STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden manager Janne Andersson has got back in touch with his roots amid the country’s lack of a strict coronavirus lockdown by visiting a training session in the Stockholm suburb of Husby where the national team’s Robin Quaison honed his skills.
The Nordic nation’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has attracted global attention as it eschews the total lockdown imposed in some countries but soccer has still been badly hit.
Authorities in Sweden have relied on the country’s sense of social responsibility with a strategy based on mostly voluntary measures to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.
Junior soccer matches are still taking place at weekends and the top-flight Allsvenskan season, which should have already got underway this month, is now due to start on June 14.
However, Husby FF’s sixth-tier campaign has been cut in half and their matches are not expected to start until August.
Andersson, deprived of the chance to consume the usual amount of live football he watches both at home and abroad, relished the chance to see a team put through their paces.
“There’s a Swedish expression, ‘You don’t miss the cow until the stall is empty’ - with no football on the TV and no games to go to, it’s a very strange time,” he told Reuters as he watched Husby train on one half of the pitch while local children and ambitious teenagers practised their technique on the other.
“So this is something that I find enormously appealing. It’s a strength we have in Swedish football in general - no matter where you come from, there are teams and people that will take care of you and who are engaged in sport, and I think that’s wonderful,” added Andersson.
“It is brilliant to see so many people playing. What I do is up at the top and I work with it full-time, but this to me is Swedish football,” he said, gesturing towards the artificial pitch as the rain fell softly on a chilly evening.
Now in his 38th year as a coach, the 57-year-old from the town of Halmstad on Sweden’s west coast is from similar stock to the coaches on duty in Husby - he has worked at every level from manging junior teams to 2015 Allsvenskan winners IFK Norrkoping before taking over the national team from Erik Hamren in 2016.
With an emphasis on competitive pickup games with displays of pacy dribbling on tight pitches like this one, the suburbs of Sweden’s big cities are knwon for producing flair players, none more so than record international goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
However, Andersson believes there is a lot more to the elite players that come from these areas than just dribbling skills.
“These are guys who are ambitious, serious and dedicated to their sport, talented players and athletes. That’s why they have become as good as they have - it’s not that they play football in a certain way, it’s that they are so serious about it,” he said.
Andersson is interrupted by die-hard Husby FF supporter Rim Yohannes, who appears in front of the dugout where the coach is sheltering from the rain.
“Janne! Are you not going to pick Paulos Abraham?” he asks with mock aggression, referring to a hugely-talented local 17-year-old who recently signed for nearby top-flight side AIK, but the national team boss takes it in his stride.
“The problem is that I only get to select 23 players,” Andersson replies with a broad smile before Yohannes reveals that Paulos is actually his little brother.
“Now that I know that, I’ll keep an eye out,” Andersson said as the two men burst out laughing.
Sweden forward Quaison, who has helped Husby FF financially in the past, has enjoyed a successful season with 12 goals in 24 games for Mainz in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Several players from the area, such as Bojan Djordjic (Manchester United, Rangers and Red Star Belgrade) and Henok Goitom (Udinese, Valladolid, San Jose Earthquakes) have gone on to have professional careers abroad.
Quaison was also a key player in the Sweden team Andersson led to qualification for Euro 2020 but, with the tournament postponed for a year due to the coronavirus, the coach has been using the time to perform a deep analysis of his team.
“Our attacking play in particular developed a lot in the last year, and we found some video clips of some great combination play where we created scoring chances in different ways, and that’s something we tried to develop in qualifying,” he said.
Sweden face Spain, Poland and a playoff winner in Group E at the finals which will now be held from June 11-July 11 2021.
Andersson hopes to get his squad together again soon but, in the absence of live top-level football to watch, he is visiting training sessions like this one, taking selfies with young aspiring players and talking about the game with local coaches.
“I usually say I don’t have Sweden’s best job, I have the world’s best job. I’ve said joking before that I enjoy the job so much I’d happily have it for the rest of my life,” he said, still smiling and watching intently, despite the cold and rain.
(Story refiles to replace supporter’s middle name with surname in paras 14, 16)
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris