From ‘cowards’ to crushing the USWNT: How Sweden became Olympic gold medal favourites

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Cowards. That’s how Sweden were described five years ago at the Olympic Games as they fought their way to a silver medal with a highly defensive style of play.

But after reaching their second successive Olympic final, the Scandinavian nation's Tokyo 2020 story is very different to that of Rio 2016.

The defensive solidity that frustrated Hope Solo and provoked the U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper to make those controversial comments, remains – but now there is an attacking spark, too.

After scoring just four goals in Brazil, Sweden have netted 13 times in five games in Japan and kept three clean sheets – the same amount as five years ago.

Three of those goals, and one of those clean sheets, came in their first fixture: a thrashing handed out to the USWNT to snap the Americans' 44-game unbeaten streak.

“Now, we show, in terms of play, that we are a skilled team,” Kosovare Asllani, one of the most creative players at this tournament, told Sportbladet afterwards.

That skill runs throughout the entire team.

In front of that airtight defence sits Caroline Seger, the composer at the heart of the team who, with 16 years of international experience, is as valuable as a leader as she is with her passing range.

Next to her is either 24-year-old Filippa Angeldal or 18-year-old Hanna Bennison, Goal’s 2021 Women’s NXGN winner. Their tireless running helps 36-year-old Seger preserve her energy to do what she does best, while their ability to score and create also bolsters the attack – and that attack is fearsome.

With Asllani pulling the strings, Sofia Jakobsson and Fridolina Rolfo terrorising the wings, and Stina Blackstenius in incredible goal-scoring form up top, Sweden can no longer be accused of being boring.

In fact, they have been the second-most creative team at the entire tournament, fashioning just one fewer chance than the Netherlands, who lost to the USWNT in the quarter-finals.

“I think that the national team has developed its game and that we are better than we have ever really been,” Nilla Fischer, who won her first Sweden cap in 2001, told Sportbladet.

Given she has been to 10 major tournaments with the national team, reaching four semi-finals, that is some statement.

Sweden Women 2021

“We are at a very high level,” Rolfo, who has just signed for European champions Barcelona, added. “Many [clubs] want Swedish players. They are good football players. They are loyal football players. I understand that we are hand-picked everywhere.

“[It] must be a lot of fun to be called Hanna Bennison or be someone who has all that in front of them. It's great fun for the future for girls out there to be able to dream about big clubs.”

Sweden’s domestic league, the Damallsvenskan, was once the place to be, not only for Swedish players but for the world’s best – the likes of Marta and Christen Press graced the division for many years.

It has transformed into a more development-focused competition in recent years, helping to at least start, if not largely forge, the careers of most of Peter Gerhardsson’s Olympic squad.

Now, so many of these stars are at the biggest clubs in the world: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich Chelsea, Juventus and Real Madrid are among those represented by Sweden this summer.

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“The national team is something where we borrow the players from the clubs and try to get them to perform at a very high level in a short time,” head coach Gerhardsson said.

“It is the clubs that develop the players and make it long-term, so it is extremely good for the national team that we have players who play at a very high level.”

But it’s not just the technical ability of these players that puts them on the brink of gold, with Sweden the undoubted favourites going into Friday's final against Canada. An ability to solve problems on the pitch themselves helps, too.

"You can sit quite calmly on the bench,” Gerhardsson added. “They fix things. They are so tactically skilled, the girls. They have an ability to dare out on the field. They are brave to make these decisions.”

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Sweden certainly weren't associated with "an ability to dare" or being "brave" five years ago – but things have changed dramatically.

The talent coming out of the country is incredible, and Gerhardsson is helping them to showcase that on the world stage.

Silver was a huge achievement in Rio, but now this team can go one better. They are arguably the best team in the world at this moment. They just need the gold medal to confirm it.