Monday, June 15, 2015

Montenegro 1 at Sweden 3 (Group G, Euro 2016 Qualifying) - June 14, 2015

If it's Sunday, it must be Sweden! The third and final stop on my wacky weekend was Stockholm to see the Swedish national team take on Montenegro. A short flight from Copenhagen took me to Arlanda Airport, again without any passport check. It happened to be the 30th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement and I marvelled at how 26 countries have combined to make traveling in Europe so easy and pleasant.

From Arlanda to Stockholm Central (above) is about 40 minutes on the slow SL commuter train (known as Pendeltåg), though other options are available. I ended up boarding an SJ intercity train which I shouldn't have, but nobody checked my ticket and so I reached downtown in around 20 minutes. Remember that you will pay 85 SEK (1 USD = 8.2 SEK) as a passage fee whenever you use the SJ or SL trains to or from the airport; if you are under budgetary constraints, buses are the better choice.

Friends Arena is where the national team their matches. The stadium is located in Solna, just two stops on the J36 or J38 Pendeltåg from Stockholm C, from there a short walk takes you to the venue. It is only 3 years old, and with a capacity of 50,653 for soccer, it is the largest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. The naming rights were purchased by Swedbank, who donated them to Friends, a nonprofit organization against school bullying. From close proximity, the exterior design makes it look more like a concert hall with its silver facade.

You must enter by the gate indicated on your ticket and you cannot move to the upper level from the lower or vice versa once inside. You can walk the entire concourse, except for the area in which the visiting fans sit. It is wide enough and there are your typical food and drink options, including unlimited refills on your soda as the machines are self-serve.

The stadium has a retractable roof which remains open for the soccer games. It had been raining earlier in the day but by the time the game started, it had cleared up and the game was played in fine conditions.

I had arrived quite early for the 8:45 pm start and enjoyed the empty stadium for a while.

By kickoff though, the supporters had filled the seats and were making plenty of noise in anticipation of an easy victory over minnows Montenegro.

I had a seat in the first row, which is not the best for watching the tactical battle, but I enjoy being close to the action.  When the teams came out for the anthems, the Swedes were accompanied by children in Montenegrin uniforms and vice versa.

There wasn't much to the first 30 minutes of the game, although Zlatan Ibrahimović (below), Sweden's longtime star who now toils for PSG, had a beautiful volley parried aside by keeper Vukašin Poleksić just before the half-hour.

It was obvious that Montenegro were outmatched and only a matter of time before Sweden found an opening. It came as the clock struck 37 minutes when Albin Ekdal crossed into the box and Marcus Berg eluded two defenders and headed the ball past Poleksić.

Just two minutes later and Ibrahimović weaved some magic, dribbling away from two defenders near the left end line, moving to the top of the box, turning, and firing that Poleksić really should have stopped.  Just before halftime, Ibrahimović chested down a long pass from Sebastian Larsson and broke into alone on goal, making no mistake to give the Swedes an insurmountable 3-0 lead.

The Montenegrins enjoyed a consolation goal on a penalty in the second half (below), and almost added a second only to have Andreas Isaksson make a spectactular save off Fatos Bećiraj.

You can view the highlights on UEFA's Euro Qualifying page, this was a very entertaining game and well worth the $60 to see a genuine international superstar.


Sweden was my 40th country to visit (including overseas territories and protectorates) and 24th in which I've seen a game.

There are four more Euro Qualifying Matchdays this year but they take both place on two consecutive three-day periods: September 3-8 and October 8-13. So if you want to see six games in six countries in six days, this is the time to do it. I won't be doing anything quite so crazy, this past trip gave me little time to sightsee or relax, and doubling the length of the journey would me it truly exhausting. I do hope to combine games in England and Ireland with the Rugby World Cup, NFL, and EPL in early October, so check back to see when that plan is announced.



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