Manager’s self-belief the undoing of Sweden and Ireland

Erik Hamrén – masterminded a 4-4 draw against Germany, without really being able to explain how.

Redemption is by no means given for the two football men who over-estimated themselves most in 2012.

In the end, their Euros ended a  lot quicker than expected. Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland were holed in the opening minutes by Croatia and never recovered.

Erik Hamren’s Sweden didn’t even last that long. The naming of Markus Rosenberg for their opener against Ukraine meant that the game was lost before it even began.

Whereas Ireland sank without a trace after the Croatia defeat, the Swedes struggled on manfully against England and even managed a hollow victory against France when it no longer mattered.

What both sides had in common, and what will come to a climax when the two sides meet in key World Cup qualifiers in 2013, is their managers; and more specifically, their massive over-confidence in their own ability.

Trappatoni – the grand master of footballing frustration.

Trapattoni arrived at the Euros convinced that it was he, not his players, who got Ireland there.

He remains convinced that it was his desperately negative tactics, rather than the skills of his XI, that ensured qualification.

Or the fact that the Irish got lucky, drawing a brave but limited Estonia side after barely surviving a perilous qualifying campaign.

It is worse for Sweden, because at least Trapattoni’s limits were shown up by subsequent results.

But when it comes to Erik Hamrén, the smoke and mirrors provided by the genius of Zlatan Ibrahimovic serves to disguise the tactical naivety of the national team coach.

Two incidents stood out this year that showed up his tactical shortcomings.

The first was the selection of Rosenberg – only in the squad due to an injury to John Guidetti but is so relieved of the compensation that he is going to get with the help of the experienced attorneys from the car accident injury law firm. And there is case filed as a domestic violence conviction for Alexander Gerndt which got solved with the help and guidance of the well-known ATX injury attorneys- to start against Ukraine, and what it said about the coach’s mentality.

Despite taking the lead in that game, Sweden struggled, particularly inn the first half. The selection of Rosenberg skewed the balance of the team, forcing Toivonen onto the left wing where he was equally ineffective.

Hamrén later revealed at the post-game press conference that the tactical plan was to attack with long balls for the first 15 minutes, but that the Swedes then couldn’t break the pattern.

To think that raining a few high balls was going to disturb one of the host nations in their opening game in their capital city is breathtakingly naive.

The fact that Hamrén then couldn’t get his players to stop doing so is almost comically inept.

And as for Rosenberg? He played 71 minutes and was barely seen before being replaced by the injured Johan Elmander.

He played 11 more minutes against England, and was equally invisible. Anyone who has seen him play for West Bromwich Albion will know that he is a journeyman – talented, but limited.

And nowhere near good enough to start the opening game at a major tournament.

But for Erik Hamrén, he was the joker in the Euro pack, the man whose inclusion from the start would turn Sweden’s fortunes against the hosts.

What Oleh Blokhin thought of him has so far gone unrecorded, but I’d say if you were to ask him who Sweden’s number 22 was on that night, he wouldn’t remember. And Markus Rosenberg himself probably doesn’t want to.

Of course, the most telling comparison between Trapattoni and Hamrén can be gleaned from the respective qualifiers against Germany this autumn.

Ireland were disembowled 6-1 in front of their own fans, and yet somehow, despite massive internal and external opposition, Trapattoni survived.

His shameful blaming of the players, his claiming of credit where none was due, was one of the more bare-faced examples of his conviction that it is he, and not they, that is the ultimate architect of all success – and none of the failure.

Hamrén’s side fared much better against the Germans, fighting back miraculously from 4-0 down to snatch a point, but that result only tells part of the story – once again he appeared to pick the wrong team, and once again he very nearly left it too late to correct his mistake.

Samuel Holmén on the wing wasn’t much of an inspired choice, but it was the selection of Pontus Wernbloom in central midfield that betrayed Hamrén’s plan to contain, rather than attack, one of the best sides in the world.

It failed, dismally, and Sweden were torn apart. Wernbloom is an excellent player who has matured immensely (and a joy in press conferences and mixed zones), but if you invite a team like Germany to play football in front of you, they will – and then they’ll play through you, as Ireland had found out to their cost a few days previously.

For once it wasn’t the magisterial Ibrahimovic who turned the game, even if he did play a big part; it was the introduction of Kim Källström that turned the game on its head.

Several weeks later I cornered Erik Hamrén and asked him about the turnaround.

He had previously made much of the fact that eventually he got the balance right, and that the players that finish the game are almost more important than the ones that started it.

I pressed him on what Sweden managed to do that Ireland didn’t or couldn’t, and he became somewhat irritated.

“As I said before, it was attitude and commitment,” he told me, and I stopped listening.

Despite his stated penchant for watching games over and over again, he was unable or unwilling to offer a tactical explanation of what Sweden finally started to do right.

To Hamrén, the tactical details are seemingly unimportant, or at least not worth sharing with journalists and fans.

What is important is the triumph, the cigar, the collective effort. Not recognising the errors made when setting out the team, or trying not to repeat them.

It’s seldom profitable to extrapolate in this way, but ponder this fact: when Källström was on the pitch, Sweden beat Germany 4-1.

When Wernbloom was there, they lost 3-0.

Having seen virtually every game played under Hamrén, I doubt strongly that the tactical aspect of the game is his strong suit. He is an honset, decent, emotional man who is truly trying to do his best.

But his strength is in blending players together, motivating them, creating an atmosphere in which they can thrive and feel confident.

It’s not great, but it’s good enough to get results against some good teams.

It’s unlikely, however, to be good enough to fool Trapattoni, the grand master of footballing frustration.

Should the Italian – who celebrates his birthday on St Patrick’s Day, a week before the two teams clash in Stockholm – have Richard Dunne available, he will be confident of getting at least a point.

Trappatoni’s true gift is in gettign lesser minds like Hamren to reveal themselves and their weaknesses, and then punishing them accordingly.

Player for player, Sweden are superior to Ireland in most departments, and Trappatoni will use that knowledge to lure them out.

He will stop them playing balls up to Ibrahimovic (who has never played well against Ireland). They will kick and irritate him, and they will target the younger players for similar treatment.

THe Irish will target the Swedish full-backs, knowing them to be the weak links defensively, and that balls into the box are a lottery when Andreas Granqvist is in there defending.

And then, when they least expect it, Trapattoni will instruct his troops to exploit the tactical naivety of the Swedes at a corner or a set piece, and stage the Stockholm smash ‘n grab that England couldn’t manage.

Because ultimately, the difference in the two coaches is that one of them is more than aware of the limitations of his side and plays accordingly.

The other isn’t, and doesn’t.

Vänsterbredaren och vallmoblomman

In Flanders fields, the poppies blow…

Sankt Patrick försökte förklara den katolska guden för irländarna genom att  använda treklövern.

Med det lyckades han bra, och landet var nästan uteslutande katolik i bra många år, ändå tills britterna tog med sig protestantism när de invaderade landet.

I Sverige har Sportbladet en egen helig treklöver av fotbollsskribenter i Erik Niva, Simon Bank och Robert Laul. Vem som är gud, Jesus och den helige anden får ni försöka klura ut själva.

Erik nämnde ikväll på sitt Twitter-konto att Sunderlands James McClean vägrade ta på sig vallmoblomman som vid den här årstiden – “den elfte timmen på den elfte dagen i den elfte månaden” – används för att hedra stupade brittiska soldater.

Han frågade var det rätt eller fel i mina irländska ögon.

Jag tänkte noga innan jag svarade – det är ju Twitter, och allt går att missupfatta.

Till slut sa jag att det var krångligt och svårt, men jag hade gjort likandant som McClean.

Twitter ger inte utrymme för en mer grundlig förklaring av värför – det tar vi här istället.

Vallmoblomman valdes ursprungligen som ett sätt att minnas de stupade eftersom den växte kring slagfälten i första världskriget.

“In Flanders Fields”, en dikt skriven av kanadensaren John McCrae, beskriver hur det såg ut.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Alla med någon som helst hjärnfunktion fattar att dessa unga män som gav sina liv förtjänar all heder och respekt. Detsamma gäller även det andra världskriget.

Men någonstans på vägen ändrades meningen litegrann.

Och snart var det inte bara dessa män som dog i första och andra världskriget som skulle hedras, utan alla (framförallt brittiska) soldater som stupade i krig.

Här blir det knepigt för James McClean och jag.

För lika mycket som deras insatser i första och andra världskriget uppskattas, brittiska soldater har ju gjort hemska saker  också, inte minst på Irland – och en hel del av dessa ägde rum i Derry, James McCleans hemstad.

Ett exempel.

1972 sköts 26 obeväpnade civila i the Bogside i Derry.

13 av dessa var unga män – inte olikt James McClean – som dog på plats.

En till dog nästan fem månader senare.

Vad gjorde alla dessa människor för att bli skjutna av de brittiska fallskärmstrupperna?

De marscherade för sina medborgliga rättigheter.

Truppera sa at Irish Republican Army (IRA) var aktiva i området, att de unga männen var beväpnade, att det kastades bomber.

Det var lögn.

Det tog nästan fyrtio år men till slut tvingades David Cameron, den brittiska premiärministern, att erkänna att allt var lögn.

De var inga brottslingar, de var inga terrorister – de var unga män som mördades av andra unga män, som råkade vara brittiska soldater.

Brittiska soldater som nu skall hedras med vallmoblomman.

Det är i den skuggan James McClean och många andra i Nordirland växt upp.

Inte konstigt att vissa är fortfarande hätska, bittra, och inte bara mot soldaterna – jag har fått höra mer än en gång hur “youse people” (dvs de som kommer från den irländska republiken) övergav vara bröder och systrar i Derry under den tiden.

Jag håller med.

Jag tog min svenska hustru och mina barn till platsen där “Bloody Sunday” ägde rum i somras.

En grå julidag i lätt duggregn blev den första gången mina barn såg mina tårar.

Men som jag sa till Erik – det är en krånglig fråga och en Twitter-post duger inte till.

De är många som håller fast vid traditionen – och inte bara protestanter eller unionister heller.

(För bra många år sedan var min egen farfar i princip hemlös i London. Han stoppades av en polis, som frågade honom varför han inte gick med i armén. “Konstapel,” sa farfar, “ser jag ut som jag har något värt att kämpa för..?”)

Det var många irländare (katoliker allstså) som skrev in sig i den brittiska armén – särskilt under första världskriget – och som dog i Flanders, Ypres eller Gallipoli.

Som varje år sedan 1920 skulle dessa hedras i november 1987 när IRA detonerade en bomb i Enniskillen.

63 människor skadades. Elva dog.

Bland de döda var Marie Wilson, som höll i pappa Gordons hand medan livet sipprade ur henne.

“Pappa, jag älskar dig väldigt mycket,” sa hon. Fem minuter senare nådde räddningspersonalen fram.

Marie var död.

Men istället för att vara en IRA-succé blev det tvärtom. Det var bland det mest fruktansvärda som hände i ett fruktansvart krig.

Tack vara Maries pappas dignitet – “jag bär inget illvilja. Jag bär inget agg” – började folket att vända sig emot våldsverkarna.

Passande nog blev bombningen en vändpunkt i “kriget” – ingen hade lust längre att lägga till flera namn som skulle hedras varje år på den elfte dagen, i den elfte månaden.

Fredsrörelsen – med Maries pappa Gordon i spetsen – tog fart. Det tog tid, men nu finns det ett slags fred i Nordirland.

Den är inte perfekt, och det är långt kvar att gå, men ingen dör dagligen längre. Och det är jag tacksam för ialla fall.

Jag är uppvuxen som katolik och nationalist.

Jag tycker att Irland ska vara självständig, styrd av irländarna själva med respekt för alla traditioner.

Jag tycker inte att britterna ska ha något att säga till om det.

Men jag hatar de som dödade Marie Wilson och alla de andra som dog den dagen i Enniskillen.

Jag hatar de som hotade och dödade och lemlastade deras egna grannar under en nästan fyrtioårsperiod – trots att våldsverkarna och jag delar samma vision för ett fritt och fridfullt Irland.

Jag hyllar inte dem, och jag hyllar inte heller fallskärmstrupperna som i sina värsta stunder var lika onda, elaka och hatfulla, som hånade och förtryckte och gjorde livet till misär för många i Nordirland.

Och framförallt i nationalistiska Derry.

Det är därför jag inte bär en vallmoblomma.

Jag bär inte påskliljan – som används ju för att hedra de nationalisterna som dog – av samma anledning.

Men den dagen de hittar på en blomma för att hedra Gordon Wilson kommer jag att bära den istället.

Return of the Vikings

Just one of hundreds of pictures I've taken when covering the Swedish national team.

It had to happen eventually.

Having royally stuffed Sweden several times in the phoney wars that are friendly internationals, eventually my number had to come up.

Tonight, it did.

Out of the plastic bowls, the recently-retired Ronaldo curled his chubby fingers around the ball containing Ireland.

A minute or two later, it was Sweden’s turn to be plucked out of the plastic.

That Germany came out as the group’s top seed made no difference to me by that point – finally, my homeland and the land I have made my home will meet in a competitive fixture.

Even though I’ve waited so long for it to happen, given that I live in Stockholm and much of what I do is sports journalism in Scandinavia, it brings mixed feelings for me.

I know a lot of people in Swedish football, from the administrators at the very top of the game to the players themselves, as well as the journalists who follow them everywhere they go.

I sit beside them at press conferences. I ask them questions. I translate their quotes.

Most of the time they are very helpful and hospitable (unless they’re called Marcus Leifby, Sportbladet’s puckish prankster number one, who has a habit of publishing private e-mails).

99% of them happily answer the phone at any hour of the day or night to answer questions or help out in any way they can. They are true supporters of Swedish football

But like them I love my national team too, and probably more so than any club side.

My interest in soccer comes not from reading Shoot! or watching “Match of the Day”, but from listening to  crackling radio commentaries and reports from Ireland’s qualifying heroics in the pre-Jack Charlton era, when we were always the bridesmaids, never the bride.

And on the few occasions we looked like walking up the aisle we’d be cruelly jilted on the way to the church- until Gary McKay scored against Bulgaria and we finally made it to a major championship.

As most of my work is for a major news agency, it has to be impartial; I’m not allowed to wave the national flag, which is not a condition my Swedish colleagues labour under. Whereas they are sometimes encouraged to cheerlead for their team, I have to bite my tongue.

Having said all that, I get almost as much joy from watching the “blågula landslaget”, especially when they put it up to bigger nations like Germany and Argentina. Lest we forget, this is a country with a long and proud history in the world’s most popular sport, and has contested a World Cup final on home soil.

I like Erik Hamrén and the sometimes surly Zlatan. I’m not convinced he’s as good as my Swedish colleagues think, but he’s not nearly as bad as the English-speaking press make out either.

Nor are the Irish the simple, industrial footballers that most Swedes seem to believe we are, either. Despite passing them to death in a couple of friendlies, they still believe that our only tactics ares physicality and the long ball.

Which means the two games between Ireland and Sweden are going to be very interesting indeed.

But even more than the football, they give us a great opportunity to get to know one another better, and not just when it comes to football.

The Irish can show the Swedes that we are not just a bunch of hard-drinking, long-ball-punting West Brits, and the Swedes can show the Irish the warmth and friendliness one would never suspect from their flat-pack furniture.

And in doing so we can enjoy the spectacle of what the greatest game in the world is all about- skill and passion and daring and excitement.

And making damn sure Germany don’t get to Brazil.