GELENDZHIK, Russia (Reuters) - The Nordic nations of Sweden, Iceland and Denmark have nothing to be ashamed of for playing no-frills football at the World Cup, former Sweden international Hakan Mild has told Reuters.
The hard-running midfielder was part of a skilful Sweden side that came third at the 1994 tournament, and he dismissed criticism from Lionel Messi and others about Iceland’s defensive approach to the game and Germany’s complaints about Sweden’s time-wasting.
“It’s about playing to your strengths and trying to win. You play in a way that gives you the biggest chance of winning. It’s hard to criticise a country like Iceland with only 350,000 people,” Mild said.
Messi, who missed a penalty in Argentina’s 1-1 draw with the Icelanders, criticised the islanders’ defensive tactics after that game, but striker Alfred Finnbogason hit back.
“We could have played attacking football, Messi would have been happy, and they would have won 5-0. But we play our way and it’s brought us success. People can have their opinion about it, but we really don’t care,” he told reporters.
“They play quite primitively on occasion, but that doesn’t mean they are bad players,” Mild explained. “You have to adapt when playing against these better teams to try to win the game.”
After playing free-flowing, short-passing football under Morten Olsen, Denmark have also changed styles under Age Hareide and Mild, who is in Russia working as an analyst for Swedish Radio, noted the difference.
“They’ve played a lot of long balls recently, and we’re not used to seeing that with Denmark, but they can vary it. It can be hard to switch mentally from playing long to holding on to the ball, but Denmark have the players to do that,” he said.
A former sporting director at Swedish club IFK Gothenburg, Mild spent a brief part of his playing career at English side Wimbledon, where aggressive defending and long-ball attacks were something of a trademark.
“Often in the beginning when you play that way, you get that positivity, you can defend and hit a long ball or create a chance on the counter. It’s positive and you get energy, and the opponent gets frustrated,” Mild said.
“But if you’re only playing long balls and they go out of play, it can get very frustrating. Sweden and Denmark are such good teams that they are going to get chances.”
Germany needed a last-gasp goal from Toni Kroos to overcome a dogged defensive performance from the Swedes to win 2-1, and their post-match criticism of Sweden’s time-wasting and tactics was dismissed by Sweden’s Sebastian Larsson.
“Why should we play in a way that’s not advantageous to us?” he asked.
Despite the criticism, Mild says that the Scandinavians are perhaps under-rated and predicts continued success for the Nordic teams in terms of qualifying for tournaments.
“There are plenty of technical players in these teams, and football has become more so that teams back off,” he explained.
“When you win the ball and you’re 60, 70 metres from the opposition goal, if you don’t have good technique and good passing, you’re not going to make it to the opponent’s goal.”
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Hugh Lawson