x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Surprise package Sweden not ready for U17 dream to end just yet

European debutants not cowed by semi-final encounter with Nigeria.

Valmir Berisha and Sweden hope there is still more magic left in their run to the Fifa Under 17 World Cup semi-finals. AFP
Valmir Berisha and Sweden hope there is still more magic left in their run to the Fifa Under 17 World Cup semi-finals. AFP

DUBAI // Unbowed by uncharted waters and an impending clash with the tournament favourites, Sweden said their dream run through the Fifa Under 17 World Cup has some way to go yet.

The U17 debutants face a formidable Nigerian side at Dubai’s Rashid Stadium on Tuesday, although they will extract some encouragement from an earlier meeting in Group F play, in which they twice led the powerful Africans before eventually drawing 3-3.

That Sweden are even in the UAE, though, provides a healthy source of optimism. Their story began to gain momentum in March, when a last-minute goal against Hungary ensured their participation in April’s European Championship, and from there, they progressed to the last four.

With a place guaranteed among the world’s 24 best international teams here, they now find themselves as one of the final four.

It is a tale even Roland Larsson, the Sweden coach, characterised as unlikely.

“When we left Sweden, if you told somebody we’d go to semi-final, they would’ve laughed at you,” he said. “Because that was not possible. Remember, it was the first time in 14 years that we’d even played in the European Championship. But we finished third there and grew in self-confidence as a team.”

That much has been evident throughout this event.

An opening 4-1 victory against Iraq laid the platform to emerge from a daunting group before knock-out round wins against Japan and Honduras set up a return meeting tonight. Although Nigeria represent one of the competition’s standout sides, Sweden are far from running scared.

“We have respect for each other, but we’re not afraid,” Larsson said. “Because if you’re in the semi-final, it means you’re good. Of course, we respect Nigeria, but we believe we can beat them.

“When I started as coach I asked myself, ‘Are we prepared? Are we good enough?’ And then from the first match I said, ‘Yes we are’.

“No one working in youth football across the world could imagine we’d be in semi-final, because we’re a real rookie. We have nothing to lose.”

jmccauley@thenational.ae

8pm, Al Jazeera Sport HD6

@ For more on the FIFA UNDER 17 WORLD CUP, visit thenational.ae/topics