Four points gap in front, the same one behind. Just a few matches to go and team Sweden already see the top of La Tour Eiffel. To touch it next summer Erik Hamren’s team need, however, to maintain the toughest September — Russia away, Austria at home. The failure impossible — in June Sweden U-21 surprisingly won European Championship. Good example to follow, incredible level to keep on.
— I had a conversation with your charge Isaac Thelin. He expressed his hope that the Swedish team is the best one in your qualification group. Do you share his opinion?
— (Laughing) Hopefully he is right, but so far Austria is the best one. They achieved to win the close games, they has been really strong. But let’s see, four games left, we’ll see what happens.
— The Sweden national U-21 team won the European Championship. Am I mistaken, that now you’ll have much more difficulties after it? I mean now there is a complete generation of European champions at your disposal, while the list of players of your team is already quite wide. Especially because many guys from U-21 have already played under your command in this qualifications.
— It’s not a problem. More options — it’s good, because every coach wants to have as good players as possible. Especially in this age it’s so important, which career they choose, which club they play for. If they’ll play regular, or will be sitting on the bench.
— Nevertheless we’ve seen a miracle, Swedish team won this high-level championship. Is it just a single occasion or we are talking about a new generation that can be compared with the one of Martin Dahlin, Tomas Brolin or Kennet Andersson?
— It’s a little too early to say that. Some years ago Sweden went to the semi-finals in U-21 championship that was in Sweden. From that team I have, I think, six players playing regular. Talking about the players from the present team, some of these players of course have a good potential to be the stars like ones you told about. Of course they haven’t got that level yet. Let’s see who of them will take the last steps. I really hope they will play in big teams and strong leagues.
— Swedish football now has both feet on the floor, lives above its means, Swedish players are in demand abroad. Would you point out the three main principals of the development of football in your country at the moment?
— We are working hard with the young players in Sweden, trying to grow them till the high level as early as possible. And we have seen some good results. The method is not a secret: hard training and hard work for good quality in the training and good quality of the coaches’ job.
There was a time when we were working more with the technique of the players, while the physical aspect was set apart. We have been working long time now with the technique of Swedish players, maybe the physical aspect was set apart. But now we managed to change it and we are working hard at it again, because the physical conditions of the football players are very important for success. You saw it in the last U-21 European cup. Yes, there were a lot of good technical players, but also they can run a lot, they can run fast. These are the things you really need in the football today! And you also have to remember: Sweden is a small country. We don’t have so many talents. We need to be good with those talents we have and find a way to be better than the bigger countries that have more people. As, for example, in Russia.
— Tell me frankly please, is Sweden a football country? Here in Russia we still can’t decide if we are…
— Football is the most popular sport in Sweden. Wherein we are generally good at sports, we are successful at ice-hockey, handball and women are doing good too. But football is a sport number 1.
— What is the motivation for young guys to go in for football? You are a northern country and the players are supposed to play in the artificial pitches, while many people consider natural grass an obligatory condition.
— Well, it depends which part of Sweden one is born and comes from. In some parts ice-hockey is the most popular sport. But of course, football is the main sport in the world. It is every day on the TV, the children can see all those stars from all the world and follow them. We also have a big star, Zlatan Ibrahimović, who has been a real example for many players. For the guys who played in the same time for the U-21 and for my team, Zlatan has been an idol and now they are playing together with him! That’s a great motivation: "Zlatan is from Sweden, I want to be a star like he is".
— Please, frankly: is it a luck for a coach to have Ibrahimović in the team, or a big problem?
— (laughing laud). Oh no, it’s a really great to have a world class player. I would love to have more than one!
— It means that this is a problem, isn’t it?
— Of course it could be a problem! Everything could be a problem. But you could see the last years we have shown really good results, Zlatan has been scoring fantastic goals and has been a really good captain for the team. So, I think we have managed to find a right way to handle the process. I’m really satisfied with Ibrahimović.
— Can you call him a positive leader?
— Yes and not only in a field. He is really demanding leader. He wants to will by all means. He takes the responsibility and he wants the other players to do it too. I’m really happy with the way he is doing it for us.
— Now the last question about him, I promise. Have you ever noticed that maybe some of his partners on the pitch are looking up to him with admiration? They are waiting for a miracle from him, but when sometimes it doesn’t happen… Can the simple fact of the presence or no-presence of Ibrahimović decide the contest?
— As I’ve already said, some of the players have really had Zlatan as an idol. Now they grew up and are playing with him… But we are handling it without any problem. And so does Zlatan — it’s really important how does he manage this situation. He has been lifting those young players up, and tries to be an example and teach them what they have to do to be a real top-players. So, I don’t think that it’s a problem, no, no…
— When Zlatan is absent, who is your team leader? Out of the pitch as well.
— We have some good players who have been playing for a long time in national team. For example, a goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, Kim Källström and Johan Elmander. There are also some other players, who can take a good care of the young ones. And their role is very important because even when I leave a team we need to have a good credit for a future.
— When 15 years ago Germans realized, that their football is running down and they decided to re-build their youth development system totally. Has something similar happened in Sweden?
— Not exactly the same as in Germany. They are really good and strong now. But of course we have been working hard to set the standards for the academies. For example one of our tasks was to prepare the players to a longer season (some years ago we started the season in May and finished in September, and now it is 4 months longer), and make them go through the most difficult match situations. If you don’t play in the tough games when you are young, it’s difficult to be a good senior player, the step in between can be too big. A good game experience is really important for young players. The trainings of course, but you learn a lot in particular from the matches. That are the things we have been working a lot in the last years.
— Denmark, Norway and Sweden — these are all Scandinavian countries, but football in them is different. You have worked in all of them. Could you define the difference?
— In general, in Denmark they pay more attention to the possession. In Norway they try to go forward as fast as possible, and Sweden maybe is somewhere in the middle. But the main difference is not in the countries itself, but in the clubs you are working at. It’s one thing when you work for the best club of Norway Rosenborg BK, but when you work in a small Aalborg BK in Denmark, it’s different. The same as in Sweden IFK, Göteborg, Malmö FF and AIK are very different from another clubs.
— Allsvenskan is played in the fields with artificial grass. Is it a problem?
— Yes, it’s too much of them. Yes, in Sweden we don’t have so much sun. But in Russia, for example, you have a hard climate too, but, as far as I know, you have started to build new stadiums with the natural grass. Of course, natural grass costs more, but if you have the ambitions you have to invest in it. On the artificial one some aspects of the preparation are disappearing, they are different for example for the play in the defense, when you must stay more time behind the opposite as you must stay more time on the feet. Of course, the artificial grass is a good compliment, but still it can’t compete with the natural one.
— Some players from you team, the important ones, are playing in the Russian league. You have already mentioned that for a successful career it is very important to choose a right team and right league to play in. So don’t you think that in Russian league these players are a bit underachieving and this league is not strong enough for them?
— No, in opposite I think for example Andreas Granqvist has made a great progress since he started to play in FC Krasnodar. He is a captain in the team, he has been playing really good and has been playing regularly in the Europa League. His team finished the third in Russia last season, the first time in its history. If you are playing in one of the Russian top-teams that appear in European competitions, I can’t see any problem. Many of the games that I’ve seen in Russian championships have a good level. To my mind Granqvist is a good example. It was a surprising step, to move from Italy to Russia, but for him it has been really successful in all the aspects.
— Has his transfer to FC Krasnodar influenced somehow his personality?
— In my opinion, yes. Granqvist had been good before, but then he came to be in a bench for a while. But in Krasnodar he started to be a leader, felt what the responsibility is. And then he brought it to the national team.
— Nevertheless, Källström can be an opposite example. There in Spartak before the management changes, it was hard for him to find his place, wasn’t it?
— As a national team coach I think it hasn’t been a step back for him. Ha has been playing really good in the national team last time.
— Pontus Wernbloom probably hasn’t changed at all. CSKA fans love him the same as the Göteborg ones did…
— Only IFK Göteborg fans really loved him, but not the opposite teams' fans! (Laughing). For me he has always been one of the regular players since the times when he played in U-21. Even when he wasn’t in the starting line-up, he was always a really important player because of his attitude towards the game, the team spirit and his energy. No matter if he plays 90 minutes or one minute, he gives everything to the team. Pontus has also played an important role in CSKA’s success in the last years.
— Sweden National team always play in Solna stadium. Is it a tradition or there are any other reasons for you not to travel by your country?
— Yes, it’s a tradition. We played some matches in another cities, but all in all, Solna is our home. It’s good for the players to feel it, they like it. Besides this, Friends Arena is the biggest stadium in Sweden. If we play in another place we won’t get so many people at the stadium.
— Which of Euro-2016 qualification games has been the most difficult for your team at the moment?
— The first one, with Austria in Vienna was really hard. We were losing, couldn’t score the penalty, but finally we managed to have a draw. It was not a bad result for the beginning. The same as a draw with Russia, even at home, because Ibrahimovic was injured and we were also trailing for some period. These games were the toughest. I think we were quite unlucky in Montenegro, because we played really good, we were leading, but then we scored the goal that was disallowed and also got an unreasonable penalty.
— And what do you think about the technical win of Russia in Montenegro and all this incident in general?
— That’s really sad when such things happen. To my mind it would be a draw and it could be good for Sweden. It’s sad when the result is defined out of the pitch but of course, it was especially sad for Montenegro.
— Now I’ll tell you some words about the main events between the game in Stockholm and the upcoming game in Moscow the 5th of September. The main striker Artyom Dzyuba starts to find himself in a new team after he transferred from Spartak. The forward Kokorin from the time of his last success on the Friends Arena doesn’t score a lot. Kerzhakov is preparing to be a sports manager. The contract of the national team coach Fabio Capello is cancelled, not without a scandal, and the game with Sweden will be the first one with the new coach Leonid Slutsky. And finally, there were no changes in the defense line during the last ten years. What do you think about all of it?
— (laughing) Yes, I’ve heard, that you, Russians, are quite pessimistic… To my mind we have a big advantage towards Russia now, we are 4 points ahead. But September is going to be very hard: we play with Russia away and then with Austria at home. Only our side have got such a tough calendar in autumn. If you win, the competition is open again. Of course we will do everything to win, but I don’t think that it going to be an easy game. Russian league has some really good qualities.
— So please, bring us some more positive things about Russian football. I’m sure you watch Russian league…
— (laughing loudly) Of course I do. I’ve never seen any games by living presence yet, but I have seen a lot of them on my computer. Of course mainly I see the games where the Swedish players participate and don’t follow the whole league. As in every league sometimes there are really good games, and sometimes they are not so good. But that’s normal. At the same time Zenit were in Europa League quarter-finals. CSKA had some good games in the Champions League. Your top-clubs have a good level.
— So please, tell us something about Russian mentality too. I’m sure you know something because Soviet-born defender Vadim Demidov played under your management in Rosenborg BK. Ha has even participated in Russian league once, but didn’t play any single game for Anzhi. Was he Russian by his mentality or already Norwegian?
— Demidov is more Norwegian then Russian. Maybe he had a touch of Russian in his temper. (Laughing). I liked to work with him. It’s a pity he had so many injuries. For me there is no matter where is he from. The most important is how we are. You know, here in Sweden there are a lot of different mentalities.
— Can you name the best player you’ve ever worked with?
— It’s easy, it is Zlatan Ibrahimovich of course…
— But we’ve decided not to talk about him anymore!
— Well, I’ve been lucky to have a lot of good players. But from all of them I’ll pick Afonso Alves who played 12 years ago in Örgryte IS. I took him from Brazil, he was young and unknown. When I went to Aalborg BK I asked to buy Alves and I guaranteed them that afterwards they will earn a lot of money on him because he was a fantastic player. But Aalborg didn’t have the money to buy him and he went to Malmö FF, he had a success there and he was the top scorer of the league. Then SC Heerenveen bought him. There he scored a lot of goals (45 goals in 39 games — Sportsdaily.ru), and was called to the Brazilian National. And SC Heerenveen sold him to England for a lot of money (16 million EUR — Sportsdaily.ru). Now in my office there is a Brazilian flag that I got from his mother, because she thought that I helped her son very much. I used to joke with the Aalborg BK sports director. I used to knock at the door of his cabinet saying: "Look, they sold Alves for 6 millions". And one year later: "Some more news, they sold Alves for 16 millions…"
— If some day you come to work to Russia, what will you offer first for the development of Russian football?
— When I come you’ll see. (Laughing)
— There is a trend to compare: Russia-2018, or Qatar-2022?
— Sweden want to participate in both of them, as every country of course (Smiling). Now we have to get to France for 2016. For us September and October will be really exciting.