Population: 9.7 M
Area: 450 290 km2
Summer Olympic Medals: 483 (143 G-164 S-176 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 144 (50 G-40 S-54 B)
“Välkommen till Sverige”, a land of less than ten million people that seats on the top ten in medals conquered at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a country that sees half of its population engaged in sports clubs, and in which one in every five persons actively participates in sports activities.
I’m repeating myself over every article of this series, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that football is right at the top of the Swede’s preferences, with the national team being a regular participant in the biggest international competitions after qualifying a total of 16 times for the World Cup and the European Championships. Although the country’s best results have come on home soil, mainly the second position at the 1958 World Cup, lost at the Räsunda Stadium against Pele’s Brazil, and the semi-final appearance at the Euro 1992, the Swedish national team is always regarded as a team to watch, as the third place finishes at the 1950 and 1994 World Cup reflect the amount of talent the Swedes have been able to produce over the years. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordhal and Nils Liedholm, members of the team that won Gold at the 1948 Olympics, were probably the first big stars of the sport in the country, enjoying a formidable partnership over the 50’s for AC Milan and the “Blågult” (ENG: The Blue-Yellow), but later names like goaltender Thomas Ravelli and forwards Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson also left their mark on European football.
At the club level, despite today’s obscurity on the European scale, the fans of IFK Göteborg had the chance to celebrate two UEFA Cup wins on the 80’s, while Mälmo FF lost a European Cup final in 1979. A look over Swedish football wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the most successful Swedish coach of all-time, Mr. Sven-Göran Eriksson, who collected 17 trophies during managing stints in 9 different countries, including league-and-cup doubles for IFK Göteborg, a team that he coached to the 1982 UEFA Cup success, SL Benfica and SS Lazio.
On the women’s side, Sweden is definitely one of the continent’s main rulers, with the national team succeeding at the first edition of the European Championships, in 1984, and the best result at the World Cup happening in 2003, a loss in the final against hosts USA. However, over the last few years, they have successively fallen just short of glory, beaten on the semi or quarter-final stages of every major competition since 2007. The 1-0 loss to Germany in the semi-final of the 2013 European Championships the country organized is a perfect example of that. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Dammallsvenskan is hailed as one of the top domestic leagues in the World, with Umeå IK vaunting 2 Women’s Champions League trophies and three runner-up finishes.
Sharing the spotlight with football on the leading sports coverage in Sweden is ice hockey, a sport where the national team, nicknamed “Tre Kronor” (ENG: Three Crowns), currently leads the World Rankings and boasts an impressive résumé. Nine World Championships, the most recent in 2013, and nine Olympic medals, including two golds, in 1994 and 2006, fill the nation’s trophy cabinet, but the Swede’s should also be proud of the amount of talent they have nurtured. Nicklas Lidström, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Börge Salming, Håkan Loob and Mats Näslund were all players that achieved great success both at home and at the NHL level, and their level of play ranks them among the best of all-time. Furthermore, the Swedish Hockey League is considered the third best in the world and even the second tier competition, the HockeyAllsvenskan, welcomes excellent attendances.
Handball is other team sport that receives plenty of attention in the country, as the Swedes can take pride on the four gold medals at the European Championships, a record, the four titles and eleven podium finishes at the World Championships, and the four silver medals gathered at the Olympic Games. The most successful period of the Swedish handball team came between 1996 and 2002, when the country reached eight consecutive major finals (Euro, World, Olympic) due to the “Bengan Boys”, that, coached by Bengt Johansson, thoroughly dominated the sport fielding star players like Staffan Olson, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lövgren. However, since 2003, the squad has struggled to reach the same heights, with Sweden failing to get to podium positions, except for a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and occasionally not qualifying at all.
Niche team sports such as curling, bandy (a mixture of ice hockey, field hockey and football played outdoors) and floorball are also quite popular in Sweden while the national basketball team sometimes appears at the European Championships. Still, the sport has never really take off in the country even with the recent presence of two players in the NBA (Jonas Jerebko, Jeffery Taylor).
With an abundance of snow, Sweden as always produced great athletes in winter sports, specially skiing events. In the alpine disciplines, names like Ingemar Stenmark, the best GS and slalom racer of all-time, Pernille Wiberg and Anja Pärsson are living legends, whereas Sixten Jernberg and Gunde Svan do the same for cross-country skiing, a sport where the country has amassed 74 Olympic medals, second only to Norway. And although ski jumping has never been the most triumphant discipline for the Swedes, another winter speciality, the biathlon, had his moments over time, particularly Magdalena Forsberg’s impressive run on the turn of the century, with six consecutive World Cup titles amassed between 1997 and 2002, and six golds won in World Championships.
With a total of 81 medals collected over the years on Olympic games, Athletics has a long tradition on the country, ranging from Ernst Fast’s third place on the men’s marathon of the 1900 Paris Olympics (Sweden’s first Olympic medal) to the triple Gold success of Athens more than one hundred years later. Actually, in that 2004 edition, Christian Olson took the spoils in the triple jump and Stefan Holm confirmed the Swedish tradition on the high jump, following the footsteps of names like Patrick Sjöberg and Kajsa Bergqvist. For the ladies, the gilt light shone on Carolina Klüft, the athlete that dominated the women’s heptathlon (and pentathlon) during the first decade of the new century, conquering an unmatched three consecutive world titles and posting the second highest point total of all-time (7032 points).
From the tracks to the courts, Swedish excellence provided three former tennis number one’s, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Björn Borg, with the latter, a eleven-time Grand Slam Champion and a five-times ATP Player of the year, standing as one of the most recognizable figures in the history of the sport and probably the most popular Swedish sportsman of all-time. And we could go on, with other worldwide sports where Swedes have excelled internationally including swimming (Therese Alshammar, Emma Ingelström), golf (Hall-of-Famer Annika Sörenstam), sailing, table tennis (World and Olympic Champion Jan-Ove Waldner), canoeing (eight-times Olympic Champion Gert Fredriksson), speed skating (triple Olympic gold medallist Tomas Gustafson), horse riding and cycling (Gösta Pettersson, 1971 Giro Winner).
Yet, none of those sports can claim the lead in number of Olympic medals brought to the country, since that achievement belongs to….wrestling, with 84, the last two added at the London Olympics.
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Football)
From just another tall kid of Bosnian and Croatian origins to the top of the list of most identifiable Swedes, the life of the Mälmo-born striker is worthy of a best-seller book. Growing up on a city brimming with foreign-background inhabitants, Zlatan learned to stand up by himself since his early years as a black belt in taekwondo and those lessons stayed with him over a brilliant if controversial football career. Undeniably, a stunning total of 11 national titles in 13 seasons playing for six of the biggest clubs in Europe (well, 5 plus PSG) and four top scorer awards attest the proficiency of one of the best players of his generation and an unique forward with skills and swiftness rare for a 1,95m man. Moreover, in Sweden, Ibrahimović is revered for his exploits with a national team he captains today after more than 100 games, 51 goals and appearances in two World Cups (2002, 20006) and three European Championships (2004, 2008, 2012).
Always a distinctive figure, the 33-year-old, considered nine times the best Swedish footballer of the year, was recently named the second-best sportsperson of all-time in the country and famously retorted that he should have occupied the first five positions, perfectly displaying the character and personality that has motivated several confrontations with colleagues, coaches and adversaries over the years. When his career ends, his charismatic behaviour will define his legacy in the sport as much as the fantastic executions he’s capable on the pitch (), but Zlatan wouldn’t like it any other way.
Henrik Lundqvist (Ice Hockey)
The man many in New York call “King Henrik” was born on a city, Åre, primarily renowned for the alpine skiing facilities. However, Henrik and his twin brother, Joel, always preferred hockey, and it wasn’t long until they got to play for their favourite team, Göteborg-based Frölunda HC. Seven years and two league titles later (2003, 2005), their paths eventually separated and, with nothing else to prove at home, the goaltender moved on to face the best game after game.
Representing the New York Rangers since 2005, after the team selected him at the 2000 NHL draft, Henrik Lundqvist has been a mainstay for the honoured franchise since his rookie season and is undoubtedly one of the best in the world on his position, boasting a Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best NHL goalie in 2012) and four other nominations. To this day, he’s still pursuing the chance to return the Stanley Cup to the Big Apple and he keeps improving his legacy and club-records as the best goalkeeper in the “blueshirts” history.
The 32-year-old has also consistently embodied his country’s efforts on the world scale since the youth levels, with his biggest accomplishment coming at the 2006 Torino Olympics where he backstopped the Swedes to the gold medal. Since the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidström, in 2012, Lundqvist inherited the role of Sweden’s prominent ice hockey player and he led his country to a silver medal on the 2014 Olympic tournament. His performances in Sochi further increased his popularity amongst the compatriots, but he has always been a fan favourite everywhere by way of his various community and charity enterprises coupled with a calm and friendly presence on and off the ice.
Charlotte Kalla (cross-country skiing)
Sweden’s role on cross-country’s history has always been that of party crashers, the nation that craves to surprise the successful neighbours that have historically dominated the sport. Charlotte Kalla personifies that spirit perfectly and the native of Tärendö, a small village on the far north of Sweden, has thereby managed to build an impressive career during the era of two legends of the sport, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, the most medalled female athlete in Winter Olympics’ history. The 27-year-old skier has almost 30 World Cup podiums since his debut in 2006 and a total of 5 World Championships medals, all of them gathered in team events. In fact, along with teammates Ida Ingemarsdotter, Emma Wikén and Anna Hagg, Kalla broke a fifty-four year gold medal drought for Sweden on the Women’s 4 x 5km relay event, with the team taking top honours on the competition of the 2014 Olympics through a performance that won the prize for most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.
However, collective success aside, it was Kalla’s individual excellence that fuelled the most important results of her career, namely the gold medal in the 10km freestyle race of the 2010 Olympics, and the silver medals in the 15 km skiathlon and 10km classic races of the 2014 Sochi Games. The overall triumph at the 2007-2008 edition of the Tour de Ski, on her debut edition, is another important mark on Kalla’s résumé and, with the main rivals nearing retirement, her best years may still ahead.
Others: Lotta Schelin (Women’s Football), Jonas Jerebko (Basketball), Henrik Zetterberg (Ice Hockey), Frida Hansdotter (Alpine Skiing), Sarah Sjöström (Swimming) Johan Olsson, Marcus Hellner (cross-country skiing), Fredrik Lööf (Sailing), Lisa Nordén (Triathlon), Henrik Stenson (Golf)
Since the Stockholm Olympic Games, held in 1912, Sweden’s track record hosting top international events (European and World Championships) is truly remarkable, with the wealth spread across dozens of disciplines. Without surprise, this organizational expertise has been translated into the development of a sheer amount of modern, state-of-the-art sporting facilities that enable the populations an easy and comfortable access to high-level sport competitions year-round and country-wide.
To start, obvious emphasis on the Friends Arena, located on the municipality of Solna (Stockholm’s urban region). The new national stadium, which substituted the nearby Räsunda, host of the 1958 World Cup final, can hold up to 50,000 and has a retractable roof that can turn it into the biggest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. Opened in 2012, the arena, beyond the matches of the national football team, sees the home games of AIK, concerts and has welcomed the final of the 2013 UEFA Women’s European Championship.
The second biggest stadium in the country is the 43,000-seats Ullevi, in Gothenburg, built for the 1958 World Cup and a place that has hosted multiple football European finals as well as the European and World Athletic Championships. Nonetheless, the women’s national team and the city’s football clubs play at the 2009’ Gamla Ullevi, which was raised on the grounds of the old facility by the same name, and has 15,000 seats. Recent constructions are also the Tele2 Arena (2013), in Stockholm, the home of Djurgårdens IF and Hammarby IF with a capacity for 33,000, and the Swedbandk Stadium (2009), in Mälmo, a facility that holds 24,000.
In terms of (truly) indoor venues, the most important is the unmistakable Stockholm Globe Arena, the largest hemispherical building in the World, and a facility with up to 13,500 seats for ice hockey games. Several World Championships and other international ice hockey games have taken place at the Globe since 1989, but the Handball, Volleyball and Basketball European Championships were also held there. However, the capital’s ice hockey teams (Djurgårdens IF and AIK) usually play their home games at the adjacent Hovet, a 9,000 capacity arena. The 2008-opened Mälmo Arena comes in second-place by capacity (15,000 seats) in the country and is the home of the Mälmo Redhawks, the city’s ice hockey team.
The Scandinavium, in Gothenburg, completes the podium, as the 14,000 seats venue, opened in 1972, has received over the years swimming, ice skating and athletics events, for example, while turning into the place Frölunda HC calls home. Moreover, the country’s ice hockey significance defines the existence of nine other indoor venues with over 7,000 seats, almost all built during the 2000’s. Thus, towns like Linköping, Lund, Norrköping, Kalmar, Halmstad, Helsingborg, Gävle and Karlstad commonly share the burden of hosting international events with Sweden’s three main city centres.
In respect to winter sports, the main hubs are Falun, Östersund and Åre, all situated in central Sweden. The first two cities regularly welcome World Cup events of the Nordic ski sports (cross-country, ski jumping, nordic vombined) and biathlon, respectively, and have organized the discipline’s World Championships several times over the years, while Åre takes part in the Alpine Skiing World Cup frequently.
There’s no shortage of sporting events staged yearly on Sweden. Elite sport leagues like football’s Allsvenskan, running from late March to the beginning of November, and hockey’s SEL (season from September to April) provide excitement all over the country, from Mälmo, in the southeast coast, to Lulea, almost on the Arctic Circle, but there’s also the chance to attend a game of bandy (October-March) or handball (September-May). Others events to note are:
Vikingarännet, traditional long-distance ice skating race
Rally Sweden, World Rally Championships
Värmland region, February
World Cup event, Cross-Country skiing
Vasaloppet, traditional long- distance (90km) cross-country ski race
World Cup event, Alpine Skiing
Scandinavian Masters, Golf
Stockholm Marathon, Athletics
Speedway Grand Prix of Sweden, motorcycle speedway
Målilla (Kalmar), June
Gothia Cup, youth football
Swedish Open, Tennis
Speedway Grand Prix of Scandinavia, motorcycle speedway
Solna (Friends Arena), September