Thursday 13 December 2018

Why Sweden's Emil Forsberg dreads facing 'The Sheriff' after a bad game

Emil Forsberg (2nd L) celebrates after scoring for Sweden during their World Cup round of 16 match against Switzerland in Saint Petersburg. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Emil Forsberg (2nd L) celebrates after scoring for Sweden during their World Cup round of 16 match against Switzerland in Saint Petersburg. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

In celebrating the goal that propelled Sweden into their first World Cup quarter-final since 1994, Emil Forsberg waited until he had received the plaudits of his team-mates before discreetly placing his fingers together in the shape of a heart.

Anyone who knows Forsberg would have understood exactly what this gesture meant but, having received the man-of-the-match award following his winner against Switzerland, the player who now represents the major creative barrier to England and the semi-final was asked to enlighten everyone.

"My wife," he said, in reference to Shanga Forsberg, herself an international footballer, and yet also his biggest critic. In a constructive sense, it should be added, but also sometimes in what he calls a "brutal" fashion.

So much so that Forsberg has a nickname for a woman he first met when they were both only 14. He calls her 'The Sheriff'.

Writing for 'The Players' Tribune', he expanded on how their relationship had brought out the best in him.

"The only time I get nervous in football is after I play a bad game," he said. "When I get home that night, I know what's coming. The Sheriff always gives it to me straight. 'You were a disaster! Where were you there? Why didn't you make that run? Do you call that a corner? Seriously?'

"And if the Sheriff gets really f****ed off... well, you don't want to be in the same room."

Her tactical insights, says Forsberg, are invariably correct, but what was really transformative in his career was how Shanga helped bring out his self-confidence.

Forsberg is the natural heir to Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Swedish football's biggest star and main attacking outlet but their personalities could hardly be more different.

Forsberg is from Sundsvall, a small town in the north of Sweden, and shy.

Even his dad, Leif, himself a former professional player, describes him as "without a doubt the most boring player to interview".

The problem, though, was that this reserved outlook was impacting on his football. He suffered early rejections from clubs and was told he was too small.

He lacked self-confidence. He credits Shanga with helping him become more assertive and confident, on and off the pitch.

Forsberg eventually established himself for Sundsvall before moves to Malmo in 2013 and then RB Leipzig in 2015, who he has since helped win promotion and twice finish in the top six of the Bundesliga.

He has then been integral to a Sweden team who, directly or indirectly, have Holland, Germany, Mexico, Italy and now Switzerland on their list of World Cup scalps.

Their main qualities are visible enough. They are organised, defensively resilient and motivated.

They have conceded only two goals so far - only Uruguay and Russia have let in fewer - but it is the defensive work of the creative players, notably Forsberg but also Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen, that really tells you most about the internal spirit.

Sweden coach Janne Andersson used the word "team" repeatedly in his press conference after the Switzerland win and it has been Forsberg's willingness to adapt his creativity to the collective game-plan that most pleases him.

"He has developed in terms of the holistic approach to his game," said Andersson.

"Even if he doesn't succeed in every dribble, in every part of his game he contributes in so many ways and he has those decisive moments."

Having seen arguably their greatest player retire, Sweden have been on an unlikely journey of improvement, even if Ibrahimovic's presence was still somehow looming in St Petersburg following their win.

Manchester United and Sweden centre-back Victor Lindelof said that Forsberg "can do the extra things that we need".

And, having said that it was difficult to draw comparisons with Ibrahimovic, remarked that people would still be asking him questions about the former Manchester United, Paris St-Germain, Barcelona, Ajax, AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan striker until he was "about 95".

Viktor Claesson said Forsberg's importance lay in his ability to offer something different, while simultaneously helping them very literally to defend from front to back.

"He is different - the other players are physical and solid but he has extraordinary skills," said Claesson.

"He is not a star player like other big players in Russia. He is the star player for us but still works hard for the team and stays humble. We are underdogs and a team together - it's perfect."

Of Ibrahimovic, who remarked last week, "I took over the world, now Sweden are taking over the world", Claesson added: "He can just keep on talking.

"It's years since he retired. It's better to focus on the ones who did a great job here to make it to the quarter-final." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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