This article was first featured in Issue 6 of the Box To Box magazine on the Assorted History of the World Cup with word by Jozef Brodala and accompanying illustration from Dan Jamieson.
Picture the scene. It’s 2022, England are the reigning European Champions. After firing the Three Lions to glory in London, Harry Kane has moved to Real Madrid. After a successful season, he’s convinced fellow European champions Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to join him.
The three players form a formidable trio for Los Merengues scoring 71 goals between them in just 38 league games. And then, when the squad is announced for Qatar, their names aren’t there.
The three best players, that famous trio, those undoubted stars are not part of the squad. Rather, only Premier League players are eligible.
In today’s world of footballers playing across the globe, it seems ridiculous, but in 1950, this was the situation the Swedish side found themselves in.
In 1948, in London, Sweden had swept to the Olympic gold medal. Gunnar Nordahl starred for the Swedes and caught the eye of giants AC Milan. He left for Italy and shone, grabbing 16 goals in just 15 games.
Nordahl enjoyed himself so much he convinced fellow gold medalists Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm to join him. In doing so, they fell foul of the Swedish FA’s ban on professionals which applied to those footballers from Sweden who were playing in Italy – or indeed other foreign leagues- at that time.
This was a substantial blow to a side hoping to go to Brazil and back up their Olympic gold with a world title. While the Olympics was not wholly a who’s who of sides, Sweden won their quarterfinal 12-0. It was an important tournament and the first global football spectacle since World War II.
While Liedholm and Gren were both superb footballers, Nordahl was the absolute star. He is still adored in Milan with AC’s website calling him, “one of the greatest centre-forwards ever.” He won the Capocannoniere (Serie A’s golden boot) five times and is still their all-time top scorer.
But Sweden would have to go to Brazil without him and his two teammates. They still travelled in the hope of pulling off something special and determined to show their Olympic title wasn’t a fluke.
It was an amazing time for Sweden’s team, getting the chance to go all the way to South America, to experience a culture so different from theirs and going to a place many people could only dream of travelling to. In a time before the world was so connected, South America felt like a magical and distant land.
The 1950 World Cup was, in many ways, a rather strange edition of the world’s most famous football tournament. There were meant to be sixteen teams and sixteen teams did indeed qualify – however not all of them travelled to Brazil.
Despite qualifying, Scotland decided not to attend as they failed to win the Home Championship while Turkey and India baulked at the high travel costs. FIFA decided that inviting Portugal and France would be a clever solution. However Portugal did not accept their offer and France, having been drawn into Group Four, also decided that the travel costs would be too high and became the fourth side to withdraw.
This left the World Cup with a rather unbalanced thirteen teams and FIFA needed to come up with a format that would work. In classic FIFA style, they seemed to arrive at the most complicated solution. It would have seemingly made sense to have three groups of three and one of four with the top sides going through to semi-finals and then finals.
This solution was too straightforward for an organisation that loves complexity, and FIFA settled on two groups of four, one of three and then a group with just two teams. Rather than the top sides from each group going into semi-finals, they would go to a second group stage where they played each other with the winner becoming the World Champion. It remains the only World Cup not to have an ‘official final.’
In amongst all the chaos, Sweden landed in Group 3, the one with two other sides. They would take on Paraguay, a side they knew rather little about and then Italy, the reigning World Champions and a side that had, to that point, never lost a game at a World Cup.
Italy had picked up the title in 1934 and then again in 1938. Even after a twelve-year gap between the ’38 and ’50 World Cups due to World War II, they were still one of the favourites and had a squad expected to do rather well.
Sweden kicked off their campaign against the Italians knowing that, in a group of just three teams, losing would have made their chances of advancement very slim. The two sides clashed at the Pacaembu Stadium in São Paulo in front of more than 36,000 people, eager to see the World Champions and a Sweden side full of unknown players hoping to make their mark.
Their squad might have been missing their three superstars but that didn’t mean that it was weak. In goal stood Kalle Svensson who was known in his hometown of Helsingborgs for being calm under pressure and a huge presence between the sticks. He was a firefighter as well as being a goalkeeper, ensuring that he had experience of something far tougher to face than a mere striker.
The defence in front of him was not the greatest in the world but was well organised and featured some handy players. Lennart Samuelsson would go on to play in France for Nice and Erik Nilsson, Sweden’s captain, was another player Milan had tried to recruit. However, he’d turned the Italian side down, preferring to stay in Sweden at Malmö FF, where he would become a five-time Swedish champion.
In midfield, Sweden played three excellent players’: Sune Andersson, Gunnar Nordahl ’s brother Knut, and Ingvar Gärd. In those days, teams played with a lot of attacking firepower, with Sweden’s side having just two defenders, then three midfielders and five more attacking players. It seems like they played a 2-3-5 akin to the classic pyramid formation that had become popular in the late 1920s.
The five attacking players included the legendary Lennart Skoglund, whose dribbling ability made him a star, twenty-one-year-old Karl-Erik Palmér, who would later play for Juventus and Hasse Jeppson who would also go to Italy later in his career – in his case to play for Napoli.
Sweden proved how good they were by being the first team to beat Italy at a World Cup. They won 3-2, despite going a goal down after seven minutes. Jeppson managed to pull them back level, before Sune Andersson gave them the lead in the 33rd minute. Jepsson struck again in the 68th minute and despite Italy grabbing a goal back, Sweden won impressively.
In their next match, they could only draw against Paraguay but Sweden’s point meant that surprisingly Italy were out of the competition. Italy wanted to regain a sense of pride when they met Paraguay and they beat them 2-0, meaning that Sweden topped the group and were through to the final four. They would meet Brazil, Uruguay and Spain for a chance to be World Champions.
Unfortunately for Sweden, they opened this round robin against the hosts Brazil who had been playing superb football up to that point, having won two of their three group games and only conceding two goals. They were massive favourites, especially with the home crowd behind them, and Sweden were totally overwhelmed.
The hosts scored seven goals and Sweden only managed a single goal in reply. While this defeat put paid to any hopes of actually winning the title, the Swedes knew that even making the final four was a massive achievement and that they still had two more games to prove that they were the best Europe had to offer.
Their second match was against the winners of the first World Cup, Uruguay and the two sides met in São Paulo. Sweden took the lead twice and were winning 2-1 right up until the 77th minute when, unfortunately, they could not keep out their talented opponents. Uruguay had won their only group match 8-0 so were clearly no slouches in front of goal.
Two strikes from Óscar Míguez won the game for Uruguay and set up a de facto final between them and Brazil. Sweden, after two bruising defeats, still had the chance to snatch the bronze medal and European supremacy. They met a Spain side who had drawn with Uruguay but had also been dealt out a thrashing by the hosts – in their case 6-1.
Sweden proved their class by beating the Spaniards 3-1 with Sundqvist grabbing his third goal of the tournament to finish as Sweden’s joint highest scorer alongside forward Karl-Erik Palmér. Sweden finished third, a monumental achievement for a side whose FA had seemingly cut off their nose to spite their face.
Sweden, at that World Cup, proved that sometimes players can step up when given the chance. They showed that stars aren’t everything and that a well organised and confident group can achieve something great. They remain one of Sweden’s most loved and treasured national sides.
For Grenn and Liedholm, their time in the yellow and blue would come. The Swedish FA lifted the ban for the 1958 World Cup on home soil and Gren and Liedholm helped Sweden all the way to the final, where they lost to a dazzling Brazil side. Unfortunately, for Gunnar Nordahl, the World Cup would be a competition he never got the chance to play in.
Had the Gre-No-Li trio played in 1950 and not stayed at home in Milan, who knows what might have happened? Perhaps Sweden, not Germany in 2014, would have been the first European side to lift the cup on South American soil.