Football at the Friends Arena

They came from all over Sweden, to this place – Friends Arena, the home of the Swedish men’s football team.

It was the first leg of World Cup Qualifiers between Sweden and Italy. Sweden had done tremendously well (beating out Netherlands in one of the toughtest UEFA qualifying groups) to reach this position, Italy had done tremendously badly (its 3-0 loss to Spain the most damning result) to not have qualified directly.While not one of the golden periods of Italian football, the Azzurri had the luxury of calling upon top quality players throughout the team from Gianluigi Buffon and Georgio Chellini to Danielle De Rossi and Marco Verratti. Sweden on the other had its most prominent son Zlatan Ibrahimovic officially retired from the international scene and no stars of note. There was no way the Italians would lose.

This was how differently matched the two teams were.

While there is a romantic notion of the little guy winning in football, the ball being round and all, its actually less common than we think (that’s why its romantic). The poetic nature of football means that these sort of match-ups are the most beautiful to savour. I wanted to watch the match, because I like a good underdog story, and this match up seemed to be a good story.

Also, we were excited to witness a international match, with solid teams, so close to where we lived, and we weren’t alone.

Fans from all over Sweden had made the trip down. No one was predicting anything from Sweden, we spoke to a few Swedish fans who worse their blue and yellow Swedish jerseys but also bought lottery bets on Italy winning, “so that either way, I don’t get too sad”.

But bloody hell, they were going to cheer their guts out for their team – it helped that some of them had already had a few beers.

This was going to be an important match, so it made perfect sense that the stadium was going to be packed to the brim.  The Friends Arena is the jewel in the crown of Stadiums in Sweden, with a total capacity of 50,000 during football matches. Opened in 2012, the stadium is a top range UEFA Category 4 and hosts both sports and non-sporting events. When not hosting the national team, Friends Arena is the home stadium of AIK football club, one of three Stockholm-based teams playing in the Swedish Allsvenskan (the Swedish football league, but not the same level as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga). It took 3 years to complete and the first match to christen the stadium was a 4-2 victory against England with Swedish football hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic – or as they call him in Sweden, Kung Zlatan, King Zlatan – getting all four goals for Sweden.

The stadium had almost 49,200 people in attendance that night, and the atmosphere was electric.

The crowd was boisterous and the tension was palpable. If there wasn’t a firm belief in a Swedish victory before the match, the sheer atmosphere of being with such a dominating number of fellow countrymen must have given some of the fans the courage to dream.

And then some were high. A minor kerfuffle broke out in the section next to ours, but were stopped by other fans and peer pressured from the fans all around to stop (the surround sections just turned around and shouted in unison at the perpetrators). The crowd control and police arrived rather soon after.

Buoyed by their home support and driven by the chance to qualify for the World Cup in Russia the Swedish team went for it. They played with vastly more hunger than the Italians who were void of passion, almost a little arrogant, and from my vantage point – fell to the ground a little too often. A belter struck the post, a deflection found its way into the net. Those two events were on hindsight the clearest signs that fortune would favour the brave tonight. Sweden played hard and well, Italy were void of ideas and invention. Even a amazing strike from Matteo Damian would not go in.

Super bra Sverige!

P.S: Three days later, Sweden went to Milan for the second leg. That leg ended 0-0, and Sweden was through to the World Cup, knocking out former world-champions Italy who had not missed a world cup since 1958 and entering their first world cup since 2006.

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