This is a feature in a special World Cup issue of Sounders Monthly. Copies will be available for free at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central beginning Saturday, June 23 vs. Chicago Fire.
Gustav Svensson thought it was over.
When the Swedish midfielder signed with the Seattle Sounders from Guangzhou R&F of the Chinese Super League before the start of the 2017 season, he pretty much accepted that the decision would spell an end to his time with his country’s national team.
The well-traveled veteran didn’t have that many caps to begin with — just seven since 2009 — and the move to Major League Soccer created a new set of obstacles to competing at the international level.
The first was logistical: Being located in Seattle not only meant daunting travel demands, it also made it more difficult for Sweden’s coaches to keep close tabs on his form.
The second was practical: Sweden had a new coach, Janne Andersson, who Svensson didn’t know very well, and who he figured would be inclined to give more minutes to younger players.
On top of all that, it wasn’t even a certainty that he would be afforded a starter’s role or consistent minutes with the Sounders. A defensive midfielder by trade, Seattle already had what seemed to be an entrenched first-choice pairing at his position in franchise stalwart Osvaldo Alonso and future cornerstone Cristian Roldan. Although Svensson is also capable of playing on the back line, his role figured to be rotational at best, and the reality was there might not be enough minutes to go around for him to prove that he should be getting more international caps.
“When I moved here to Seattle, I almost left the thought about the national team,” Svensson recalled before departing for Sweden’s World Cup camp.
Jakob Johansson scores Sweden’s go-ahead goal vs. Italy in the first playoff leg | Reuters
International soccer can be a fickle beast that way, though. Excel at the club level and you never know what can happen. For Svensson, all he needed was a chance.
From virtually the first minute of the 2017 preseason, Svensson emerged as one of Seattle’s undisputed most important players. Injuries thrust him into a starting role in the defensive midfield, and occasionally at center back, almost immediately. He soaked up minutes like a sponge and thrived with the opportunity. He played in 32 of the team’s 34 regular-season matches and started 30. He even scored what proved to be the series-winning goal against the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference Championship to send Seattle back to MLS Cup.
On a Sounders team that has been heavily reliant on Alonso over the years — at times almost to a fault — Svensson proved indispensable, providing the best cover the team has had for Alonso in its MLS era.
Then came a phone call from Andersson, who had been taking note.
“I was very surprised but obviously very happy that he called me,” Svensson said. “The first communication I had with him was if he thought I could manage the time difference and the travel because that’s not easy. He asked me what I thought about that and, of course, I said that it wouldn’t be an issue. And it’s not an issue. It’s hard but it’s manageable.”
Improbably, Svensson found himself very much back in the national team fold.
Sweden fans celebrate the 1-0 win over Italy in the first playoff leg in Solna | Reuters
If Sweden had bowed out of World Cup qualifying with a whimper, it’s doubtful many people would have said much about it. Superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international play following the 2016 UEFA European Championship, leaving the team without its all-time leading goalscorer and one of the icons of the sport. They hadn’t qualified in the previous two cycles, and after they drew an UEFA qualifying group that included traditional powerhouses France and the Netherlands, Sweden was an afterthought in the minds of most pundits.
But the Swedes quickly showed they would not back down easily. Playing a more team-oriented and defensively sound style under Andersson and without Ibrahimovic, Sweden made a run.
On June 9, 2017, Sweden bagged a shocking 2-1 victory over a France side that consistently features one of the most talented rosters on the international stage. The Blågult finished second in their group, ahead of the Netherlands on goal differential, affording them a two-leg playoff that pitted them against Italy, another traditional powerhouse that has won the World Cup four times and as recently as 2006, with a World Cup bid on the line.
But sure enough, Sweden knocked off the Azzurri to return to the World Cup for the first time since 2006.
“I think no one back home thought that we were going to go through,” Svensson said.
Sebastian Larsson celebrates Sweden’s qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup | Reuters
Playing against an Italian side rife with world-class attacking talent, a scoreless draw in the first leg in Solna, Sweden, would have been a phenomenal result heading into the second leg in Milan’s storied San Siro Stadium. Swedish midfielder Jakob Johansson did one better, though, firing home an improbable deflected go-ahead tally from 20 yards out that the Italians couldn’t equalize, sealing a 1-0 final in the first leg.
In order to win the playoff, Sweden needed to pass one more survival test: Protect a 1-0 lead on the road for 90 minutes in an incredibly hostile road environment and pull of one of the most monumental upsets in World Cup qualifying history.
In a defensive performance for the ages, Sweden did exactly that, fighting to the most important scoreless draw in the nation’s footballing history. After Johansson went down in the second leg with a torn ACL in the 19th minute, Svensson subbed on and played a crucial role for the duration of the match in preserving the clean sheet. All told, he racked up four caps during Sweden’s qualifying cycle.
He was on the field for the iconic moment that followed the final whistle and was even pictured sharing a postgame word and embrace with legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Svensson later described the atmosphere at San Siro that night as one of the best in which he’s ever had the opportunity to play.
Svensson shakes hands with Gianluigi Buffon | Reuters
“It’s hard to put into words,” Svensson said. “It’s pure joy, pure happiness, especially when you play for a team that works really, really hard for each other. We’re very close, on and off the pitch. It’s a very good feeling to do something that no one thought we would do, and that we did it together as a group.
“Everybody [in Sweden] is very happy that we did,” he added. “They’re still talking about the Italy game, about how we’re going to the World Cup.”
Meanwhile, Svensson has continued to thrive for the Sounders. He is off to an equally strong start in 2018, playing his customary lockdown defense and even bagging one of the highlight-reel goals of the Sounders’ season so far with a first-half golazo from distance in a 3-1 victory over Minnesota United on April 22.
It remains to be seen exactly what role Svensson will play for Sweden in Russia this summer, but he said his hope is to compete for as many minutes as possible. Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer made the decision to release Svensson from the club earlier than he had to in May in order to give him a chance to fight for meaningful time on the pitch.
“I felt that was only fair,” Schmetzer said at the time. “I made the decision to let him go because the World Cup is a big deal. And I want Gustav to be able to be a starter in some World Cup games for Sweden. I think he deserves that. I think he has earned that right.”
For his part, Svensson said he’s trying to approach the situation with the same pragmatic mindset he had before he worked his way back into the international picture.
Italy players react to missing out on the World Cup | Reuters
“It’s hard to say [my role],” Svensson said. “As a team, I think going through the first group is what everybody expects and hopes we’ll do. For me, individually, of course I would love to play as many minutes as possible. But if I don’t, I’m going to be supportive and make sure my teammates are as ready as possible.”
If the Swedes are to make a World Cup run, they’ll have to beat the odds again to do so. Their Group F opposition once again includes powerhouse countries that will give Sweden all it can handle, including perennial favorite Germany and a Mexico team that is the best in North America. Even the least-pedigreed team in the group, South Korea, figures to be a worthy adversary.
For Svensson, though, it’s a challenge he and his countrymen are relishing. In a way, the country’s collective journey to the World Cup is analogous of Svensson’s individual road to this moment.
No one thought they would be here to begin with. Now, it’s up to them to make the most of the opportunity.
“It’s a weird feeling that you’re ready to do everything you can,” Svensson said. “You’re ready to run until you die for your team. But of course, it’s going to be even more when you play for your national team, when you play in the World Cup and you know the entire world is watching, and you know how much it means for the country and for your teammates and for everyone around the team. It’s a great feeling, so hopefully I’m not too nervous. Hopefully that turns into ambition and motivation.”