Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Sweden's hopes hinge on veteran striker duo
CHENGDU, China -- In a country where history offers ample evidence that time eventually runs out on even the most successful dynasties, Swedish playmakers Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson are suddenly left to hope that one of the longest-running partnerships in women's soccer isn't mere days away from becoming part of the historical record.
Two of the sport's biggest stars for more than a decade -- a swath of years during which their country cemented its place at the center of the women's game with a runner-up finish in the 2003 World Cup, a pair of second-place finishes in the European Championships and three consecutive Olympic appearances -- Ljungberg and Svensson are the collective face of a successful program that at least temporarily captured a nation's attention in the same way Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and others did in the United States.
When Sweden faced Germany for the World Cup title four years ago, 3.8 million people, roughly 45 percent of the total population of the Scandinavian nation, reportedly watched on television. And since 1996, the year both Ljungberg and Svensson made their international debuts with the senior national team, the number of licensed female players in Sweden (aged 15 and up) has grown by 48 percent to almost 60,000 women.
All these years later, Ljungberg and Svensson are playing in their third, and at least in Svensson's case, possibly final World Cup appearance under the pressure of lofty expectations they themselves helped create. Expectations which, despite the best efforts of the two stars, Sweden failed to meet in a 1-1 draw against Nigeria on Tuesday.
"Hannah Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson [are] probably one of the most experienced couples still playing," Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said on the eve of his team's opener. "They were playing together the last World Cup in 2003, and what we can see today, [they're] still going on strong.
"You can put a hat [over their eyes] and they still find each other."
That chemistry born of so many games alongside each other -- both are in the top five of all-time appearances for Sweden -- has became more and more critical for Sweden, ranked third in the world, as its roster for China grew younger and younger after a string of injuries and departures that deprived the team of key veterans. By Dennerby's count, his side lost five viable World Cup options to injuries or retirement during the run-up to the tournament, including veteran midfielder Malin Mostrom, the domestic player of the year in 2001, and keeper Caroline Joensson, the starter in 2003.
Ljungberg and Svensson haven't been immune to the physical price imposed by time. Ljungberg, especially, has battled both serious and minor nagging injuries throughout her career and bluntly admitted before the game against Nigeria that her fitness is not what she would have hoped following an injury two months ago. Both players missed time with minor injuries during training leading up to the opener in Chengdu.
But both were on the field Tuesday night, two of just four starters against Nigeria who filled starting roles four years ago against Germany. And when Sweden took a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute, it was no surprise that the goal came off of Svensson's foot.
Ljungberg and Svensson, once prodigies in their own right, also are responsible for more than simply producing goals on the field for Sweden. As two of just nine players on the final roster of 21 born before 1980 (at 30, Svensson is one month younger than team elder Therese Sjogran), both are also serving as mentors in China, and Svensson's message to her younger teammates seemed prophetic after a night when they failed to put away Nigeria despite controlling the game's first hour.
"They have asked many questions," Svensson said. "And I said to them it's like day and night to play at home in our league and to play in the World Cup. It's much more people ... and it's much more pressure on us, much more media and so on and so on. So you have to be prepared, but then just go out and feel it's good and play your usual game."
Some reports have suggested Svensson may consider retiring from the international level after this World Cup, although she certainly didn't sound like someone ready to move on when talking recently about Sweden's secondary objective this month, qualifying for next summer's Olympics (the top three European finishers will qualify for Beijing). Ljungberg, who debuted for the national team at 17 and won't turn 30 until after the Olympics, also would seem to have some quality years left if her body holds up after leading Sweden with 10 goals in World Cup qualifying. Either way, a potential fourth World Cup appearance together four years from now seems unlikely.
Even now, just as a new generation of American players like Heather O'Reilly and Lindsay Tarpley play alongside Kristine Lilly, a generation of girls who grew up watching the two Swedish stars play on television are beginning to form the foundation of the next dynasty as they share the field with them. It's the irony of a successful reign that Ljungberg and Svensson likely inspired the players who will supplant them.
"I was watching the 2003 World Cup in my home, in front of the television," said 23-year-old striker Lotta Schelin, whose own ascension over the past three years has helped occasionally to push Svensson from a spot up top to an attacking midfield role. "I saw every one of those older players playing, and it was a great thing. I've always looked up to them and I want to learn from them. I know they are good players, all of them, so it's just an inspiration to play with them. It has been a really good thing for me."
As Sweden prepares to face the United States in Group B play Friday (ESPN, 5 a.m. ET), needing to come away with points against both the Americans and North Korea in its final two games, two of a generation's best would like to keep making history instead of becoming part of it.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.