Thursday, September 6, 2012
Lennart Skoglund: Whisky blues
One of the finest players Sweden has produced, Karl Lennart "Nacka" Skoglund was a born entertainer. He arrived in Milan only a year after the legendary Gre-No-Li trio but, while his compatriots were earning their place in Rossoneri legend, the Nerazzurri's Swedish star was contending with an urge to self-destruct.
He was, though, still able to leave an indelible mark on the club. Superbly talented, he was described as a "soloist", a player who played to the gallery and had an array of tricks allied to a fierce shot. He did little to help out his team-mates on the field, but he was no mere show pony and helped Inter to two league titles during a playing career that catapulted him to international stardom.
Born in Stockholm on Christmas Eve 1929, Skoglund spent his early years playing in the shadow of World War II. Sweden, which remained neutral throughout the conflict, entered a golden era of football during that time, particularly once Gunnar Gren and Gunnar Nordahl arrived in the picture in the early 1940s. In 1948, when Nils Liedholm had joined them on the international scene, they claimed glory at the Summer Olympics under coach George Raynor.
Skoglund, being several years younger, was still an unknown at that stage. In 1944, he had linked up with Hammarby, where a club official described him as a "trickster with the fastest feet we've ever seen in the South". Due to the presence of another player with the same name, he became known by the nickname "Nacka". Two years later, he made his debut at the age of 16, making 11 appearances as the club finished at the foot of Division 2 Östra.
Across four seasons with Hammarby, Skoglund would appear 57 times in the lower leagues while earning a living as an electrician but, with his club struggling for money, he was sold to Allsvenskan side AIK in October 1949. The fee, it is said, was 1,000 kronor - around £70 - plus a coat for his mother and a suit.
He began playing for AIK's reserve team and during the 1949-50 season's winter break was taken on a tour to the UK and Paris, where the depth of his talent began to be realised. The Liverpool manager, George Kay, said Skoglund was "going to be great" after the Reds' 4-2 victory over the Swedes, and he was not alone in singing the player's praises.
Skoglund was still not deemed ready for Allsvenskan football when the league recommenced in April, but on May 18 he was propelled into the spotlight: selected for the "Pressens lag" - a team picked by journalists to play friendlies against the senior national team - he had a starring role in a 3-1 win. It was a good time to make a breakthrough. Sweden had qualified for the 1950 World Cup, which began in June, but the Swedish FA had insisted that the squad must consist entirely of amateur players. Those who had gone abroad and turned professional - most notably Gren, Nordahl and Liedholm at Milan - were unavailable and so, in a friendly against Netherlands at the start of June, Skoglund made his international debut. Sweden won 4-1, and the 19-year-old was on his way to Brazil for the World Cup.
Raynor, as coach of both AIK and Sweden, would have been well aware of Skoglund's potential but by that stage, after impressing in friendlies against the likes of Everton and AC Milan, even the international press were aware of him. Ahead of the World Cup opener against two-time champions Italy, one Italian newspaper had labelled him Sweden's "best asset"; it was a game Raynor's men won 3-2, to much surprise. Skoglund did not appear again after a 7-1 defeat to hosts Brazil in the final group stage, but Sweden secured third place at the tournament and the youngster's stock was high.
Less than two weeks after the end of the World Cup, he made his AIK debut in the Svenska Cupen final as they claimed a 3-2 win over Helsingborgs, and there was widespread interest in his services. Brazilian side Sao Paulo were said to have made a bid, while Roma were also interested.
In October, Inter won the race for his services, paying a reported 12 million lire (£6,860) for a player who had represented his club only five times.
He had made a rapid rise from anonymity - the Inter fans welcomed him like a messiah, with 10,000 turning out to greet him. He quickly repaid their faith, impressing in a 5-1 win over Sampdoria on his debut, and the following week scored a brace to help his new side to a 3-2 victory in the Milan derby. In 29 appearances in his first season, he scored 12 goals as Inter finished a point behind their city rivals in Serie A.
But even before his arrival in Milan, there had been questions about his lifestyle, with the Italian press already well aware of his taste for alcohol. There was hope that becoming a professional in Italy, with its change in culture, would see his attitude improve - but his rise to stardom appeared to exacerbate the problem. He began keeping a bottle of Ballatine's whisky in his locker at the club to ensure he could drink during the day, and was constantly out on the town. Skoglund could sometimes lose control - in January 1952, he got into an argument with a taxi driver who later took him to court, complaining that he had vandalised his cab. In April 1952, he got engaged to a Miss Italy runner-up and they were married that August. She became pregnant with his first son soon afterwards, but even this did nothing to settle him down.
Alfredo Foni took charge of Inter in 1952 and, under his management, Skoglund enjoyed the greatest times of his career. Adopting a highly defensive approach, Inter won the Scudetto in both 1953 and 1954, with the Swede a key part of their attack.
However, Foni had serious concerns that Skoglund's drinking was out of control, and is said to have approached the club president, Carlo Masseroni, with his observations. A meeting was called with the player's father, at which Skoglund Snr, agreeing to address the problem, stood up and slapped his astonished son. Later that evening, Inter's masseuse spotted father and son out together, drunk in Milan's Piazza del Duomo.
Both Foni and Masseroni departed Inter at the end of the 1954-55 season after the defending champions had finished eighth, and the club was to endure a period of great instability. Inter changed managers seven times in Angelo Moratti's first three years as president and failed to produce any sort of challenge in Serie A or the Fairs Cup.
They were tough times for Skoglund, too: his wife was left critically ill in January 1956 after having a stillborn daughter although she recovered, giving birth to a second son the following year.
By 1958, Skoglund was also in serious financial difficulty despite his high earnings, but was thrown a lifeline. Sweden had controversially decided to allow the overseas players back into the fold for the World Cup on home soil; Inter, sensing the potential benefits of Skoglund's increased box-office appeal, had offered him a 10,000 kronor (£700) bonus if they won the tournament.
Skoglund lived up to all expectations as Sweden embarked on their finest-ever World Cup campaign. He excelled in the group stages as they saw off Mexico and Hungary before drawing 0-0 with Wales in a match in which he was denied by two goal-line clearances (and after which he was described in the Daily Express as "the idol of Stockholm and most arrogant, petulant performer ever spoilt by fan worship").
After a 2-0 victory over Soviet Union booked Sweden a place in the semi-finals against West Germany, Skoglund launched an astonishing attack on his coach in a column for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. Referring to him only as "Raynor", he wrote dismissively of his training methods. "He went so far as to drive us into the woods for our running. Personally, I thought that was really unthinkable. One can easily twist a foot among the roots of the trees." Raynor kept faith with the malcontent and was rewarded: Skoglund slid home the equaliser from a tight angle in a 3-1 victory to take the hosts to the final.
Asked afterwards whether Skoglund's place had ever been under any threat, Raynor told the Daily Mirror: "I have given up trying to tell him what to do and how I want him to do it, but I can't leave him out. I need him in the team. He can hang around on the field and do what he likes so far as I'm concerned, for he has the incredible knack of suddenly getting the goal that counts."
However, Brazil recalled Djalma Santos for the final to deal with Skoglund's threat, and he was subdued as his side succumbed 5-2 to a team inspired by the genius of Pele and Garrincha.
Skoglund's problems were to grow significantly upon his return to Italy. He discovered that his wife had sued his financial adviser while the World Cup had been under way, and that - much to his surprise - a bar he owned in Via Paolo Sapri was heavily in the red. After joining his wife in criticising the financial adviser, he was also summoned to court for a defamation trial. In dire need of money, he released a record, "Vi kommer tillbaka", which reached No. 7 in Sweden. It was the first of six musical releases.
He spent the following season at Inter but, after making only 15 appearances, was allowed to join Sampdoria for 30 million lire (£17,250) in the summer of 1959. Warmly received by the fans, he was to spend three seasons in Genoa and was a regular in the team, but his personal problems were as bad as ever. Team-mate Francesco Morini discovered that Skoglund would keep a small bottle of whisky by the corner flag. When he took a corner, he would kneel down as though tying his shoelace and have a drink.
In July 1962, he was allowed to join Palermo, but his time there was disastrous from the outset. The club had no faith in his ability to remain sober and so enforced a strict curfew, while the player found himself bored and frustrated in the city. "I'm not enjoying it here in the negro village," he told Aftonbladet later in the year. The exact phrase he used - "negerbyn" - was, though still politically incorrect, often used at that time simply to imply a place that was quiet and remote in the sense of an African village. However, there is little doubt that he was referring to the largely dark-skinned Sicilian natives and that this was a highly unsavoury aspect to his character, for he added: "I might as well swim over to Africa and become friends with the real negroes."
He trained with Juventus in October that year with a view to a move, saying he would be "honoured to end my career with such a club", but failed to convince them. He continued at Palermo but appeared only six times over the course of the season. In July, after leaving the club, he was involved in a serious car accident. Driving to Florence, along with his two sons, his vehicle left the road and went down an escarpment. The family had to be rescued by passing motorists, and the children spent around three weeks in hospital.
In 1964, Skoglund returned to Hammarby, where he was still idolised, and there were signs of revival. Within minutes of his debut in May, he scored perhaps the most famous goal of his career, curling home direct from a corner in a 4-1 win over Karlstad. Hammarby cruised to promotion to the Allsvenskan that year and, in October, Skoglund made his return to the Sweden team, earning his 11th cap in a 3-3 friendly draw against Poland.
However, he was suffering badly with the effects of alcohol abuse. His marriage broke up and his children remained in Italy. There were reports that he was having to ask for handouts to pay for food and, while travelling around to promote his music, he was found drunk at the wheel and lost his driving licence. To help him out, the club's manager, the owner of a carpet shop, eventually offered him a job. For two months, the great Skoglund worked as a carpet salesman. In 1968, he retired after a spell with Karrtorps, a fourth tier side managed by his older brother, Georg.
His retirement was dismal. Living in a tiny apartment, he was unable to accept the help he needed to escape his addiction and took on a job shovelling snow. In 1972, he met a young girl with whom he fell in love and, seeking to give him a future, she secured him work in a bookshop. She battled to save him but, when she discovered he was drinking in secret, he was left alone again. His mother became his most regular companion.
He had attempted suicide in 1974, and the following year he tried again. This time, his attempt succeeded: he opened the gas valves in his apartment and succumbed despite an apparent late dash for the front door. "Success slowly killed him," his mother said.
Around 2,000 people attended his funeral in southern Stockholm. "Now you will go to heaven," the priest said. "There is probably a place for you to play up there too, Nacka."