Barrling: “Faith and consistency crucial to Swedish success”
Victorious with his young charges at the UEFA European U-19 Women’s Championship in Turkey in 2012, his country’s first triumph in the competition, respected youth supremo Calle Barrling was at it again this summer – guiding a new generation of Swedish talent to glory at July’s final tournament on Israeli soil.
Not that the journey to another continental success was without bumps in the road, as the always engaging Barrling himself explained in an exclusive interview with Women’s Soccer United.
Women’s Soccer United: Congratulations on picking up a second European U-19 title. Would you say that this success was even more difficult than the first time?
Calle Barrling: Yes, I think it was a bigger achievement in two or three ways. Firstly, all of the best sides were here this time: in Turkey we’d already knocked out Germany [in qualifying] and neither France nor Norway were there. Women’s football is getting better and better physically and especially tactically, so more and more countries are now capable of winning the tournament. France won it in 2013, the Netherlands won it last year, we’ve won it twice now – so you can’t take anything for granted. In fact, in qualification we were two minutes away from going out against Italy, they had a really good team. [Editor’s note: Italy would have qualified ahead of Sweden in Group 2 of the Elite Round, had Emelie Andersson not struck an 89th-minute winner in the teams’ final game].
WSU: Is that when you felt that this might be your year?
CB: Yes, I think that after winning so late against Italy, I thought that maybe we had a chance. We had such a young team, the youngest team I’ve had in ten years on the girls’ side at the association, and I thought that in the three or four months building up to the finals we could still improve a lot. We had beaten Germany in a friendly in Sweden the previous November, so when we beat Italy it boosted our hopes further. The Swedish league also broke off for two weeks due to the Women’s World Cup, which doesn’t normally happen before a tournament, so the players all had fresh legs. In all five of our games [at Israel 2015] we came through strong and fresh and didn’t pick up any injuries either.
WSU: What was special about this crop of U-19 players?
CB: This team had something we always look for in a Swedish side, the players working together and fighting for each other, but also had plenty of speed and technique. There was flair in this team, skill too, and such pace when we were attacking. I really like working with this team, while it’s fun for the fans to see a team playing with such speed. What’s also exceptional about this squad is that the players are so participative in our way of playing, on and off the pitch. With every session, every team meeting they were improving: it gives hope for the future to have players that are so keen to learn, that are very humble but with a very strong sense of self-belief. That’s a hard combination to find, definitely.
WSU: In a similar vein to Emelie Andersson’s late heroics against Italy, in the semi-finals it was Stina Blackstenius’ turn to save the day with an 88th-minute equaliser versus Germany…
CB: Our self-confidence had been growing. It got a boost when we beat Italy and then another boost when we beat Denmark in our second group game, which guaranteed our place at the U-20 Women’s World Cup [in Papua New Guinea in 2016]. We’d beaten Germany two or three times in the previous year so when we faced them again in the semis, we were confident we would come through [Editor’s note: Sweden won 4-3 on penalties following a 3-3 draw].
Then in the final, Spain gave us a good game, but our final against them in Turkey in 2012 was tougher, I’m not sure why. I think that tactically we were really good this time. We slowed down their tempo and we knew they had two very good wingers so we doubled up on them. We defended quite deep of course, and with the pace we had in the side we knew chances would come, even if it took some time. And that’s what happened: it took 25 minutes for us to create something, then we created two or three chances in a few minutes, then we scored twice [through Blackstenius], so that turned the game our way. In Turkey it could have gone either way, we were a touch lucky, but this time I think we were the better side [in a 3-1 win].
WSU: How important is it for a team to have a player like Blackstenius, providing a focal point in attack and weighing in with so many goals [a record 20 in ten games, qualifying included]?
CB: You know, all good teams have a player like that, I remember how Gary Lineker used to pop up with all those goals for England, but for us it’s also about believing in your way of playing, in the way you defend and attack and the transition way of playing. Transitions [from defence to attack and vice versa] are very important in Swedish football. Of course our way of playing suited Stina very well, but she is our best goalscorer and physically she was in such good shape. When she’s mentally and physically right, she has the confidence and belief that she’ll score goals.
She had an excellent tournament of course, but so did the whole team. She was like Elin Rubensson [tournament top scorer] for us in Turkey and Vivianne Miedema [competition leading scorer] for the Netherlands last year, players of this standard are of course so important. You can have a great side and go out in the group stage if you don’t have someone to bang in the goals. She scored two important goals in our first group game against Israel and got a lot of confidence from that, it gave her the belief that even if she missed a chance she’d take the next one. She was in an excellent ‘flow’, everything went her way, and I’ve no doubt she will get to the senior squad, whether that’s sooner or later.
WSU: What does she have to do to make sure she’s also a success at senior level, for club and country?
CB: Well, international football really suits her as there’s a lot of man-marking. National teams’ defensive systems often have tight marking and she’s so strong physically she enjoys facing that, whereas in Swedish club football she’s not had such an impact yet because zonal marking is more common. When she has a close marker she just spins them away, she’s so strong, but she’ll need to work on how to face zonal marking and deeper defensive lines. There are so many aspects to being a striker, particularly in senior international football, it’s not just about scoring goals. Development-wise, it’ll be good for her to take one or two more steps before going into the senior squad. We have the U-20 World Cup next year and we also have a U-23 team, as it’s not easy to leap straight from the U-19s all the way into seniors.
WSU: On the subject of the seniors, what did you make of their performance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada?
CB: Well, I wasn’t with the team, as I was working as an observer over in the east of Canada, but I caught their games on TV. The only thing I’d say is that their performance [exiting at the Round of 16 without winning a game] doesn’t reflect the overall health of Swedish football, because at youth level we’ve never been better than we are right now. We’ve now won the U-19 Women’s EURO twice, while the U-23s are doing very well too. We’re certainly not getting nervous, Swedish football isn’t in ill health because of one bad tournament!
I think the senior team will be stronger at EURO 2017 and particularly at the next Women’s World Cup in 2019. We have so many talented players aged 19-23, but I think it’s maybe too early to expect too much from them in 2017. I always speak about four-year cycles, Olympic cycles, and I think that works for football too. You can’t win every year, you can’t be on top every year, not even Germany can, and there are always some up and downs along the way.
WSU: From your work as an observer, what did you make of Canada 2015 in general terms?
CB: It was a really interesting World Cup because I noticed most of the teams were more careful in their defending and defended deeper, at least in the group stage. Transitions at this tournament weren’t as important as I thought, maybe because of the artificial surface. The defending was not so aggressive, it was more about covering than pressing opponents. Tactically it was a smarter tournament. Teams like Colombia and Australia showed how much they had learned about defending.
It wasn’t a tournament with too many ‘stars’ who stood out. If you want to create chances it not enough anymore to have just one or two players trying to come up with something different: against such organised defences you have to be smarter in attack, more tactical, and combine more as a team. I saw more combination play than individual magic, which is a sign that the game is more mature. Teams like Japan, England, USA and Canada all defended really well and as a result all did very well. Sweden, for a change, didn’t defend very well, and when we don’t defend well we can’t expect to challenge for titles.
WSU: What did you make of Rubensson’s performance? She started each of Sweden’s four games, but in defence rather than attack…
CB: Well, they’ve made her into a full-back now and I’d question that. Everyone here [at the Swedish FA] knows how I feel, as I think we lose a top forward by doing that, but she’s so clever she can play at the back too. Hopefully she’ll be given a role a bit higher up the pitch soon, but I think whatever position she is in she’ll be a top player at the next World Cup. What’s more, our winning captain in Turkey, Amanda Ilestedt, had a good tournament and I think she’ll be one of the starting centre-backs when [EURO 2017] qualifying begins. She took her chance well after one or two got injured and that’s not easy to do when the team is not performing. It’s nice to see them three years on [from winning the U-19 EURO], playing at this level.
WSU: One last question, what would you say were the key ingredients behind Sweden’s run of youth success?
CB: Well, we’ve a very good network established in Sweden, which I feel is at a comparable standard to the likes of England, France and Germany. I’ve been to those countries and they’re really good with youth academies etc. but we have every right to be proud of what we’re doing here too. Sweden is a long country, with 24 districts, so to get good results we need good cooperation across all 24 districts and that’s what we’ve got right now – so the future’s bright. The U-21 boys also did well this summer, winning the European title [for the first time], and they too needed a last-minute goal against France to qualify for their tournament, so it’s similar to our story. In the Swedish FA we always put a stress on the ‘full 90 minutes’, we tell the girls that it’s 90 minutes from kick-off in the first game to the final whistle of the final. I think we played our ‘90 minutes’ very well, and so did the boys.
It’s important to be very consequent, consistent, without changing system, tactics too much etc. You have to follow through with what you believe in. You need a touch of luck of course, but it’s more about this way of thinking, of keeping going for the whole 90 minutes. Again it’s an Olympic viewpoint, seeing football in a more long-term way, which is a theme across our association. These titles have generated a lot of interest in youth football, which is great for the association, for the players, for the future… there’s a very good vibe right now.
UK-born but currently based in Spain, I’ve been covering men’s and women’s football for UEFA.com for several years, including trips to two Women’s U-19 European Championships