World Cup History of Sweden: The Nearly Men


Sweden were an early world power of international football, consistently achieving solid results at the Olympics and even finishing third in 1924. This alone is perhaps not enough to warrant the label “world power”, but more was to come.

Sweden’sWorld Cup History: The Nearly Men

Sweden’s 1934 World Cup Debut

After abstaining from the inaugural 1930 World Cup, Sweden made their debut four years later. Argentina’s recent track record was imposing, having finished second in the previous World Cup as reigning South American champions, creating an opposition potent enough to make any team tremble, especially debutants. In accordance with the expectations, Argentina obtained an early lead thanks to Ernesto Belis – only goal he ever scored for the national team. This lead was short-lived, as Elfsborg’s all-time most legendary player, Sven Jonasson, equalized five minutes later.

Early in the second half, it was time for another player to score his first and only goal for the national team. Alberto Galateo made it 2-1 Argentina, but Jonasson once again brought Sweden back into the game. However, this deadlock didn’t last very long. Knut Kroon scored the winning goal for Sweden in the 79th minute to eliminate one of the main favorites in the first round against a team making their maiden appearance at the tournament. This cinderella story was cut short by Germany in the quarter-finals, however.

1938 World Cup

Despite ending Sweden’s run in 1934, Germany arguably granted Sweden a successful 1938 campaign, because Anschluss awarded Sweden a 3-0 win against Austria in the first round. A star-studded side that was one of the main front-runners to win it all, Sweden made full use of the opportunity, obliterating Cuba 8-0 in the quarter-finals. The joint-fourth biggest win in World Cup history. But Sweden were on the wrong side of a demolition in the semi-finals, losing 5-1 against Hungary despite scoring in the first minute. They also lost 4-2 to Brazil in the third-place play-off. It would not be the last we saw of that matchup.  

The Lost World Cups That Sweden Could Have Won

The two subsequent World Cups were cancelled because of World War II. Compared to the majority of other countries, Sweden got off lightly. However, the World Cup cancellations were still devastating from a football point of view, as Sweden would’ve been a contender to win both tournaments, especially in 1946. Instead, Sweden would have to set their eyes on another competition – the 1948 Olympics.

Their front trio was one of the greatest ever, containing AC Milan legends Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. To this day, Nordahl is Milan’s all-time leading goalscorer when only accounting for matches played from the start, and the best non-Italian goalscorer in Serie A history. Ten years earlier, Sweden were awarded a 3-0 win against Austria. This time they won fair and square thanks to Nordahl’s brace and a third goal by Kjell Rosén. On top of being a Malmö legend, Rosén was also well-versed with French and Italian club football.

Sweden’s Biggest Win Ever

South Korea defeated Mexico 5-3 in a spectacular round one encounter, but as breathtaking as it was, their quarter-final clash against Sweden made it pale in comparison. Sweden 12, South Korea 0. To this day, the Blue and Yellow’s biggest win of all time. Nordahl’s two braces only accounted for a fraction of the goals, as did AIK’s and later Atletico Madrid’s Henry Carlsson’s hat-trick. Nordahl’s fellow Milan legends Liedholm and Gren would have to settle with “only” scoring twice and once respectively. Rosén also scored a brace in Sweden’s staggering display. 

Another staggering result was Italy’s 9-0 win against the United States, or perhaps that the Azzurri then went on to lose 5-3 to Denmark in the quarter-finals, despite their emphatic display against the Americans. Sweden and Denmark hold the controversial honour of being the two countries at war with each other the most times. 11 in total, but arguably 12 after their semi-final clash. John Hansen scored four goals in Denmark’s win against Italy, but it was Holger Seebach that gave them the lead against Sweden. A lead that wasn’t made to last. Hansen did eventually get on the scoresheet. It only served as consolation, though, as Carlsson and Rosén both scored twice to make Sweden 4-2 victors and Olympic finalists for the first time in history.

Sweden’s Glory at the 1948 Olympics

Yugoslavia were also in their maiden final, having defeated hosts Great Britain in the last four to reach it. Gren gave Sweden the lead in front of Wembley Stadium’s 60,000 spectators, but Stjepan Bobek equalized as the first 45 minutes were nearing their end. The second half had barely begun when Nordahl restored Sweden’s lead and Gren’s penalty granted them Olympic gold. The question was just if this success could be reached on an even greater stage: the FIFA World Cup

Sweden at the 1950 World Cup

Much of Europe was in ruins following the Second World War, so there was much doubt on whether the fourth edition of football’s greatest competition would take place. In the end, Brazil’s host bid at the 1946 FIFA Congress was accepted. 

Just like in their World Cup debut 16 years ago, Sweden faced a monumental foe in their opening match. This time it was defending champions Italy. It was a spectacular five-goal encounter that Sweden won 3-2 after goals from Serie A regulars Hans Jeppson and Sune Andersson. Ironic as it was, Italy lost after three goals from players in the Italian league. Sweden’s subsequent 2-2 draw against the 1949 South American Championship runners-up Paraguay assured advancement into the final four, which followed a round-robin format. 

This wasn’t Sweden’s tournament, however. Hosts Brazil decimated them 7-1 in the first match and the Blue and Yellow narrowly succumbed 3-2 to eventual champions Uruguay. But an impressive 3-1 win against Spain was enough for Sweden to secure their first-ever World Cup medal. 

1958 World Cup in Sweden

Sweden also went on to win bronze at the 1952 Olympics, but failed to qualify for the 1954  World Cup after losses against Belgium. However, Sweden returned to football’s greatest stage four years later – as hosts. They got a great start against Mexico, winning 3-0. One of the goalscorers was long-time legend Liedholm. The other was Agne Simonsson, who scored a brace.

Next in line were the Mighty Magyars, but not as mighty as they’d previously been. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 had dealt them a major blow, forcing star players like Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis to leave their homeland. But Hungary were still a potent side and Sweden’s triumph over them was admirable. As was Serie A and Fiorentina legend Kurt Hamrin’s brace.  

Sweden’s Wins Against Powerhouses

The Soviet Union, Sweden’s quarter-final opponent, were the reigning Olympic champions and had defeated Austria and and England. Although a tough battle, it ultimately ended up being a routine win for Sweden, with Hamrin and Simonsson scoring again.

Next in line were the defending world champions, West Germany, who won a hard group containing Northern Ireland, Czechoslovakia and Argentina. On top of this, they reigned supreme against a great Yugoslavian side in the quarter-finals.  

Sweden fell behind early on, but were quickly brought back into the game by Inter Milan’s Lennart “Nacka” Skoglund. His only goal for the national team and what a time to score it. The match remained even, but Sweden were presented with a golden opportunity to win when West Germany went down to ten men in the 59th minute. An opportunity that Gren fully capitalized on by scoring a stunning long-distance strike. However, the best was still to come. Kurt Hamrin obtained the ball outside the penalty area with an army of Germans standing in his way. He patiently awaited their approach, then started accelerating. Beating one player, two players, three players and finally the goalkeeper, scoring of the great World Cup goals and securing Sweden a place in their first-ever World Cup final. 

1958 World Cup Final

Sweden got an excellent start, going in front in the fourth minute thanks to Liedholm’s composed finish. This was undoubtedly Brazil’s time to shine, though. Their emphatic display was arguably the greatest ever seen in a World Cup final. Especially that of 17-year-old Pelé who announced himself as a superstar. Sweden’s performance was great, but Brazil would’ve beaten any team in the world on that day.

The Netherlands are the greatest country to never have won the World Cup. Belgium and Portugal have emerged as superpowers recently, despite both having had golden generations during the 20th century. But for now, in terms of consistent historical performances, Sweden are only bested by countries that have World Cup titles.

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