Russia 2018 Free-scoring Berg eyes play-off glory(FIFA.com) © AFP
- Marcus Berg is Sweden’s top scorer in Russia 2018 qualifying
- The Swedes finished second in Group A and face Italy in the play-offs
- Berg, 31, is eager to play at his first-ever World Cup finals
“What a stupid question that is.”
This, thankfully, was not how FIFA.com’s interview with Marcus Berg began. It is instead a now-infamous retort from Dick Advocaat, made when a Dutch reporter suggested that Sweden might beat Luxembourg 8-0.
The Netherlands coach would have felt justified in dismissing, even ridiculing, the idea of such a lopsided scoreline. Luxembourg had, after all, just held France to a goalless draw in Toulouse, beaten Belarus, and had given Sweden a scare in the sides’ previous meeting.
But Advocaat reckoned without the increasingly prolific form of Marcus Berg. The Sweden striker had gone into the Luxembourg game having scored in each of his country’s last two qualifiers, and with three goals in as many matches for his club, Al Ain.
Still, few would have expected the four-goal haul that followed, propelling the Swedes towards the very scoreline Advocaat had disdainfully written off.
The impossible had been made possible, and Berg’s heroics had – due to Sweden’s now-vastly superior goal difference – all but secured a World Cup play-off place.
8-0! Sweden claim their biggest victory since 1938 to (temporarily) overtake France atop Group A…
…with FOUR goals for Marcus Berg! pic.twitter.com/KFhgFdpWoU
— European Qualifiers (@EuroQualifiers) October 7, 2017
“It was the first time I had scored four in a match for the national team,” he told FIFA.com. “It was amazing – a very special feeling.
“To play a game like that in my home country, with a full stadium and my whole family there watching, it’s a good memory to have.”
It was also the perfect way for Berg to mark his 50th international appearance. Impressive as that cap collection is though, it is only in this 2018 qualifying campaign that the striker – now 31 – has belatedly emerged from the shadow of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to establish himself as Sweden’s first-choice No9.
“The last two years have been my best with the national team,” he admitted. “I didn’t feel any extra pressure as such [when Ibrahimovic retired]. But I am one of the more experienced players and it’s true that my role in the team became bigger when Zlatan and some other players left after EURO 2016.”
Marcus Berg in numbers
51 international matches, 18 goals
8 goals in 9 appearances in Russia 2018 qualifying
7 clubs in 5 countries: Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Greece & UAE
0 FIFA World Cup appearances
Berg is no stranger to the limelight, with his varied career having included, among other landmarks, a €10.5 million move to Hamburg. But that was in 2009, and more recent years have seen him take his scoring boots to Greece – where he became a hero with Panathinaikos – and, more recently, to Abu Dhabi outfit Al Ain.
“I believe everything you experience in life and football can make you better,” he explained. “I have definitely learned a lot from playing in different countries and in different styles of football, and I feel very happy now with Al Ain.”
Playing with a smile on his face seems to be working well for Berg, who has put himself at the forefront of a Sweden side thriving under Janne Andersson.
“Together with his assistants, he has a very clear picture of how he wants us to play,” Berg said of his little-known coach. “They make everyone in the squad feel a sense of responsibility and, because of that, everyone brings their best on and off the pitch. We are happy and proud of what we've done so far.”
The Italian job
The Swedes do, of course, have one significant and imposing hurdle to clear before they can complete the race to Russia. But while acknowledging his team will start their play-off against Italy as underdogs, Berg – who has yet to appear at a World Cup, and knows this may be his last chance – believes history to be within their grasp.
“Italy are the favourites, but we have a good feeling in our team,” he said. “We believe that we can make it to the World Cup.
“If we can do that, it really would be a dream come true. Me and a lot of my team-mates still think and speak about the World Cup in 1994, when Sweden finished third.
“Hopefully we can bring new moments like that for the Swedish people – moments that they will talk about for ages.”