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Wednesday 14th November 2012 ko 20.30

Invigningsmatchen

SWEDEN 4 (Ibrahimovic 20 77 84 90)

ENGLAND 2 (Welbeck 35 Caulker 38)

Att 49,467

At Friends Arena, Solna

Entry Comp (face value 700sek)

Programme 20 sek

500ml Beer 50sek

10 krona = 93p

Over the years Sweden has been good to me, I love the wide open spaces, the architecture, but above all else it’s the people that have made it the country I’ve visited more than any other. I’ve watched games at around 50 Swedish grounds and the officials I’ve met have all scratched their heads when they’ve met me, wondering why on earth an Englishmen would be interested in Swedish football! The centre of all of it is my mate Joachim “Kim” Hedwall, of Swedish Radio, who moves around the sports arenas of his country with a cool, quiet authority. If you want to know about Swedish sport, just ask Kim. He really is an expert in his field, or should that be pitch?

That is why I would have been at the first game at Sweden’s new national football stadium, irrespective of the opponents. Since it was England who’d provided the opposition when the Råsunda Stadium opened 75 years ago, and the Swedish FA have a sense of history, I shared my flight from Heathrow to Arlanda with a plane load of England fans and 4 stern, maternal stewardesses, well used to dealing with potentially naughty boys! Their skills weren’t tested, and soon enough most headed for the Arlanda Express for 260 sek one way. Yes, it gets you to central Stockholm in 20 minutes, but there’s a far more interesting way of doing it.

Go to the Pressbyrån in the Sky City part of the airport, and you can buy a 24 hour travelcard for 115sek. That will get you on to the bus to Märsta, and then the Pendeltag, or commuter train which will get you into Stockholm in around 45 minutes. Its slower, but you see a lot more, not the touristy bits but the real Stockholm suburbs and its people , and the train stops at Solna, where both the Råsunda and the Friends Arena are situated. And with the card being a 24 hour one, my 115sek lasted the entire time I was there. I used it to take the T-Bana or metro to Västra Skogen (literally “Western Forest) to meet Kim and dump my overnight bag. Incidentally Västra Skogen T-Bana station features the longest escalator in western Europe, 66 metres with a vertical rise of 33 metres. I’m glad it’s always been working when I’ve visited!

For this game Kim and I were guests of Ricoh Sweden, so we walked to their Solna based HQ, and enjoyed a meal before viewing a presentation on the firm’s new conferencing webcam. A luxury coach was laid on to take us to the ground, around 5km away at the other end of Solna.

The Friends Arena was named by Swedbank who purchased the naming rights. With no lack of Swedish Stadia named after the firm, they opted to name it after a non-profit organization against school bullying that Swedbank supports. It immediately reminded me of the Allianz Arena in Munich with its outside lit up in Swedish yellow and blue, and since AIK will be using the stadium for home games I expect to see yellow and black on a regular basis. It was remarkably easy to get through the turnstiles and a quick frisk, and I had plenty of time to assess my surroundings. The stadium holds 50,000 for sporting events, and 65,000 for concerts. The roof fully closes, and you can see the pitch from the concourses, in the same way you can at stadiumMK. The seating and leg-room is generous, to the extent that the stadium looks a lot bigger than its capacity. The one pitfall was the pitch, grown on the Dutch/German border and only laid 5 days previously. It began to cut up in the warm-up! You would have thought with the roof closed and the temperature controlled at 20c it might have taken root!

With a foot in either camp, I’d hoped for a draw! The main attraction for me was to watch both countries’ world class players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney pit their talents against each other. Rooney cried off injured, and England played a very young side, including six debutants. But whilst England manager Roy Hodgson will have learned far more about his squad than his counterpart Erik Hamrén, who put out a full first XI as befits the occasion, no-one will remember the evening for anything other than the performance of Ibrahimovic.

I’ve heard many Swedish stories of Zlatan. A famous one was when a journalist asked what he’d bought his girlfriend model Helena Seger for her birthday. “Nothing,” he replied, “She already has a Zlatan!” Arrogant, yes, but unlike on other occasions, his performance matched the ego. Its been a long time since I saw a more complete performance from a forward. It’s easy to point out his 4 goals, and the fact that its the first hat-trick scored against England since Marco van Basten’s triple in the 1988 European Championships, but it was his overall game that really caught the eye. He played in the middle of the triangle formed by centre backs Gary Cahill and Steven Caulker, and holding midfielder Leon Osman. When one failed to pick him up, he profited. Cahill, in particular was made to look ordinary in a way he never has been before. Ibrahimovic’s  last goal, a scissor-kick from 30 yards will be talked about for years, a sublime piece of skill. I do wonder whether the fact that it was in stoppage time, and he’d already completed his hat trick, allowed him to try something special? Perhaps I shouldn’t ponder that, and just smile at the impudance!

In the final analysis the result doesn’t matter, and I was pleased for my Swedish hosts who once again showed their country in the best possible light. We eschewed the coach back to Ricoh HQ and walked back to Västra Skogen via the Råsunda Stadium. It has one last hurrah, AIK’s Europa League tie against Napoli on November 22nd, but the cranes parked outside wait for its demolition afterwards. A sad goodbye to the scene of the 1958 World Cup and the emergence of a 17 year old Pelé.

He said goodbye a few weeks ago, I remembered my visit, another Hedwall masterclass, we watched AIK play Djurgården from hospitality, then carried on walking into the night.

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