finals. Raynor’s hopes for a Swedish opener were answered when Liedholm slotted home in the first five minutes but, in truth, the Swedes were outclassed by the Brazilians.

Raynor was a national hero and the expected job offers from home that led to the Swedish FA letting him go never materialised. Months after leading the Swedes out in the World Cup final, Raynor was named manager of Skegness Town for £10 a week. When the Swedes came to play at Wembley the following year, they consulted Raynor on how to beat Winterbottom’s men. They won 3-2.

However, for the Swedes, that Wembley win was a peak. Failure to qualify for the 1962 World Cup followed as some of the stars of 1958 were moved on or fell from grace. Liedholm and Gren had retired while Skoglund’s story got very sad.

Already struggling with alcoholism before his move to Italy in 1950, Skoglund had reportedly began keeping a bottle of whiskey in his locker to let him drink during the day. When he moved to Sampdoria, teammate Francesco Morini figured out that when Skoglund took a corner, he’d kneel down to seemingly tie his laces when, in reality, he was having a sip of whiskey he’d planted at the corner flag. He unfortunately passed away in 1975, aged just 45.

Raynor, meanwhile, released a book in 1960 where he spoke candidly about football and English football in particular. He savaged the FA, calling on the selection committee of the time to fire themselves while also tearing into then England manager Walter Winterbottom, an establisment man. Unsurprisingly, those bridges were burned and, barring a couple of brief spells in club management, he never got a chance.

It is incredible to think of what Sweden could have achieved internationally had they not been hamstrung by their amateur rule. George Raynor rebuilt the national side more times than he every should have, achieving incredible success throughout. Aided by generational talents like the troubled Skoglund, the indefatiguable Liedholm, the intelligent Gren and the prolific Nordahl, he took a country nobody ever really considered and made them into world beaters.

They truly were a match made in heaven.

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