Countdown to EURO 2004 – 141 days to go!

FOCUS: Sweden (Group C)

The elongated Scandinavian country, temperate in the south and bitterly cold in the north, has a population of nine million, the majority of whom live in and around the capital Stockholm. The Swedish FA was founded in 1906 and the nation experienced its greatest footballing moment in 1958, only losing out to the magic of a young Pelé in the World Cup Final when hosting the event.

A fresh crop of exceptional talent emerged in the early 1990s, with players like Ravelli, Patrick Andersson, Schwartz and Brolin, who shot their country into third place in the 1994 World Cup. Two years earlier, they had achieved their best European Championship placing by reaching the semi-finals. But those times have gone and today joint coaches Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg rely on the mercurial talent of Arsenal playmaker Freddy Ljungberg, the striking partnership of Allback and Jonson, and emerging young Ajax talent, Ibrahimovic. Sweden’s game is heavily dependent on its solid defence organised around Mellberg.

A relatively weak qualifying group that included Hungary, Poland, San Marino and Latvia saw Sweden qualify for Portugal automatically, where they now face Bulgaria, Denmark and Italy. Although difficult to score goals against, it is hard to see them progress past the group stage.

Sweden is a strange country famed for its neutrality, Nobel Prizes and stunning blondes. In fact, the latter has been proved to be a myth – only one and a half million Swedish women are natural blondes. Another curious fact is that Swedes drove on the left until 1967. It was then suddenly decided to switch to the right and at 5am on September 3; all traffic ground to a halt and changed lanes – accident statistics are not available!

Sweden also has the lowest birth rate in the world and Stockholm taxi drivers on night shift give women passengers a 20 per cent discount. It is not known if there is a direct correlation between these two facts.

In Japan, popular Swedish music is known as ‘IKEA Soul’ and Sweden’s lasting contribution to the international music scene remains ABBA. Waterloo rather than Fernando might be an apt choice of tune to bid the Swedish team farewell at Euro 2004!

Speaking the Lingo – Porto’s Municipal Câmara and ANTRAL, the passenger transport association, have decided that taxi drivers are to take English lessons in advance of the Euro 2004 Championships. The move is designed to promote a favourable image of the city and facilitate communication with visitors. Over 60 cabbies have already signed up for the local authority-run courses and it is hoped that more will join. “Taxis will take our millions of visitors to their hotels during Euro 2004 and are the first point of contact, so it is important to make a good impression,” enthused Rui Rio, President of the Porto Câmara. Language courses are set to stay beyond this year’s football spectacle.

The Price Is Right – The Commission responsible for giving restaurants official Euro 2004 approval has to-date received 500 applications for that status. This number is expected to rise to 5,000 by June. The official seal of approval, denoting quality, requires restaurants to maintain prices and to remain open throughout the tournament.

Sponsorship Incentives – It has been revealed that financial agreements with Portugal’s main Euro 2004 commercial sponsors are performance-related. Companies such as Galp, Coca-Cola, Telecom, McDonald’s and Adidas have guaranteed a base figure plus bonuses that will be paid depending on the progress of the national side. Should Portugal be eliminated in the initial group phase, players will stand to lose thousands of euros in incentive payments. A similar restructuring of wage contractsat club level might prove beneficial to the financial health of football in general.

Recent Poll – A poll conducted on the website has shown that 87 per cent of those who voted believe that Portugal will at least reach the quarter-finals, 57 per cent believe in a semi-final place and 19 per cent think the host nation will win the tournament. The Europe-wide survey reflects the betting with major bookmakers, Portugal being quoted as one of the favourites for Euro 2004, alongside France and Italy. National coach Scolari agrees with the betting, having named the semi-finals as the minimum of Portugal’s aspirations.