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Sweden Faces Tough Battle to Move Past World Cup 1st Round - 2002-05-15

Sweden made qualifying for the World Cup football (soccer) finals in South Korea and Japan look easy with 10 wins and no losses. But Sweden finds itself in perhaps the toughest first-round group and will have to battle hard if it hopes to advance.

Sweden missed the World Cup finals in 1998 after placing third in 1994. The Nordic team returns with strong players capable of scoring often. But Sweden finds itself in Group F along with football powers Argentina, England and Nigeria. Despite the difficult challenge, international football commentator Derek Rae says Sweden has the potential to do well.

"I think Sweden has a real chance in the World Cup finals, not necessarily to win it," said Mr. Rae. "But I think they are the sort of team that could cause all sorts of problems and make life difficult for both Argentina and England."

Sweden's chances are boosted by fielding one of the top scorers in the world from the 2000-2001 season.

"In Hendrik Larsson (Celtic), they have one of the most formidable strikers in the world [with] 53 goals last time around; you can not argue with that," said Mr. Rae. "You do not score 53 goals in a season without being something special, and Larsson is extremely special when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net."

Sweden has a history of going far in World Cup tournaments, with six top ten finishes in nine previous appearances. Sweden's best result was runner-up to 1958 champion Brazil. Mr. Rae says this Swedish team is a solid squad. "All in all, [coach] Tommy Soderberg has a useful unit of workman-like professionals who know each other very well, and they qualified without real trouble. I would look for Sweden to be real spoilers in this group quite possibly," he said.

Sweden has not lost to England since 1968 and will try to extend that streak when the two teams meet in their opening match on June 2 in Saitama, Japan.