ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Day by day, the heavyweights of international football are dropping out of the World Cup, and that’s giving countries like Sweden reason to dream.
Lionel Messi and Argentina, along with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal — the reigning European champion — were eliminated Saturday. A day later, Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites, was upset by host nation Russia. Germany, the defending world champion, never made it out of the group stage.
“Some of the results are purely fascinating,” Sweden coach Janne Andersson said Monday, a day before his team plays Switzerland in the next-to-last game in the round of 16, “and it really shows that the greatest, biggest nations won’t win all the time.
“That, to me, is a source of inspiration if anything.”
The draw already guarantees that Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia, Russia, England or Colombia will be contesting the final in Moscow in less than two weeks. Only one of those countries — England, in 1966 — has previously won football’s greatest prize.
It’s an opportunity Andersson could never have imagined when he took charge after Sweden got eliminated in the group stage of the European Championship in 2016, and was soon to lose its biggest star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to retirement.
Sweden “had to rebuild from scratch,” Andersson said, and that meant constructing a team no longer focused on one player. Instead, he instilled a team ethic and collective spirit that has made the Swedes a much tougher proposition.
After beating Italy over a two-legged playoff to qualify for the World Cup, Sweden topped a tough group containing Germany, Mexico and South Korea, and is two wins from emulating Sweden’s class of 1994 that reached the World Cup semifinals.
“Ever since Janne took over, we’ve built and laid a new foundation,” center back Andreas Granvqist said Monday, adding about Ibrahimovic: “Others have been allowed to take a step forward when we lost one of the world’s greatest footballers.”
Those around the team hoped players such as striker Marcus Berg and playmaker Emil Forsberg would emerge from Ibrahimovic’s shadow at the World Cup. But Sweden’s success in Russia has largely come down to its obdurate defense, which kept clean sheets in victories over South Korea and Mexico.
In the 3-0 win over Mexico that clinched Sweden a place in the last 16, Andersson’s team had just 35 percent possession, completed only 143 passes, and made 31 clearances.
“We have a clear game plan and we are playing according to that,” Andersson said. “Our players have been incredibly loyal to that and that’s why we are here today.”
With Russia and Croatia advancing via shootouts Sunday, the Swedes have been practicing their spot kicks and Andersson said he has ranked his entire squad in terms of their proficiency from the penalty spot.
Solidly in the top five should be Granqvist, the captain, who has already converted penalty kicks against South Korea and Mexico this tournament, despite having plenty on his mind: His wife, Sophie, is due to give birth back in Sweden on the day of the game.
“I’m fully focused on the game tomorrow and my wife is very strong,” said the captain, who has no plans yet to leave the team.
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