- Sweden play Italy in the FIFA World Cup™ play-offs
- The Swedes saw off the Netherlands to qualify for this stage
- Coach Janne Andersson speaks to FIFA.com about his team’s development
“We are winners just by being here,” says Janne Andersson, and you can see the Sweden coach’s point.
Qualifying for the play-offs by edging out the Netherlands, bronze medallists in 2014 and finalists in 2010, was an impressive feat in itself. Yet if Andersson’s words suggest a sense of contentment, and of settling for having got this far, think again.
Despite the draw for the play-offs having been as tough on Sweden as it was for the group stage, the Sweden coach insists that his side are well capable of slaying another giant. The colossus this time is Italy: four-time world champions and a team that has only once failed to qualify for a World Cup – coincidentally, the 1958 finals in Sweden.
“We had the toughest qualification group against the Netherlands and France and we played some really good games,” said Andersson. “If we can play at that level, we can beat any team in the world - including Italy.
"The history of Italian football is good, they have good individual players and they have been to the World Cup many times before. They have good experience and a good team. But we will go for it."
Andersson took charge of Sweden with the side’s morale at a low ebb. The team had just crashed out of UEFA EURO 2016 without winning a match and, worse still, had lost their captain and talisman, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to retirement.
But any lingering gloom was quickly lifted by a coach who made a point of billing his reign as “a new chapter for everyone”. As he told* FIFA.com *earlier this year: “I had to come in and say, ‘Forget what happened before, whether it was good or bad. I don’t care about any of that. This is now something new and it’s about you, the players we have. We start afresh.’”
That approach has paid off, with several players — young and old — scaling fresh heights in Andersson’s new-look line-up.
“What we did really well during the group qualifiers is that we developed all the time,” said the Sweden coach. “We kept on getting better and better. That’s why we managed to get second place in such a tough section.
“I think we have a good group, a good team, and we work hard together. We are also tactically smart and we have to be that way no matter who we play. We are strong together. We have built a new team during the last 15, 16 months and the players have developed well and work really hard as a unit.”
The Swedes also have a formidable record at the Friends Arena, the venue for the first leg of their play-off against Italy on 10 November. Andersson’s side were unbeaten there during their group campaign, enjoying a famous win over France before all but sealing their play-off spot with an 8-0 demolition of Luxembourg.
“At home, in Stockholm, we are really strong,” their coach acknowledged. “We take extra confidence from playing there.”
Sweden are still this tie’s underdogs, and it would be a major shock if Italy were to miss out on their first World Cup in six decades. Nonetheless, should Andersson’s side come up short, it certainly won’t be for the lack of endeavour.
“In football, you never know what will happen. I certainly can’t promise that we will win,” he said. “But we are a good team and a good group who like each other on and off the pitch. And what I can promise is that we will work really hard together to achieve something.”