We have to be careful with players who go abroad and sit on the bench, it’s not good for them. Money is one thing, sure, but I can see now players are also coming back.Yvonne Ekroth
After a bronze medal at the 2019 World Cup and a silver medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many tipped Peter Gerhardsson’s Sweden side to go one step further at Euro 2022 and pick up both a gold medal and the trophy, but it ended in another near miss as Sweden bowed out to hosts and eventual champions England in the semifinals.
Gerhardsson’s side had grown in strength over the years through both quality and experience, so much so the Blågult went into the Euros with one of the squads with the highest average age, and just one teenager in Hanna Bennison, such has been the consistency in performance over the past few tournaments.
Eleven of the 23 players overall were aged 29 or over, with Hedvig Lindahl the oldest at 39, followed by influential Caroline Seger at 37, and defender Linda Sembrant at 35. With a World Cup less than a year away, there is still time for this golden generation of Swedish stars to bring home a trophy, but there is also one eye on what comes next.
Gerhardsson called up two of his brightest young talents for this month’s camp in Hanna Wijk and Matilda Vinberg, two stars of the team’s Under-19 European Championship campaign over the summer, and the coach of that team, Caroline Sjöblom, believes the future of the Swedish team can be as exciting as the current generation has proven.
“I think we are in a positive position,” she said. “There are maybe a handful, I think, born between 2003 and 2005 that can make an appearance in the first team within a year. That is about what they can do on the pitch, maybe they are still missing something in their physical level, but they can play football, they can handle the ball better maybe now than some of the older players just because of the way football and coaching has developed. But you need that experience too, you need to get a lot of the fine details the experienced players have.”
Ensuring a player is ready is the single most key part of ensuring a young player doesn’t go into a first team too early, and vice versa too late if they’re already ready. That responsibility falls largely to Yvonne Ekroth, a former youth team coach in Sweden who now oversees the elite youth program from Under-15 level through to Under-23s.
Ekroth leads up a team of 10 people in her department, working across all youth teams, games, and camps, and is in charge of the youth strategy for the Swedish national team.
“The strategy is not necessarily to take medals, but to ensure we reach tournaments with every age group and to create a good environment for the players in each group,” said Ekroth. “I have to develop our department in everything we do. What are the best in Europe and outside Europe doing? In analytics, physiotherapy, psychology, medical.
“We have to work together and see how we can in the best way. I work very closely with the first team and Marika [Domanski-Lyfors] and with the boys side too; we try to incorporate everything and do the best we can. I have meetings with other countries. Denmark and Norway both have someone in my role and I will see them next week too. We discuss how we can develop players the best way. Which way is football going? What will it look like in 10 years?”
Ekroth also sits on the UEFA Women’s Committee and admits at the moment her priority is to create competitive competitions for age groups above Under-19s, to further help bridge the gap for young players who are getting close to progressing toward the first team.
“There’s the aspect that if we don’t have a competition, it’s hard to put the money into that team. If we go out there and talk to different countries, they want it, but right now with the U-23s we had three windows, now we have six windows, the same as the first team and I’m happy with that because it’s good for the future, but we need to get a competition because then you have to put more money into that. That is the next step I think.”
Sjöblom’s Sweden side reached the semifinals of the Under-19 European Championships in the summer, missing out on the final in a narrow 0–1 defeat to eventual winners Spain.
While there is still a step to go for many of the youngsters in order to reach the level that will allow them to compete in Gerhardsson’s senior squad, Sjöblom believes there will be a change soon and the experience of youth tournaments is invaluable for her young hopefuls.
“I think we will see a change, we need to see a change,” she said. “I think a lot of the older players are close to stepping away. Maybe not right now, but soon — but I think there’s a bright future. You need to start quite early, we need to speed it up to give these players experience. The Under-19 Euros was a really important experience. We’ve seen it with Fridolina [Rolfö], Magdalena [Eriksson], Filippa [Angeldahl], Nathalie [Björn], that experience of youth tournaments.
“We talked to some of the players in the first team about these experiences of being in a tournament, having to perform today or you will go home tomorrow. You don’t get that experience as much in club teams, so that experience has been really, really important. We saw in Germany’s team at Euro 2022 almost all of them had been in a youth Euros or a World Cup and gone on to become really important players in the first team.”
As the woman tasked with overseeing the whole program, Ekroth believes the mixture of youth and experience is important and says the process of any potential turnover within the squad is already under way with the breakthrough of the likes of not only Bennison, but Amanda Nildén, Angeldahl, Rebecka Blomqvist and Johanna Rytting Kaneryd.
“I think to win a championship, you have to have a high age in the group. We have seen it proven in World Cups and European Championships. We have those players, people like Hedvig and Caro and Linda, but the last few years we have put in some players who were born in 1996 or 1997 and those age groups did really well at youth level. Peter has taken in two young players who were born in 2003 in this window to test them. When we have our meetings, we don’t feel like we have to do a big change yet.”
The big question for confederations all around the world, but perhaps one for Sweden right now, is when are these players ready?
It’s simplistic to focus on just the 90 minutes, but the demands of going into a first team camp, the step up in intensity, living around far more experienced players, can be a tough step up for any young player.
The mental side of the game is increasing all the time, with more pressure to succeed, especially in nations with a rich history in the sport like Sweden, and it is a question both Ekroth and Sjöblom are putting a lot of effort into behind the scenes and offered in-depth insight into the work being done off the pitch and just how important it is.
“That is a really hard question, because it’s not just my opinion,” admitted Sjöblom. “I need to listen and follow Peter because he has the authority. If he wanted a player born in 2008, I can say, ‘Oh, she’s too young,’ but if he wants to pick her, he can pick her. But, of course, we have discussions and meetings and I have that role to almost be a mum. I can say we need to slow down with someone, give the whole picture because I know the player and have worked with them for two years.
“Peter might not know them as people, but he has seen them as players. He will know their attributes, but me and my colleagues can inform him about what they need to work on, whether that’s football or their personality. Are they mature enough? Are they ready? In a perfect world, we pick the players, everything goes well, and they go and play a World Cup next year, but there’s a lot more to it.”
Ekroth added: “We think the most important thing is what we incorporate around the players. We have meetings with every age group, with Marika, because before Peter takes them, he has to speak to Caroline or Martin [Möller, U-23s head coach]. What kind of player is she? Is she ready for that step? Hanna and Matilda will be with the first team for a few days and then go to the Under-23s so they can get matches this window.
“Amanda Nilden is a really good example, she went to the Euros. A year ago, her first camp didn’t go so well. She went back, did her work, joined Juventus, did really well and then went with the first team to the Euros. There is no one size fits all, every player is different. How is her environment in her club? Is she playing? What does she need? Talking, talking, talking, that’s what a lot of it is about.”
Ekroth says a “close” relationship from all age groups she is responsible for is important to ensure a clean progression for players moving between any two age groups and any issue or decision will be discussed at length between all relevant parties.
“Looking at the future is always important. You can talk about players all the way down to U-15 level. You can talk about a midfielder, who is coming through? How many are there? How will it look in a few years when Caro is gone? Those discussions happen in advance, because you need to play. Myself and Marika are in the office every day, so there is a good relationship from top to bottom.”
Sjöblom goes further into what is going on in her age group in particular: the oldest group of players in competitive competitions closest to making the step up to the first team.
All age groups have access to sport psychologists, both from the first team on the women’s side, but also the men’s side too, a move which has proved pivotal into enhancing the experience and development of all players according to their head coach.
“They made a program together to show us what we can talk to the players about,” she said. “What we can do with them to get them involved. The whole thing about Swedish football psychology is to integrate the mental things into the football and even we as staff get an education about how to integrate it.
“It’s about every day, it’s in our leadership. We talk about when you get nervous to use a thought or a feeling. If a player is 15 coming into her first camp, we introduce them into this mental program and by herself she can train alone with her thoughts and feelings. She can be nervous, she can make mistakes. What is her role? If she is a left back, she works on playing the ball forward and her one-versus-one duels. What does she need to do in her situations?”
Sjöblom adds they start at a “really low level” with the players coming into any new age group and then educates them on how to deal with their thoughts and gradually build them up through various steps until they are ready for the next move.
The Under-19s head coach was part of Peter Gerhardsson’s staff at the Tokyo Olympics last year, another move to ensure the close working relationship of all groups, and Sjöblom says she can act as a close liaison between her own players and those ready to make the step into the first team squad.
“Firstly, we offer sport psychologists to any players that need it. It can be about anything, their life, school, football. Going into a first team is a really big step and it’s been useful for me that I’ve been with the first team in some camps and I went to the Olympics as a scout and helped the analysts in Tokyo, so I have learned how Peter, the staff, and the players work, so I can prepare my players about the culture.
“Hanna and Matilda have gone and I can tell them to take responsibility for themselves. No one will tell if you are late for breakfast, it is up to you. Maybe in my team we have more rules because they are younger, but there won’t be those rules and if you don’t follow the culture, you will notice. It’s much more individual, you need to be your own person. If you have a day off, how do you spend it? You can go for a walk, go shopping, but you can’t be on the streets for three or four hours. What gives you energy for your next game? There’s so much to think about for these young players, they can also be a bit starstruck, but they need to be their own person.”
So what are the biggest stumbling blocks? The reality is the strength of the Swedish domestic league, the Damallsvenskan, is not what it was. Gone are the days of the likes of Christen Press, Lieke Martens, and Marta gracing the stadiums around Sweden, albeit it is still one of the top six leagues in Europe, a position Ekroth in particular is keen to keep given it offers an extra Champions League spot.
However, both coaches are realistic that the financial strength of other clubs and leagues around Europe could soon see the Swedish league drop further down the rankings, as has happened in the men’s game, and have a knock-on effect on the national team.
“The jobs the clubs do is the most important thing for us,” said Ekroth. “We are the clubs, we borrow their players, so the best they are getting, the better it is for us. We are fifth right now in Europe and we don’t want to drop down to seventh because we will lose a Champions League spot.
“We have to try and hang in there, but we are really aware of the money the European big clubs and leagues are investing. What can we do in Sweden? We can see in the men’s, they are not ranked as high, they are a platform for bigger clubs. They good thing, though, is our big men’s clubs are starting to take in women’s football. If we look three to five years ahead, I think the map in Sweden will look different when it comes to the top league. We want them to do it for the right reasons, to educate and coach the girls. It is a challenge. We don’t have the money here of a Chelsea or a Barcelona, so we have to work hard to educate good players and we have very good coaches.”
As head coach of the Under-19s, Sjöblom echoes Ekroth’s concerns about where the league will be in the future compared to its rivals around Europe but is also concerned about a lack of playing time for some of her players and what they can do to ensure their best young players are not being pushed down the pecking order by an influx of foreign signings, which are still common in the Damallsvenskan.
“We have a bit of a problem in Sweden that the Damallsvenskan has a history of playing players from abroad,” she said. “I have a really good U-19 player and she sits on the bench because her club wants quick results, they want to make it to the top three so they can play in the Champions League.
“The problem is they don’t play too many competitive games, they don’t get 90 minutes every week, so it’s hard to go and play against a Germany or an England. We need to find the right environment for them to play in. Sometimes they or their agent choose a club which is really good, sometimes we say, ‘Go and play down or in the second league, just so you play.’”
There is a reality that in any country, clubs also have to look after number one and achieve results on a domestic scale, rather than just merely develop players for the national team.
Sjöblom says there are regular meetings between national team staff members and clubs, and that there was “shock” among some clubs when presented with the data about how little some of their young players are featuring at club level.
“We have conferences where we give sporting directors information and data: ‘This is how many minutes they play.’ Right now, the stats are from 2020 and the average games played during a year was six full games. The sporting directors were kind of shocked they don’t play more games. You need to see the full picture. If you want to have an academy, how do you get them into your first team?
“It was a good conference and I think we will have more. I speak to the coaches, visit them, text them, talk on the phone. Often it is about can we get a solution for a player or make an agreement with another club to go and play more? It’s hard, because I can’t decide what players do at club level. When I was a player, I told myself it was important to be in the Damallsvenskan rather than drop down a league. You think it’s better to sit on the bench, play five minutes, and train with a really good team. But I know now as a coach for a youth team, you need to play games, because if you don’t, you don’t get the self-confidence. I have players in the second division playing important roles who came to the Euros and performed better than players sitting on the bench in really good environments.”
There is a stark reality for both Sjöblom and Ekroth that no matter what they do, keeping Sweden as a major force and a team considered one of the favorites for tournaments is going to be tough as more and more federations around Europe invest heavily in women’s football, more so than what Sweden themselves can put into the game.
Sjöblom goes as far to admit that “maybe we will struggle a bit more,” despite some exciting and talented players coming through the system, and both admit money moving forward and what is being invested elsewhere will be key in where Sweden stands in women’s football in the next five to 10 years.
“We are ranked third in the world now, but it will be really hard to keep that position,” said the Under-19 head coach. “It’s not all about money, but it can help clubs and federations to do even better and put more resources out there. We’ve seen in England, it didn’t happen in a year, it was a seven-year program. Giving them money, developing the league, the coaches, the players, they have put so much effort into women’s football.
“We need to do much more. Better education for the players. We work on the streets in Stockholm. There are girls coming from other countries, we don’t get those into women’s football like we do on the men’s side. The youth boys’ team have mixed ethnicity and we need to get that on the girls’ side, so how can we do that? What is the Swedish identity? Is it tall, hard-working players? Or are we more about technique and finesse? Hard work, yes, but maybe we can be more like Italy or the Netherlands, more technical. We need to think more about what Sweden looks like today. We can’t work as we did before, I don’t think that’s the Swedish model anymore.”
For Ekroth, she admits her job is to see what they can do if the money isn’t there, saying “what we can do that doesn’t cost money if we don’t have the money?”
Heading up the program and looking to the future, Ekroth is optimistic there are many other qualities and ideas for the future that will help Sweden stay close to the top but it also realistic and echoes Sjöblom’s thoughts about ensuring players aren’t just sat on the bench, even if it means earning more money elsewhere.
“A good leadership is free,” she stated. “A good environment with good organization around the players, making them feel like they are going to be well educated every day. That is the most important thing. Foreign players come here, but a lot of Swedish players come back here because I think they like to be in Sweden. It’s fun to play here, we have a good environment, a league with good, close games every week. If you look at leagues in England or Spain or Italy, there are big clubs, but a lot of games are not so good because there is a gap.
“This year, we made it two extra teams into the Damallsvenskan because we wanted more games. We do a lot of research into development for girls aged 13 through to 23 because we have to see how we can continue to optimize everything and do the best we can. We see girls in other countries playing with boys, we don’t do that so much here, it’s not been the culture. We want more academies and education that we don’t have right now. If we get more money into football, players don’t have to work other jobs and that is a good start. We have to be careful with players who go abroad and sit on the bench, it’s not good for them. Money is one thing, sure, but I can see now players are also coming back.”
Ekroth added: “The most important thing is they feel good, they feel happy. The social psychology is very important. I think we are good in Sweden with that and we have to continue being good at that, because it is fun to play football. But it’s going to be hard, we know that, we know we don’t have that money, so we have to keep being good at other things.”