For the first time in their history, the Sweden women's national soccer team has advanced to the gold medal match at the Olympics. This is impressive in and of itself, but the road they took to get there is stunning too -- they had to beat the United States, defending gold medalists and World Cup winners, as well as host country Brazil, who had 70,000 fans on their side in the semifinal.
Everyone who is not Swedish will be rooting for them to lose in the final.
Why? Despite the fact that they defeated two medal favorites to get this far, they did not do so in impressive fashion. They took the U.S. and Brazil to penalty kicks and won both shootouts. In regulation time of those two games, they combined for four total shots. They're packing 10 players behind the ball and refusing to take any risks when they attack. Sweden games are unwatchable, and since their opponents make some attempt to actually play soccer, it leads neutral fans to root against them.
Why does Sweden do this?
Besides the fact that it clearly works? A big reason is because the United States and Brazil have yet to prove that they're really good at breaking down a deep defense. The last time they met the USWNT, at last summer's World Cup, they tried a similar (though not quite as negative) tactic and earned a 0-0 draw. Sweden got absolutely clobbered 5-1 by Brazil in the Olympics group stage last week, so it makes sense that they'd switch up their strategy for the rematch, and Brazil didn't have much of an answer for that change. While Brazil got a lot of shots off, they were of a pretty low quality.
The other reason is that their coach, Pia Sundhage, is much better at coaching this style than any other style. Her brief attempts to get more ambitious with Sweden and her previous team, the United States, haven't gone very well. The closest thing to entertaining soccer they can manage is when she takes out one of the defensive midfielders for a striker and allows the midfielders to get forward on the counter-attack. Even that's some extremely rudimentary stuff.
Does Sweden have to do this?
Absolutely not! They're not in a situation like China, who has just enough talent to spring some upsets if they're well-organized, but not enough talent to win a medal playing attacking soccer. They're nothing like the Greece teams that terrorized men's soccer for a decade. They actually have excellent attacking talent.
Caroline Seger is one of the most technically sound and creative attacking midfielders in the world. She's asked to play as a holder. Lotta Schelin has won top scorer in France's top flight and the European Championship. She's playing as a defensive left winger. Kosovare Asllani had a great scoring record as an attacker at Paris Saint-Germain. She's playing as a defensive right winger. Lisa Dahlkvist has proven that she can run the midfield against top competition without a big numbers advantage, but Sundhage is playing an extremely conservative midfield around her anyway.
And perhaps that's the most frustrating thing about Sweden -- that they're not a plucky underdog scraping by any way they can. They're one of the eight or so teams with the talent to win a major tournament while playing an attacking style of soccer, but they've chosen to ask their great attackers to play more defense than offense.
OK, but what's the big deal? Whatever wins games, right?
Sure, this is high stakes professional soccer. At the highest level of the game, with a gold medal on the line, winning matters more than anything else. But there are a couple of reasons why women's soccer fans are especially annoyed with this team.
The first and most obvious is that professional soccer is an entertainment product. Where you think it falls on the competition-to-entertainment spectrum is up to you, but FIFA makes rules to keep the product entertaining for people. The four corners offense and lane-camping were effective basketball strategies until the shot clock and 3-second violation were invented. FIFA's tried to make the game more fun with the offside rule and by making it illegal for goalkeepers to pick up back-passes, but there's only so much they can do. They are, to some degree, hoping and praying that most teams feel like trying to score.
The second is that women's soccer is still fighting for mainstream legitimacy in almost every country where men's soccer is popular. When there's a bad men's tournament plagued by negative soccer, the prevailing reaction is "that tournament stunk." When the same thing happens in a women's tournament, the prevailing reaction is "women's soccer stinks." The reality is that the quality of technical and creative play has improved leaps and bounds in the women's game over the last decade, but if Rio's the first tournament you've tuned in for, you're unlikely to know or care. Longtime women's soccer fans are fearful of the effect teams like Sweden winning major titles might have on the long-term future of the sport they love.
Sweden will continue to be derided for all of these reasons. And at the Maracana on Friday, expect the entire stadium to be against them.
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