Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani has a very different view of the Women’s World Cup third-place match to Phil Neville, who labelled it a “nonsense” game, and it is fair to say that plenty of her compatriots agree. When the Sweden team returned from the victory over England that secured a bronze medal they were greeted by 30,000 fans in Gothenburg.
“A sign of a nation that is proud of us,” says Asllani, the midfielder who scored her country’s opening goals against Chile and England. The staggering reception came as a pleasant surprise to a squad not wholly aware of the momentum building back home during their run to the semi-finals.
“It’s always hard to know because you’re kind of in your own world,” Asllani says. “You’re just preparing for the next training, next game. Obviously we heard a little bit that people are like going crazy in Sweden and really watching the football in all sports bars and outdoors and we just felt like the whole the whole country was behind us. We had our prime minister at two of our games, our prince came.
“Having 30,000 looking so happy and proud and just celebrating our medal … It’s not only our medal, we feel like the medal belongs to the whole nation and the next generation, all the young girls that really, really looked up to us and have us as role models because that’s what it’s all about and hopefully will get more girls to start playing football.”
It is a similar narrative from almost ever player at the World Cup: the need to inspire and push the game forward. Yet while the bronze medal helps drive that growth in Sweden, and tempers their semi-final defeat by the Netherlands in extra time, the pain of that disappointment cannot be wholly shaken.
“I feel like we could have won that game; we hit the post a couple of times,” the 29-year-old Asllani says. “If I compare our team with them, we’re not far away. I mean, I feel like we can compete with them.
“It’s a weird feeling because it’s horrible to lose a semi-final because you always dream of playing the biggest game. But we’re a team that is going to improve all the time so chances are we will be at the top there again at the next World Cup or Olympics next year.
“So the first feeling is disappointment, the next feeling is revenge. You’re kind of just longing for the next tournament with the team, which is the Olympics.”
Asllani’s winning mentality is encapsulated by her response to the England manager’s “nonsense” remark regarding the third-place match. “Every game is important,” she says. “So it surprised me to hear that; if my coach had said that I would have been surprised.”
Taking third place, after a bruising semi-final, mattered. “I think if you finish fourth that’s probably the worst position you can come in. I mean, you’re so close to the medals. If we had lost the last game, I would have a complete different feeling now. Because then I would feel like everything we had done so far didn’t matter at all.
“So that’s why I’m really proud that we could come back, even though we played extra time, had one less rest day and we had to travel. We didn’t have all the conditions, but we made the best out of it as we could. So I’m just proud that we could come back after that loss against Netherlands and show in the first half against England what kind of football we want to play and that Sweden is not just a team that wants to defend.
“We like to play attacking football and we’re still building the team and trying to improve all the time. We’re a strong team and we showed that the Sweden is a team that you can count on and never count out.”
In 2015 England pipped Germany to third place and the significance of returning with a bronze medal was a world away from the views expressed by Neville. Perhaps he was protecting his team after a difficult defeat by dismissing the game’s importance, but it is impossible to turn away from the fact that the Lionesses’ medal in Canada was a game changer for the development of women’s football in England.
Asllani, whose technical, skilful box-to-box play was at heart of Sweden’s success, hopes their bronze can be similarly catalytic to women’s football in Sweden, which has historically led the way but has been overtaken by a number of European leagues.
“I feel like we’ve inspired the next generation in Sweden, not only girls, but also boys,” she says. “Before this World Cup I knew it was going to be the biggest, when it comes to marketing and everything, in history.
“I felt like we reached out to a completely different and new audience in Sweden. I really felt like we had Sweden behind us. I mean, it was two and a half million that watched our semi-final and we only have like nine or 10 million people in Sweden – that’s a huge number for women’s football.”
Asllani, whose Kosovan parents mean she is a poster girl for the immigrant communities of Sweden, has played in two Olympics: London 2012 and then Rio 2016, where Sweden handed the USA a shock quarter-final defeat on the way to a silver medal. They lost to Germany in that final, a result they feel they avenged in France in the quarter-final.
The significance of being one of the top three European teams at the World Cup and earning the trip to Tokyo next year is not lost on Asllani. “We’re ranked ninth in the world [now sixth]. So I feel like at the end of the day we should be proud of the Olympics and a bronze medal. Obviously we always want to win but I’d rather have a medal than no medal at all.”
Now, there is no time to rest. The Swedish season begins imminently. “I feel like the body just wants to rest and it’s not really allowed to rest so much,” says the Linköping player. “It’s a really technical schedule during the World Cup, so the body says I’m going to lay down. I’m just gonna probably need three, four days just sleeping.
“But at the same time you have a good feeling because you know that you gave everything and it was worth it because you came home with a medal.”