This is a feature in Issue 23 of Sounders Monthly, Sounders FC’s original magazine. They are available for free at The NINETY, Soccer Celebration, GuestLink Services locations and Membership Central as well as the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and South gates.
Gustav Svensson needs you to know he’s joking.
Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup last summer, Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet interviewed Svensson, who made three appearances and one start in the Swedes’ run to the quarterfinals. This is what he told the paper about playing in the United States:
“Things are a bit strange sometimes. We have a forward who is sponsored by a pizza chain and every time he scores he runs off the pitch to have a bite from a pizza slice.”
Aftonbladet ran the quote.
“I’m very sarcastic,” Svensson said. “Americans don’t really understand that, and it’s become a little bit of a problem sometimes.”
Svensson has certainly found a home in Seattle, though, where he’s established himself as one of the most consistent defensive midfielders in Major League Soccer. Even now at 32, he has reignited his international career and has firmly solidified his spot on Swedish manager Janne Andersson’s team.
Svensson celebrates his Swedish heritage at the Nordic Museum in Ballard | All photos by Lindsey Wasson
Since signing with Seattle ahead of the 2017 MLS season, Svensson has started 70 regular season and postseason matches, chipped in five goals and six assists and helped lead the Sounders to the 2017 Western Conference Championship.
“I love the diversity [in MLS],” Svensson said. “I love that every game is different from the other. There are so many different players coming in MLS — different teams, different styles. I love Seattle, I love our fans, I love our stadium, I love the franchise. There are a lot of good things here in America and MLS and Seattle.
“I think [Swedes] have a good reputation here,” he added. “We are hardworking, loyal, good, tactical players. We’re good players to build the team around. MLS has risen as a league as well. It has become better, and it has a better reputation in Europe and it keeps getting better and better. There are a lot of players who want to come here.”
Svensson’s journey to Seattle is fascinating. After playing at his hometown club of IFK Göteborg in the Allsvenskan, the top flight in Swedish football, he then spent two years in Turkey at Bursaspor and another two years in Ukraine at Tavriya Simferopol. He returned to IFK Göteborg from 2014-15 before heading to Guangzhou R&F in China for the 2016 season.
Ask Svensson how many languages he speaks, and he’ll confidently rattle off a dozen: Swedish, English, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Turkish, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese.
He shakes his head, smiles. Sarcasm.
When he played for Bursaspor, the country of Turkey was safe, but the fans weren’t. Every time he went out to dinner in the club’s home city of Bursa after a win, the restaurants would never let him pay. But if they lost a match to their rivals on the road, the team was not welcomed home. Part of why Svensson enjoys living and playing in the United States is because it affords him a normal life.
“People are very friendly here,” Svensson said. “People care about each other.”
One thing he can’t stand? The traffic.
“I will not miss how Americans drive their cars,” Svensson said. “I’ve never seen so many lanes in my life where everyone drives the same speed in every lane. That makes me go nuts. Every time Chad Marshall and I would commute together, we always had a fight. Because he hated the way I was driving because I always had to pass everyone from one lane to the other. He, on the other hand, just stayed in one lane and didn’t care.”
For as much success as Svensson has had in his 14-year career, in a different world, he isn’t even a soccer player. He grew up playing tennis. When he entered college at 16 — Swedes start college at 17, but Svensson started school a year earlier than his classmates — he played on the school’s tennis team, practicing on the court in the morning and the soccer pitch in the afternoon.
He didn’t know which to choose. He didn’t want to give up either, but whenever he had a conflict, he leaned toward soccer. He started at IFK Göteborg when he was 14, and by the time he was in his second year of college, he had improved tremendously and was being recognized more by the club. He made his professional debut for IFK Göteborg in 2005, and he knew that if he stayed healthy, he had a pretty good shot to turn soccer into a career.
Svensson calls himself a black sheep in his family. His older sister is a doctor, his other sister is a lawyer and his brother is an architect. He studied economics in school, but didn’t finish it.
“I would probably do something with economics and work my way to be someone on Wall Street probably trying to change the whole system,” Svensson said on what he would be doing if he weren’t a professional soccer player. “I was brought up a different way than a lot of Americans are. I would probably try to change it to pay more tax, get free school for everybody.”
Svensson is quintessentially and unapologetically Swedish. It’s what makes him, him — and he wouldn’t change a thing.
“That’s who we are,” he said. “We’re hardworking, but we see the irony in everything. We try to have as much joy as possible.”