World Cups are a curious phenomenon. Teams made up of players that, quite often, we’ve never heard of are launched onto the biggest stage in sport and made the stuff of legend. At each tournament, there’s usually one or two that capture our imagination more than the rest. While from Brazil we know to expect flair and flamboyance, Italy to be organised and defensively paranoid and England to go out on penalties, it’s the more diminutive teams that are unknown quantities and, as a result, often the more exciting.
In the early years of the World Cup, there was the United States team of 1950 or the North Korean side of ’66. In more recent editions there was Cameroon at Italia ’90, South Korea on home soil in 2002 or the Croatia sides in 1998 and 2018. And, in 1994, Sweden became another one of these “cult” teams.
The success of the Swedish side that reached the semi-finals did not come out of the blue. Just two years earlier, they had reached the semi-finals of the European Championships, a tournament they hosted. After topping a group containing England, favourites France, and eventual winners Denmark, Sweden were beaten 3-2 by an excellent Germany side in what was considered one of the games of the tournament.
And, while prior to 1992 they had not enjoyed success in quite a while, Sweden is a country with a rich footballing heritage. Throughout the late 1940s and the entirety of the 1950s, the side managed by Englishman George Raynor was one of the best in the world. They won gold and bronze at the Olympics in 1948 and 1952 respectively, finished third at the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 and finished as runners-up at the World Cup in 1958 on home soil, losing only to Pele and Vava’s Brazil in the final.
But at the World Cup in 1990, Sweden had performed poorly, finishing bottom of their group and losing all three games. Yes, they were excellent in 1992, but that was presumed to be a flash in the pan. No none expected them to repeat their heroics at the World Cup in America…
Qualifying and the Squad
To qualify for the tournament, Sweden would first have to navigate a group containing France, Bulgaria, Austria, Finland and Israel. They did so convincingly, finishing top of the group with six wins, three draws and just one loss. Bulgaria also qualified, edging out France by one point and causing a massive upset in the process.
Their squad was a humble one. It contained a few players from elite sides, but no players who the average fan would believe could set a World Cup alight.
The most recognisable face to a 1994 audience would probably have been Thomas Brolin, a dazzling forward who played for Parma in Italy at the time and who would later enjoy spells Leeds United and Crystal Palace. He had been one of Sweden’s best performers at the previous two tournaments. Eventually, Brolin would be the only Swede to make it into the team of the tournament. An honour which was well deserved after some electric performances.
Accompanying Brolin in Sweden’s forward line was a young striker by the name of Henrik Larsson. In 1994, Larsson was playing his football at Feyenoord but would later play for a whole host of illustrious clubs in including Celtic, Barcelona and briefly Manchester United.
Though he was not so well known at the start of the tournament, Kennet Andersson would practically be a household name come the end of it. He had been playing his football for Lille on loan from Belgium side Mechelen in the 1993-94 season. He scored a modest 11 goals in 32 games in Ligue 1, but at the World Cup, he would be the tournament’s second-top scorer with five goals.
There was Martin Dahlin too. He scored four goals, just one less than Andersson and would go on to be one of the most feared strikers in Europe. Playing for Borussia Monchengladbach at the time, Dahlin would go on to turn out for Roma, Blackburn Rovers and Hamburg SV.
Sheffield Wednesday’s Roland Nilsson was one the side’s more senior players. A centre-half who spent most of his career in Scandinavia but managed to fit in two spells with Coventry, Nilsson amassed 116 caps for Sweden before calling time on his international career at the turn of the century.
Anders Limpar was a player well known to an English audience after his successful spell with Arsenal from 1990 to 1994. After the World Cup, the winger would join Everton where he would spend a further three years.
Sweden’s inspirational captain was a midfielder by the name Jonas Thern. He was at the peak of his powers in ’94 having spent three years with an excellent Benfica side before joining Italian giants Napoli in 1992. He stayed in Italy until 1997, also taking in a stint with Roma before heading to Scotland where he would retire with Rangers.
These players were the backbone of the team, but there was a supporting cast too. Roger Ljung played superbly on the left-side of defence, the late Klas Ingesson equally so from midfield. They were well represented by players from the Allsvenskan with ten players plying their trade in the Swedish first division.
The tournament: game by game
Cameroon 2-2 Sweden, 19/06/94, Rose Bowl, Pasadena
When the groups were drawn, Sweden must have been fearing the worst. A Russian side who many considered to be dark horses, the Cameroon team who had so impressed in Italy four years previous and none other than four-time champions Brazil.
In the opening game, things couldn’t have started much better for Sweden. Just eight minutes into their World Cup campaign, Roger Ljung took advantage of some dodgy goalkeeper positioning to score the opener from a far-post header. They dominated the first half, but this dominance was punctuated by David Embe who, with 31 minutes on the clock, capitalised on a failed Sweden clearance to roll the ball into the back of an empty Sweden net.
Things got worse for Sweden right from the off in the second half, Oman-Biyik’s excellent dinked finish beating the onrushing Thomas Ravelli and putting the Africans into the lead. Sweden probed for a precious equaliser and, on the 75-minute mark, it came through Martin Dahlin. Henrik Larsson’s speculative 30-yard effort thundered off the crossbar, and Dahlin poached the rebound to earn Sweden a point in the opening fixture.
Sweden 3-1 Russia, 24/06/94. Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac
In the other match on opening day, Brazil had got the better of Russia 2-0. Meaning if Sweden could win their second match, also against Russia, it would give them a good chance of going through to the knockout stages.
They did exactly that, beating Pavel Sadyrin’s side 3-1 in Pontiac, Michigan. They didn’t get off to the best of starts, however. Salenko gave the Russians a 1-0 lead inside five minutes from the spot. But Sweden had levelled things up before the half-time whistle through a penalty of their own, and Thomas Brolin opened his account at the World Cup.
In the second half, Dahlin was on the scoresheet again. The first was a terrific goal. He stooped to head home a fantastic diving header from a low left-wing cross and to put Sweden in a commanding position. The second was just as dramatic. It was another header, this time from a cross from the right-wing which came such speed it was miraculous that the striker managed to direct it into the top-left corner.
Brazil 1-1 Sweden, 28/06/94, Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac
Sweden went into the last game against Brazil knowing that, if they avoided defeat, they would qualify for the last-16. But, against the eventual champions, this was a tall order, especially with Dahlin who had started the tournament so brightly out injured.
But remarkably, Sweden were 1-0 up at the interval. Andersson stepped up to the plate in Dahlin’s absence scoring one of the goals of the tournament. A looping ball from Brolin fell to him at the top left corner of the box and, without thinking, Andersson chested the ball down before gracefully lifting it over the Brazil keeper’s head and into the net.
The great Romario equalised for the Brazilians one minute into the second half but, in truth, they never looked like scoring again. Sweden were into the last 16, qualifying in second place with five points. A fantastic achievement in itself, but more was to come.
Round of 16
Saudi Arabia 1-3 Sweden, 02/07/94, Cotton Bowl
The draw for the first knockout round was kind to Sweden. They faced Saudi Arabia in what it transpired would be their most straightforward match of the tournament.
Back in the side after injury, Dahlin scored yet another header. He was beginning to make a habit of it. Sweden continued their policy of scoring only superb goals when Kenneth Andersson scored yet another classic. He flicked the ball over the Saudi defender, steered round another, then unleashed a 20-yard strike into the bottom corner.
Against the run of play, Saudia Arabia got one back through an excellent goal of their own. Al-Ghesheyan sold a Swedish defender a dummy on the by-line before opening up an angle to fire past Ravelli. They didn’t manage to get the crucial second though, and Sweden grabbed another at the end. Once again it was a corker, with Sweden putting together an intricate one-touch move that was finished off by Kenneth Andersson.
Romania 2-2 Sweden, 10/07/94, Stanford Stadium, Stanford
Sweden secured passage to the semi-finals in what was one of the classic World Cup games of 1994. The scores were level until ten minutes from time before Thomas Brolin scored a goal worthy of winning any match with a blasting finish after a clever free-kick routine. Sweden were turning into a live-action highlight reel; each goal was better than the one before.
They must have thought that was enough, but with a minute left, Romania pulled even through Florin Răducioiu. A deflected free-kick found its way into his path, and he applied the simple finish.
In extra time, Romania took the lead through another Răducioiu strike, this time from the edge of the area. If the first one was a touch fortuitous, the second certainly wasn’t. Sweden responded with what was easily their scrappiest goal of the tournament, but probably the one celebrated the most. Kenneth Andersson nodded home from a hopeful free-kick hoof to take the match to penalties. Spot kicks are a lottery, and it was Sweden that came out on top.
Sweden 0-1 Brazil, 13/07/94, Rose Bowl, Pasadena
The semi-final was a surprisingly timid affair given the thrilling nature of the football the two contestants had produced over the course of the tournament. The deadlock wasn’t broken until ten minutes from the end when Romario scored against Sweden for the second time in the tournament with a downward header at the back post.
Before that Sweden were reduced to long shots and perhaps feeling the strains of high-velocity tournament football. They ended up losing to the eventual winners who would get the better of Italy on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the final.
Third place play-off
Sweden 4-0 Bulgaria, 16/07/94, Rose Bowl, Pasadena
Sweden swept aside tournament surprise packets Bulgaria 4-0 in the third-place play-off. Goals from Brolin, Mild, Larsson and Andersson – all before half-time – were enough for the Swedes to secure third place. Despite the victory, Sweden left the tournament vanquished, but as heroes back home.