Sweden came into the Women’s World Cup tournament as one of the favourites.
Peter Gerhardsson’s side arrived with high hopes, and talk of the title, but toiled badly in a rain-sodden Wellington opener. South Africa proved worthy and awkward opponents, taking a hard-earned second-half lead before a scruffy Fridolina Rolfo equaliser and Amanda Ilestedt’s late
header snatched the points.
Third on the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, they may have hoped for a slightly easier path to the final than others after winning their group. Instead, they were paired with four-time champions USA in the Round of 16, a match that was decided by penalties after a scoreless draw.
“It was an awesome football match to experience,” midfielder Elin Rubensson, who played all 120 minutes and converted her penalty, told FIFA. “I think it is always fun to face the US. It was tight, they played a good game. We put in a good defensive effort. Zecira Musovic did fantastically in goal as well. I think we fought in every single position.”
The 30-year-old has been a crucial part of her team’s success over the course of her career. She isn’t always the flashiest player, but her work in midfield is what allows those around her to shine. With over 80 appearances for the national team, she is a player who knows what it takes to have a cohesive and effective squad.
Rubensson believes that it is the mental strength of her team that gave them the edge in the tense moments against USA.
“It is not a situation you can train yourself to be in straight away,” she explained, regarding the penalty shootout.
“There is a lot going on. There is enormous pressure from the stands. You know that there are many people sitting at home, watching, with their fingers crossed. But it is something that we talk about a lot in the team, how to take care of the mental side and support each other. I thought we did it very well,”
It is that support and care for one another that she emphasises is one of the key strengths of Sweden. She explains that they have always been a strong group, but the squad at Australia & New Zealand 2023 are something different.
“We are a very special group,” she said. “We put in a shift for each other, we go the extra mile under pressure. We do not get frustrated if everything isn’t working, or if we do not get the ball. Instead, we keep fighting.”
“We help each other move forward, even if we fail. We help each other and push each other. It’s unique, but very powerful and helpful,” Rubensson said.
She credits the staff, including coach Peter Gerhardsson and sports psychologist Rasmus Liljeblad, for cultivating the culture within the team.
The BK Hacken star has partially filled the role of the legendary Caroline Seger in this tournament. It is something that she has enjoyed, and she says that she is pleased with her on-field performances so far.
“I’ve helped balance the team in front of the back line, and joined in defensively breaking up attacks from the opposition, but I’ve also joined our attacks as well,” she said, describing her role in the team. “Overall, it has felt good.”
Sweden will face Japan in the quarter-finals on Friday at Eden Park in Auckland. The Nadeshiko are the form side of the competition, having demolished Spain 4-0 in their final group stage game before overcoming Norway 3-1 in the Round of 16.
Rubensson says that their speed and technical ability will be the biggest threats to counter if they are to avoid the fate of their fellow Scandinavians.
“We are absolutely ready,” she said emphatically. “We have been careful over the past few days and had good training sessions and rest days, so we will be ready for the game.”
To advance to the semi-finals, the Swedes will have to find a way past a Japanese side that is looking in imperious form. If they can do so, Rubensson her team-mates may just about dare to dream of a first FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy.