Thoughtful, engaging and full of insight, a chat with Calle Barrling is always educational – perhaps unsurprising given the background of the widely respected Sweden’s U-19 and U-23 women’s coach is in teaching as well as the beautiful game.
Involved with the Swedish Football Association (SVFF) since 2005, the former Djurgårdens IF, Gröndals IK, Hille IF and Strömsbro IF player has guided his country to UEFA European Women’s U-19 Championship glory in 2012, to a runners-up finish in the same competition in 2009 and the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup the following year – in addition to his main task of supplying a steady stream of talent for Sweden’s senior side.
The dust having settled on July’s Women’s U-19 EURO in Norway – where Sweden exited at the group stage – and with preparations for September’s first qualifying round for next year’s edition in Israel beginning this week, the 61-year-old supremo took the time to speak to Women’s Soccer United.
Women’s Soccer United: You’ve been at the SVFF for nine years now. How do you feel you’ve grown as a coach since then?
Calle Barrling: The biggest difference from 2005 is that all of us coaches have improved tactically, because we have so much help from video analysis and from talented assistants helping me scout other teams. It’s been such a huge help to have the opportunity to scout other teams in new ways: I can work from home, watching games, watching players. When you watch that much football and if you’re willing to learn and to analyse, you can discover so much.
I also feel that you can improve your leadership skills on a daily basis. If you want to work with people, you have to learn about the people – in this case the girls – that you want to lead. You have to get to know them, to have a good relationship with them. Some of them are 14 for example while some are 22, so you can’t try and lead them in the same way – they’re going through totally different situations in their lives.
In Sweden we spend nearly 60 days a year with the younger girls, so of course you discuss a lot of what you’re doing. Finally, my colleague Mikael Fahlén and I sat down and said ‘Let’s write all this down’. We were also getting a lot of questions and phone calls from other coaches who were training girls. It’s not easy as obviously a lot of us involved are men and we’ve never been in the shoes of 16- or 17-year-old girls, so we have to learn what it’s like for them at that age.
That’s why we started writing our book Ledarskapande – om människor som spelar fotboll (Leadership – about human beings playing football). I think that’s the biggest realisation I’ve made since I started in this job: I coach human beings who play football, I don’t coach footballers. It’s quite a difference.
WSU: Arguably the biggest success of your time at the Swedish FA came with victory at the Women’s U-19 EURO in 2012. What was so special about that squad and how have the key players progressed since?
Barrling: Before the start of that campaign, we had a really strong feeling we could win it, particularly once we beat holders Germany in the elite round. You know when you’ve got a winning side and that was an extraordinary squad of players. We also had outstanding individuals like Elin Rubensson and Malin Diaz. In fact, seven of those girls [Rubensson, Diaz, Amanda Ilestedt, Magdalena Ericsson, Petra Andersson, Lina Hurtig and Fridolina Rolfö] have already made their senior debuts. That side had everything: they were physical; we got our tactics right; we had great characters; and technically we played the way you need to do if you want to win something.
However well we played as a team though, I don’t think we could have won without Elin [scorer of five goals at Turkey 2012 and eight in qualifying], just as the Netherlands would have found it harder to win this year without Vivianne Miedema. Elin’s currently at FC Rosengård, one of the best teams in Europe, but at the moment they play with three forwards: [Brazil international] Marta, [Swiss international] Ramona Bachmann and [Germany international] Anja Mittag. It’s clearly very difficult to compete against players like that, which is a negative, but a positive is the fact she gets to train with them every day.
Malin [scorer of the winner in the 2012 final] reached the Women’s Champions League final last season with Tyresö, but since they folded she’s joined a team called Eskilstuna United DFF which are based quite near Stockholm – where she’s from I believe. She’s been in excellent form recently, I think she’s one of the best Swedish players around right now.
Finally I must mention Jennie Nordin. We knew we had one good centre-back in [captain] Amanda [Ilestedt] so we scoured all Sweden for another and found Jennie. She had a lot to learn in just six months before Turkey and I think she did brilliantly. Maybe it came too quickly for her though, as she’s had a lot of injuries since. But she’s still young and comes from an elite sporting family – her father Krister played first-division football for many years – so I’m sure she’ll be back.
WSU: One final question, what factors do you feel are vital in helping players make the jump from youth to senior international football?
Barrling: There are many steps from when you start playing football all the way to the senior national team, but I think the last step is the biggest. In terms of physicality, for instance, the difference between youth and senior football is huge – you need to do so much more physical training to be able to cope. You also need to play an awful lot of matches at the highest level, both for club and country, to really get used to it. This is where we can have problems in Sweden, because our top division is packed with players from other countries. So our best U-19 players might all be at top-division clubs but they don’t play every week.
Mentally too, because when you get into the senior squad you’re expected to take more responsibility, while our younger players aren’t used to that because they don’t do it at their clubs. They’re not the ones who take the penalties, the free-kicks, it’s not them who picks the music in the dressing room. When you join up with the senior national team you’re expected to do that, so mentally it’s a big transition, a transition in your career that you have to cope with. [Sweden senior coach] Pia Sundhage, for example, expects them to take the initiative but sometimes the players can be a bit shy when coming into the senior squad. Even so, I’m proud to see that Elin, Amanda and Malin are all regulars, and of course I wish them all the very best.
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