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The World Cup finally caught up with overachieving Sweden

July 7, 2018
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Sweden national soccer team players stand at the end of the quarterfinal match between Sweden and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Samara Arena, in Samara, Russia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

SAMARA, Russia (AP) — Sweden’s players linked arms long after England’s team had already left the field, circling coach Janne Andersson.

The World Cup had finally caught up to the defense-minded overachievers who emerged admirably from the considerable shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“I wanted to try and gather all the players out on the pitch. We were sad and disappointed but we mustn’t forget that we put in an excellent performance,” Andersson said after Saturday’s 2-0 quarterfinal loss to England. “I wanted to tell them we had a bloody good tournament.”

The players applauded each other on the field after Andersson’s short speech, then turned to applaud their yellow-clad fans.

Sweden has never won a World Cup title. The last time they got this deep was in 1994, when they lost to Brazil 1-0 in the semifinals in Pasadena.

The country’s best finish came in 1958, when it lost to Brazil 5-2 on home soil in the final — with a young Pele scoring two goals.

In Russia, the Swedes were the ultimate team players, a group bound together with no clear superstar — unlike in the past when Ibrahimovic’s outsized personality dominated the squad.

This Swedish squad had an unexpected run in Russia. After finishing at the top of a tough group that included defending champion Germany and Mexico, the Swedes beat Switzerland 1-0 in the knockout round. Until meeting England, they had only allowed two goals in Russia.

But the English took the lead on Harry Maguire’s header in the 30th minute, then doubled it with Dele Alli’s goal in the 58th.

Sweden got its best chance about two minutes into the second half on Marcus Berg’s header, which was pushed away by England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Berg later maneuvered a shot around Maguire in front of the goal, but Pickford managed to tip it up and over the net in the 72nd.

Berg, who plays for Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates and had 34 goals this past season, was not able to score for Sweden at the World Cup despite 15 shots. It was the most attempts of any player without a breakthrough at the tournament.

Berg’s disappointment with Sweden’s exit was tempered by his pride for the team.

“Against the odds, we came to the World Cup and we made it to the quarterfinals,” Berg said. “We have to be proud. You just never want it to end.”

Ibrahimovic, the all-time leading scorer for Sweden in a career that spanned 15 years, retired from international soccer in 2016 but still plays at club level for the Los Angeles Galaxy. There was talk in the run-up to the World Cup that he could return but ultimately Sweden decided to go forward without him.

Ibrahimovic was instead supportive of the national team from afar, frequently posting to social media with the hashtag #letsgo. Before the game against England, he struck a good-natured bet with former England captain David Beckham.

After the Saturday’s game Ibrahimovic went to Twitter : “Every player should get a golden ball in Sweden. What they did will be remembered forever. Thank you for the show.”

With no Ibrahimovic, this Sweden team had few players that were familiar to a global audience. Defender Victor Lindelof is the only player in the starting lineup in the Premier League (Manchester United). Emil Forsberg plays for German club Leipzig.

Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist, who played the past five seasons in Russia, paused after the match when asked what he would remember about this year’s World Cup.

“That we as a team have done very well. I don’t think many expected Sweden would be in the quarterfinal at the World Cup,” Granqvist said. “We’ve shown people around that Sweden is a team that people can count on. I think we can be proud.”

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