Postcard from Sweden: Valuable point to propel Pauw’s team to play-off?

Fri, Apr 15 2022
Katie McCabe, Vera Pauw, Chloe Mustaki and Kosovare Asllani

Katie McCabe, Vera Pauw, Chloe Mustaki and Kosovare Asllani Credit: Macdara Ferris (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Gothenburg

It wasn’t a case of winner takes it all in Sweden this week as both the home side and the visitors were quite happy with drawing their game 1-1 in Gothenburg.

For Sweden it secured qualification for the 2023 Women’s World Cup. For the Republic of Ireland, it keeps the momentum building behind Vera Pauw’s side, as well as giving them a bit of breathing room in the race for the play-off spot.

The financial backing for this current crop of Irish players was evident in Dublin Airport when the team flew out. Gone were the days of changing out of tracksuits in Terminal One.

The Sky Ireland sponsorship of the team includes a massive banner en-route to the gate showing support for the team. It also meant they flew out on a charter flight avoiding the current chaos in Dublin Airport depatures. 

Thankfully the Irish squad didn’t have to queue up outside the terminal at 4.30am like your extratime.com reporter!

Winner takes it all

The trip to Sweden for the World Cup qualifier also gives me a chance to attend my first Allsvenskan match. On Sunday I took a trip by train an hour south of Gothenburg for the top flight game between Varbergs BoIS and Kalmar FF.

It is Varbergs’ first ever home match in the Swedish top flight. Their Paskbergsvallen Stadium is similar to the RSC. The match ticket sets me back 150 Krona (around €15) and following the ‘crowd’ to the game I end up going into the away end.

That works out well as the 100 or so Kalmar fans in the 2,229 attendance are in good spirits after their 299km trek across the country to watch their team play. They are in even better spirits at the final whistle. They are the 3-0 winners and take all three points on offer.

On Monday, I’m in the Gamla Ullevi Stadium for much of the day. The stadium is the ground for all the Swedish women’s home games. At the entrance is a statue to Gunnar Gren, the former Gothenburg and AC Milan player, who was part of the team who finished runners up in the 1958 World Cup.

Matches from that tournament were played in the adjacent Ullevi Stadium – Ireland held one of their training sessions ahead of the qualifer in that venue.

In the morning, there is a chance to watch some of Sweden’s training session before the home team’s press conference. Head Coach Peter Gerhardsson takes some questions from the Irish media.

Everyone has been amused by his team’s new ‘how to stop Sweden’ kit which includes the detail of how best to take on the Blågult.

When asked whether that shows arrogance on the part of Sweden, the manager goes into a brief conflab with his press officer. It is only afterwards we find out he isn’t trying to agree a response but that he hasn’t heard the question correctly. The manager we learn later wears a hearing aid.

It turns out Gerhardsson is also a massive music fan and when speaking to a member of the Irish press later he mentions he is fan of Fontaines D.C. – a band name that adorned a recent Bohemians kit.

The Swedish manager seemed surprised by the size of the media at his press conference, joking was it a concert. It certainly was the largest ever number of travelling journalists covering an Ireland away game – there were 20 members of the media in total from Ireland from online, print, radio and TV.

A few like myself are making their away debut but are made feel welcome by members of the press pack who have soldiered with the team over the years.

Late afternoon we hear from the Ireland manager and from the captain and we get some more quotes to add to our ‘how to stop Sweden’ narrative.

On match night the 12,123 spectators give the game a great atmosphere. There is plenty of blue and yellow on display in the stadium – both for the home team and for Ukraine. Ahead of the anthems, both teams line up behind a ‘Stop the War – We Stand with Ukraine’ banner. 

There are a few tricolours around the stadium hung by Irish supporters who have made the trip. They include Lucy Quinn’s parents, Michael and Sharon, who have travelled from Southampton to see for the first time their daughter play for Ireland. There is also support for the ‘Save Tolka Park’ campaign.

Take a chance on Chloe

In her starting lineup, Vera Pauw keeps faith with Courtney Brosnan in goal, redeploys Megan Campbell in defence and takes a chance on bringing in Chloe Mustaki for her competitive debut at wing back. Pauw is rewarded by excellent displays by all three who prove critical to the excellent result.

The press box has seats that swivel and mine is pointed mostly to the left in the opening half as the home team look to break down Ireland’s low block defence. The girls in green weather the Swedish storm and have a let off when Kosovare Asllani dinks one off the cross bar.

Mamma mia

A minute before the break Sweden switch off and allow McCabe work a short free kick to Connolly. When Denise O’Sullivan picks up Lucy Quinn’s header, she tees up McCabe.

The Ireland skipper’s shot takes a deflection and hits the back of the net. Mamma mia. Ireland have the lead. The ground goes silent but for the screams of delight from the Irish bench, players on the pitch and those in the stands in front of the press box. 

SOS

Still chasing the game with a dozen minutes to go, Peter Gerhardsson makes the SOS call up the line to Nathalie Bjorn and Olivia Schough who are warming up. The coach is rewarded by his substitutes a minute later with a goal off a sweeping Swedish move.

Angeldah plays a delightful ball to Schough who knocks it first time into the path of Asllani.

The Real Madrid striker takes the ball down on the move and rifles to ball by Brosnan with her left boot. 

Dancing Queen

Asllani wheels away in celebration dancing towards the cornerflag to be enveloped by her teammates. 

Now the question is can Ireland hold on for the draw? Sweden have a free kick in a central position in injury time. Thankfully for the Irish team, and those of us ready to file our match reports on the final whistle, the Swedish chance comes to nothing. 

Ireland get the draw and Sweden drop their first points of the campaign and their first at home in a qualifier for a dozen years. 

Vera Pauw has a wide grin on her face for much of the press conference that follows and beside her McCabe is delighted with the result but has some regrets. “Ten more minutes and we could have got the three points,” says McCabe ruefully.

We get a chance then to talk in small groups with Courtney Brosnan, Megan Connolly and Chloe Mustaki.

The latter’s story is well known – how she has battled back from serious illness and injury to final make her competitive debut at 26 years of age – and she is brutally honest about her nervousness about making her competitive debut.

“I was terribly nervous,” admited Mustaki. “That is definitely, by far, the most people I have ever played in front of. I didn’t even look up at the crowd for one moment until that final whistle went. I didn’t want to see how many people were around me.”

The emotion of the journey is etched on her face as she exclaimed: “I worked so hard to get back here and I am just so happy.”

Whether that journey continues all the way to the World Cup remains to be seen but Ireland have the play-off in their own hands now.

The players are called away for their charter plane back to Dublin. For the rest of us, we find a bar to watch the end of the Real Madrid v Chelsea Champions League which has gone to extra-time. 

The picture below may or may not represent the high spirits of the mixture of Irish and Swedish journalists discussing captain Caroline Segar’s number 6 role for her team, the convoluted play-off process that we hope awaits Ireland and the fact that ‘how to stop Sweden’ made for such great copy.

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