Sunday, June 04, 2006

#11: Blagult


Where? Northern Europe, between Norway and Finland.

How Big? Decent sized, a little larger than California. Population is centered in the South, a little larger than Georgia.

Something I learned from the CIA Factbook: Only Finland, Germany, Italy and Japan have an older average population than Sweden. Also, Sweden has compulsory military service, and a long-term reserve requirement. That blows my mind, since they were neutral in both World Wars. What was the last war they fought, that one against Russia back in the 1700s?

Geopolitical significance... Well, I'm not sure there is much. Sweden tends to stay above the fray and do its own thing. It'll always be a relatively wealthy nation that trades well with the rest of the world and makes safe cars. But it's not like they're sitting on an asston of oil or might set of a nuke on Finland for making better cell phones or something.

Fun... Remember those old Coors Light commercials with the "Swedish Bikini Team"? Turns out there are still people trying to make a buck off of something that was semi-clever 15 years ago. They do public appearances and seem to have made a tacky T&A movie in the vein of a James Bond adventure (with John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones fame!). Apparently there are 4 members of the team and one reserve. OK. Believe it or not, I do not find this as fun as Gunther. You really should click on that one. Seriously, the rest of this isn't important. Gunther is though. Make sure to watch the videos, but they're probably close to not work safe.


Sweden actually has one of the better pedigrees through history. They've made the semifinals of the World Cup four times and the final once. Unfortunately, they've only made it past the round of 16 once (1994 USA) since their final appearance at home in 1958. They're still a good side, known for size and skill on offense and traditionally known for top notch goalkeeping.

Qualifying this time around went pretty well, except that Sweden was in a pretty tough group, with Croatia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Sweden won every match except for the two against Croatia, and lost both of them. It was good enough for one of the qualifying spots as a second place team without going through the playoffs.

The team is pretty well experienced, especially among its scoring threats. Players are spread out all over Europe, but a few still base their pro careers in Sweden. Oddly, Swedish clubs haven't been all that impressive in Europe lately - and IFK Gotheborg used to be a pretty solid team. The national team hasn't really lost too much in the recent downturn in Swedish domestic professional play.

Henrik Larsson is about a billion years old, but he still gets open and finds the net regularly. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (a good Swedish name) is probably the real goal scoring threat, and he's very very good. But the one to watch is in the midfield. Freddie Ljungberg was originally just an underwear model who happened to also play football, but he's really become a top playmaker and a solid leadership voice. Look for him to get the ball to Ibrahimovic consistently and be the one who makes things happen.

Unlike in 2002, when Sweden was placed in the Group of Death with England and Argentina but still advanced, Sweden got a pretty easy draw this time. Again, they're paired with England, which should be of greater interest due to Sven Goran-Erikson's presence. Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago shouldn't be too tough though.

They open with T&T, probably the weakest team in the cup. Ibrahimovic scores twice on classic Swedish efficient plays. 2-0 Sweden in a pretty unsurprising match.

The second match against Paraguay should be another good result for Sweden. They'll carry confidence from the first match, and should have a partisan crowd in favor of them. Plus, Paraguay will be reeling from their match against England. Larsson nets one early, and Ibrahimovic (who's making an even bigger name for himself) scores just before the half. The second half is boring and defensive minded, and the score holds up. 2-0 Sweden, effectively advancing them into the next stage.

All that's undecided is seed for the next stage. The England game is pretty anticlimactic, with both teams resting gimpy players for the next round. Each team scores one goal, but England takes the top spot based on goal differential.

It's not a good thing for Sweden, who draw hosts Germany in the next round. Ibrahimovic has a goal disallowed as offside questionably early in the match, and Germany is consistently thwarted on attack. The match descends into defense. After full time and extra time, neither team has found the net. It goes to penalties, and the German crowd definitely has a pull. After 7 shots for each team and no nails left to bite in northern Europe, Germany finally wins when Oliver Kahn (who replaced Lehmann before this game) stops a shot from winger Christian Wilhemsson.

A decent cup, but no long run. Ibrahimovic becomes one of the stars of the early cup. A good cup, but not a great cup.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Sweden would be... a top conference team with some long-ago triumphs, but nothing much lately, and who will always play well enough to be in every game and will always make the tournament. Not one of the teams you think of when you think of powerhouses, but they're always there. Occasionally they have some incredible scorers. I'm thinking Georgia Tech, or maybe Georgetown.

It doesn't really matter how well Sweden does, because Gunther's getting laid either way, with multiple women, on multiple bear rugs, in multiple kimonos.