In eight editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, at least one team from Scandinavia has reached the last four at every tournament, with 2015 being the sole exception. The trio of nations comprising Denmark, Norway and Sweden is a constant area of high prosperity in women’s football despite the combined population totalling about the same as that of New York state – and seeing a comparable amount of snow.
Want to slay on the world stage? You gotta be more like the Scandis.
Although Denmark has never cracked the world stage (save for a couple of unofficial “World Cup” titles in the 1970s), De Rød-Hvide are historically dominant at the European Championships, with six semi-final appearances in nine tournaments.
A short northern skip over the Skagerrak Sea is all it takes to reach the third most successful nation in Women’s World Cup history, one of the most dominant during the early years of the tournament. There is almost a degree of irony in the fact that Norway’s early history was peppered with losses to their Nordic neighbours: the future World Cup winners, the runts of Scandinavia. By the time the first Women’s World Cup (the shamefully named, 1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&Ms Cup) arrived, Norway had established themselves as one of the top dogs of Europe. With stars like Linda Medalen, Heidi Støre and Hege Riise in the team, Norway pulled ahead of their next-door neighbours, gaining a head of steam on the biggest stage.
A final Norwegian loss in 1991 to the iconic USA team was nothing but fuel to the fire for the 1995 tournament on the familiar, if not as rain-slicked, pitches of Sweden. The 90s and start of the new century belonged to Norway, with a final win over Germany in Solna in ’95 confirming them as the best team in the world. But as with all things that go up, Norway came crashing down. The world champions from the 90s retired, and as the coaches came and went, the Football Girls moving down the pecking order.
One reason Hege Riise believes that Norway have sagged on the world stage is their home league (Toppserien) has fallen behind the curve in Europe and is almost entirely part-time – even LSK, the team she currently coaches, is a long way from being what would be classed as full-time. Although Norway has been exporting players around Europe for some years, there was still just six professionals in the team of 23 Martin Sjögren took to France. But it’s not just about the players being fitter and faster but about the level of coaching they receive that holds them back, Riise believes.
“Most other clubs in the league are still on the same level and you don’t get the best coaches because they want to be full-time and if you only work part-time then you don’t get the best coaches,” Riise told AfXI.
Norway’s Toppserien is benefiting from having a new league sponsor in OBOS who will commit more money not just to the league, but to the grassroots in Norway, which certainly looks like it will have a serious long-term effect on football in the country. However, the league is actively losing ground on others in Europe and for the highly decorated player-turned-coach, there is a great uncertainly to whether the gap can ever be bridged again. “We are now slowly coming but if it’s possible to catch up, I don’t know,” says Riise.
As Norway faded, Sweden rose
Although most nations rise and fall based on generations of players, Sweden are one of the few that’s maintained relatively level over the last 45 years. Boasting the strongest home league of the Scandinavian triumvirate (Damallsvenskan), the nation of 10 million (give or take), has managed to take the rough with the smooth.
It never seems to matter what state Sweden are in when they arrive at a major tournament – even if they have to come through a play-off, they still manage to medal, and they are always good money to progress. Although it doesn’t always happen, as Nilla Fischer notes: “Sometimes you have luck and sometimes you don’t and you can go out if you have a bad day.”
The team is always one that plays as a collective rather than 11 individual. As Fischer explains, “We just work good as a group and every player just… we’re very loyal to the way we play and we do really stand together and do the work and that’s why we succeed. We have a good tradition from younger ages from so on and we’re just good at finding what we’re good at and following the game plan.”
Although the team are a different beast under Peter Gerhardsson compared to his more conservative predecessors, the team ethic with everyone on the same page is fully bought into by those in yellow and blue. And just as the USA have an unwavering belief that they will always come out on top (a rock-solid winning mentality), the Swedes have their own mental strength which mirrors their culture. As Fischer’s defensive partner Magda Eriksson explains, “The Swedish mentality is all about doing it together, we’re a team so we’re going to work hard together, we know this is our strength.”
The Chelsea defender was happily vocal after Blågult clinched their third World Cup bronze medal. After the match Phil Neville and his charges spoke about being uninterested in winning the match, the team only in France to win the tournament, to which Eriksson fired back, “We have a chance to win a medal, why not give it all? We managed to reload, despite one day less rest and 120 minutes in the legs. What a fucking mentality we have.”
Foundations for success
Sweden are a nation with a high number of players who’ve exported themselves to professional teams in the English WSL, German Frauen-Bundesliga and French División 1 Feminine, as well as having a pair of full-time domestic teams in Rosengård and Linköping. Sweden can boast a higher number of professionals than their Scandinavian counterparts and the ever-strong Damallsvenskan has also continuously attracted stars from around the world over the years – with the likes of Marta, Ma Xiaoxu and Michelle Akers – having suited up in the league.
Whilst all the Nordic nations enjoy their alpine sports as well as handball, football has always had a special place in the hearts of those in some of Europe’s most northern countries and as such, most in the area grow up playing football. There is no stigma between girls and boys playing in school or playing together, unlike in other parts of the world. The simple attraction of the game is well understood through Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland.
Although not a blanket attitude, there is a greater love for women’s sports, stemming from a more liberal and progressive society (even just in the western world). Maybe it’s down to the the message of equality being preached but there is a receptiveness and appreciation for the prowess of the women’s national team as the men’s in Sweden as can be seen from the mass crowds in Gothenburg to celebrate Sweden’s bronze this summer – just as they celebrated the team winning silver in Rio.
Denmark, Norway and Sweden aren’t the biggest countries in the world (or even Europe), nor do they boast the highest-invested leagues, but the region has continuously and will continue to churn out world class footballers and teams who will go deep in major tournaments. And although Sweden might be seen as the little sister of the historically dominant USA and Germany, as Eriksson says, “What a mentality…”