Another victory secure, Marcus Berg conceded Sweden are living in a “dream” as their World Cup campaign continues on an unexpected trajectory.
The Al Ain striker is a global-finals quarter-finalist, helping his side get past Switzerland in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday to set up a last-eight clash with England in Samara this weekend.
It explained the wide smile and the glint in his eye. Granted, Berg is yet to score in Russia – his 14 shots without a goal are the most at the tournament – but he personifies Sweden under Janne Andersson. Individual accolades are sacrificed for the collective, and the Scandinavians are reaping the rewards.
Sweden are among the final eight teams at a World Cup for the first time in 24 years. When put to him in the bowels of the Saint Petersburg Stadium after the 1-0 win against Switzerland on Tuesday, Berg beamed with delight.
"What to say? I don't know," he told The National. "It's like a dream. We stay in the bubble. We don't want to go home yet, even though we miss our families a lot. The mentality we have, the way that we play, it's difficult for the other teams to face us. We really believe we can beat anyone."
Sweden's tournament to this point certainly backs up the belief. They not only passed a group containing world champions Germany, Mexico and South Korea, but topped it. They won twice, lost in the last-minute to the Germans and progressed as winners on goal difference.
Undeniably, Sweden have exceeded expectations. Even Berg admitted that, when he concluded a debut season with Al Ain as an Arabian Gulf League and President's Cup winner, and with the country's Golden Boot, he could not have quite imagined his country's run in Russia.
“Everyone had a hope and a dream that we would pass the group,” he said. “It was difficult there, we had the knife on the throat until the last game against Mexico, but there we showed big mentality to win 3-0 in a crucial game.
“That gave us a lot of confidence and, like I said, we don’t want to go home yet. We have more to give; I believe we haven’t shown our best yet. There is no stopping for us.”
The only thing missing thus far has been his goal. Berg spurned a great opportunity to open the scoring on Tuesday, but lashed at a shot. He had another effort well saved. He has had chances in previous games, too, but has not shown the same ruthlessness he did in notching 36 times in 36 appearances for Al Ain.
“In the games I feel good, I can keep the ball well, I help the team there,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of chances, of course I wish to score, but as long as we win I’m just so happy and proud of what we’re doing. If we lost today I’d be more angry that I didn’t score, but I will continue to get chances and hopefully I’ll score them.”
And anyway, Sweden’s success is built upon the team; Berg is simply an important cog in a system in almost perfect synch. In four matches, Sweden have kept three clean sheets.
“Everyone knows our way to play, it’s not a big secret that we are a compact team and that everyone gives everything for each other,” he said. “But still teams have difficulties in opening us up and score goals. It’s something we will continue to do the same and hopefully we can win the next game.”
At the time, Berg did not know Sweden’s next opponents, but he recognises England are a “great side” despite not watching any of their matches at this World Cup. For now, he is focused on Sweden, who once more will go into the game as underdogs. Maybe teams still underestimate them, do not fully appreciate their efficiency and efficacy.
“I don’t know to be honest,” Berg said. “I think they respect us, but it’s difficult to open us. We fight for each other. We have this mentality in our blood that we don’t give up. So for them I think they have big respect. They have to look at the video to find a way to beat us.”
Berg has been watched in Russia by Al Ain colleagues and supporters back in the UAE. He has exchanged texts and messages on Instagram with both, spurred on by the kind words, by the encouragement.
“I have a lot of contact with Rayan [Yaslam], the fitness coaches and a lot of players,” Berg said. “I’m happy and thankful that they care about me. It’s a great feeling, and I feel also the fans are there with me and support me a lot. So it’s a fantastic feeling to have them at them at my back.”
Although not getting ahead of himself, Berg would like them there all the way to the final. Much has been made of Sweden’s 1994 World Cup side, and with justification given they finished third in the United States. However implausible it feels, Sweden 2018 could match it. Maybe even better it.
“All of us in our generation remember those games and that World Cup,” Berg said. “It gives us also motivation to show that Swedes can do great things in the world. And now we’re in the last eight and it’s amazing. But like I said, we won’t stop here. Hopefully we will continue and play until July 15.”
Berg goal 'just a matter of time'
Sweden manager Janne Andersson has backed Marcus Berg to break his World Cup duck after the Al Ain striker failed to find the net in the last-16 victory against Switzerland.
Sweden won the match 1-0 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday thanks to Emil Forsberg's deflected goal to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time in 24 years. They will play England in Samara on Saturday.
Leading his country’s line alongside Ola Toivonen, Berg will hope to get on the scoresheet this weekend after a luckless run in front of goal in Russia. In all, he has had 14 attempts this month, the most of any player in the tournament yet to score.
Against Switzerland, Berg wasted a good opportunity to open the scoring on eight minutes, but sent a wild shot into the stands. Just before the half hour, he directed a left-footed half-volley towards the Swiss bottom corner, only for goalkeeper Yann Sommer to pull off an excellent save.
Still, the World Cup goal drought is in stark contrast to Berg’s form last season for Al Ain. In his debut campaign, he struck 36 times in 36 appearances to fire the club to an historic Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup double. Berg finished the season with the Golden Boot.
“He’s there, it’s just a matter of time," Andersson said. "We said the same thing previously about Emil and now he’s scored. Marcus is putting in an excellent performance in this match, no question about it. He’s putting in the work for us at the top - the goals will come. That is the way it is in football: once a scorer, always a scorer. I have no concerns on that.”