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.