The Swedes face England today for a place in the semi-finals – but, for the life of me, it’s difficult to understand how they got here. There is no stand-out individual in the team, they aren’t easy on the eye, and you would certainly have been forgiven for dismissing their chances of getting this far.
But it is perhaps, because of this perception, that Sweden have, against all odds, scrapped and scraped their way into the last eight. They’ve done it through the good, old-fashioned football values of discipline, determination and, most importantly, teamwork.
There is a line from a Rudyard Kipling poem that reads: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Those words encapsulate the heart, spirit and unity at the root of Sweden’s participation at Russia 2018.
* Let’s be honest: this is not a very good England team when compared to previous vintages: a scrappy win over Tunisia, a weak Panama side which doesn’t really count, defeat to Belgium and a fractious penalty shoot-out victory against Colombia.
But what this England variety does have is the mental fortitude and streetwise nature which recent teams at major tournaments have lacked. Forget talk about the fact that England are lucky to be on the “easy” side of the route to the final: what’s important is that England are still in it; and there’s no fortune in that, they’ve earned the right to be here because other ostensible favourites have fallen by the wayside.
Also, unlike previous England squads, this lot is not prepared to simply accept what the opposition throws at them with regard to theatrics and grim tactics –they are just as adept, and even better, at it. I guess it’s just the nature of the modern game: if you can’t beat them, join them.
When Croatia step out for the quarter-finals of the 2018 World Cup, they won’t just be up against the 11-men doing duty for hosts Russia, they’ll be up against the emotional and vocal support of an entire country.
Rest assured, the Croats are going to receive a real rough reception. The whole of Russia has rallied around their football team, who have surpassed expectations in their march to this stage of the competition.
Whatever happens today, win or lose, this Russian squad will be celebrated: they’ve certainly gone further than expected and achieved more than anticipated. And, in intelligent midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, they have one of the stand-out players at the tournament.
On paper, Croatia should have far too many guns for Russia: Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, the penalty-saving hero of the last 16 shootout against Denmark.
But, as is often said, football is not played on paper: and, based on Russia’s surprise run and constant upsetting of the form book, don’t put your house on Croatia.