Old motto, new coach and a change of generations for Sweden

FEATURE: Coach Tomas Axnér and line player Linn Blohm have no doubts of a bright future for the Swedish team, although an EHF EURO 2020 medal is out of reach

Linn Blohm is confident Sweden can come back stronger from the EHF EURO 2020. Photo © Uros Hocevar / kolektiff

In Herning 10 years ago the Swedish women’s team took their first medal at a major event and stepped out of the shadow of their highly decorated men’s side.

After beating Romania in a semi-final between two surprise packages in Herning, Sweden gave Norway a tough fight in the final, but finally lost. However, one year later, when Norway took the World Championship title in Brazil, those silver medals looked like gold, as they meant a ticket to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

From the successful 2010 team, three players are still in the 2020 squad, again playing the EHF EURO in Herning: Nathalie Hagman, Jamina Roberts and Isabelle Gulldén. All of them also featured in Sweden’s second medal moment, winning bronze at the EHF EURO 2014 in Hungary and Croatia.

Those three are the experienced cornerstone of the rejuvenated team, which is in the middle of a generational change. Of the EHF EURO 2020 squad, seven players are making their debut at a major championship, and the coach too is new. Tomas Axnér was appointed to the role in March 2020, following in the footsteps of Per Johansson, Helle Thomsen and Hendrik Signell.

For the former right wing, who coached Lugi Lund men’s team for many years, this is his first foray into women’s handball and also his first experience on the international stage. Although Axnér spent several years as a player in the German Bundesliga for Gummersbach and Minden, he did not play for Sweden.

“In general, it makes no difference to train men or women, maybe only in the way of communication,” Axnér says.

Placement match is the new goal

After a tough preliminary round group with matches against the World Championship 2019 medallists Russia (26:30) and Spain (23:23), Sweden lost their main round opener 22:24 against hosts Denmark. Ahead of them are matches against Montenegro and France on Sunday and Tuesday.

“Our new goal is playing the 5/6 placement match, as we cannot make it to the semis anymore,” says line player Linn Blohm.

Blohm is no stranger to big moments. She was a member of the All-Star Team at last year’s World Championship, where Sweden booked their ticket for the Olympic qualification tournament – now in March next year – by winning the 7/8 placement match against Germany.

Sweden’s chances of qualifying for Tokyo seem to be feasible, facing Spain, Senegal and Argentina. Sweden has not missed the Olympic Games since Beijing 2008.

“For these matches, we need to gain experience, and this is what we can get at the EHF EURO 2020,” says Blohm.

“We have some new girls in the team, but out motto is still the same: we hate to lose,” says Blohm, who was in the 2014 bronze-medal winning team, and is currently playing for Romanian side Baia Mare.

Blohm says she is happy to have stars like Bella Gulldén in her team.

“She is guiding and steering the young players next to her. When you see our line-up, we have many young back court players. And for them it is really important to have some experienced players to get integrated,” Blohm adds.

With 14 goals from 18 attempts, Blohm is currently Sweden’s best and most efficient scorer at the EHF EURO 2020. She now has an overall total of 272 goals in 106 international matches on her account.

At the age of 28, she still feels young enough to be ready for the next major event on Swedish ground, the World Championship 2023, jointly hosted with Norway and Denmark.

“Of course, I hope to be ready then, as I don't want to stop playing handball before,” she adds.

A bright Swedish future?

Blohm is thankful that the current EHF EURO is taking place.

“We are all really excited to play this tournament. I was a bit scared that the EHF EURO could be cancelled, but if one country can manage it, then it is Denmark,” adds the former player of Danish clubs FC Midtjylland, TTH Holstebro and København.

For Axnér, it is a tournament debut under special circumstances, but he is confident that he and the team can make the best of it. Still, he is a bit sad about the main round opener against Denmark.

“We missed too many penalty shots. If we scored the last one, we might had had a chance to beat Denmark,” he says.

Now, Axnér looks ahead to a full Olympic cycle. His contract runs for four years, and his long-term plan not only includes the Tokyo Olympics next year, but also Paris 2024.

“We have a change of generation at the moment, we lack some players at the age of 25 or 26 years. We have some experience, and some young and talented ones, but in between there are some players missing,” he notes.

For the young guns who still play for Swedish clubs, he hopes that they manage to find jobs abroad.

“If you want to be successful, you need to have many players at Champions League clubs, but we only have two at the moment, Bella Gulldén at Brest and Anna Lagerquist at Rostov, we need to increase this number,” says Axnér, who is happy that in Sweden the women’s national team gets the same support and spotlight by the federation as the men’s team.

“We have good clubs who bring out many strong talents, so I really have no doubt that Swedish women’s handball will have a successful future ahead,” he concludes.

written by Björn Pazen / jh