Meet football coach Lars Lagerbäck
Entering his seventh major tournament as a coach
Who knows how things would have turned out if, in his 20s, Lars Lagerbäck had finished his political science course at the University of Umeå? Instead, he got into the football program at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences.
The one person who never engages in such speculation is Lagerbäck himself. If he can’t do anything about it anymore, he’s not going to waste energy worrying about it. But Lagerbäck does like facts.
Lives: Solna, Sweden
Education: Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Stockholm
Career: Swedish Football Association coaching instructor, junior national team coach. Sweden assistant manager, Sweden manager. Nigeria manager. Iceland manager. TV analyst. Has been manager at three World Cups and four European championships.
One remarkable fact that he’s pleased with is that Euro 2016 will be his seventh major tournament as a coach. In the first five he was managing his native Sweden, the sixth saw him coach Nigeria in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and now, for his seventh, he’s wearing the Team Iceland tracksuit.
Another fact is that Euro 2016 is the first major football tournament that Iceland has successfully qualified for. No wonder the word miracle comes up first when you search for stories about the Iceland football team. Followed by Lagerbäck. “It is a great feat by a country with a population of about 330,000,” he says.
Lagerbäck is proud of his achievements. But he doesn’t like to talk about his own success and he is quick to highlight the input of other members on his team, including the other coaches, and naturally, the players.
“He has more experience than the rest of our staff combined,” says Heimir Hallgrímsson, Lagerbäck’s co-manager since 2013. “And he’s always very careful to make sure that things are done so that they work for Iceland. Even when he could take the spotlight himself after big wins, he always gives it to others and tries to show the other members of the team.”
With roots in the forest
Lagerbäck grew up in a village in Medelpad, a region some 400km north of Stockholm. Medelpad is part of Norrland, the northern part of Sweden. But Norrland isn’t as much a geographical area as it is a state of mind. People in the north are no-nonsense, blue-collar, both feet firmly on the ground kind of people, which is exactly how Lagerbäck sees himself. It’s also how others see him.
“He’s a very nice and polite, down-to-earth kind of a guy who always treats everybody the same and expects others to do the same,” says Hallgrímsson.
“He also always expects everybody to do their best.”
His former Team Sweden co-manager, Tommy Söderberg, used to call Lagerbäck “Skogsmannen,” which means “The Forest Man.” This was a reference to his background – Lagerbäck’s father was a forester – and his longing to get back to his beloved woods in Medelpad.
“I still have our family lot in Medelpad and I try to get back as much as possible,” Lagerbäck says. “My roots have somehow grown back. I didn’t much care for the forest in my 20s, but when my father passed away my brother and sister and I had to make a decision, and they weren’t interested in it. Lucky for me, because I love being there, it’s such a contrast to… all this,” he says and gestures with his hands, referring to busy Stockholm life.
Football was his teenage crush
Young Lars didn’t mind the forest work – it was just that he had fallen in love with football. Sweden’s success in the 1958 World Cup tournament, in which they reached the final to play Brazil, fanned the fire.*
And once you fall in love with the ball, nothing else matters, and nothing will stop you from chasing it for the rest of your life. Except possibly a recent hip replacement, but even then you can manage a team at the highest level.
“Sport was important in our little town, and I played basketball and hockey, and competed in downhill skiing. But football was always number one for me,” he says.
In his teens, he won himself a spot on the local division 3 team, but his own playing career didn’t get much further than that. He also didn’t have the grades to make it into the School of Sport, so he did his military service and after that, headed north, to Umeå.
“I studied political science and economics, and pedagogy, and played football [for Gimonäs CK]. Then I started to work for the club, doing some office work, and working with the youth teams,” he says.
Meanwhile in Stockholm, the School of Sport started special football training and this time, grades didn’t matter. What mattered were references and recommendations. Lagerbäck got in. The year was 1974.*
“Since the program was tailored for football, we also got the federation’s highest coaching diploma. That’s when I hung up my own boots, too. I’ve been a coach since 1977,” he says. He was 29 years old. He’s a football lifer.
Doesn't rush to the sideline any more
Lagerbäck will celebrate his 68th birthday six days after the Euro 2016 final that will be played in Saint Denis, near Paris. If everything goes his and Iceland’s way, Lagerbäck could combine his birthday party with the Icelandic European Championship celebrations.
Of course, even if he hoped for that to happen, he’d never say it out loud. Besides, he doesn’t hope for such things because hoping won’t help. What is needed is preparation, analysis, meetings with players, and scouting of players – both his own and opponents’.
“Reporters seem to think that a good coach needs to be agitated at the sidelines,” he says. “And scream and shout. The truth is, though, that you can’t communicate with the players. Genius moves? Sure. You can only make three substitutions, and talk to the players during half time. No, the work is mostly about preparation. 90% of the manager’s work is already done when the match starts. And that’s not a myth, that I know for a fact.”
That’s experience speaking. While his childhood friends have described Lagerbäck as calm, cool, and collected, he says that he, too, used to rush out to the sideline when he was younger. Until he realized it was pointless. And Lagerbäck isn’t interested in pointless activity. He’s interested in results. For example, he refuses to talk about football’s entertainment value, or what makes for entertaining football. He only knows that there’s good football and there’s bad football. Whether one system is offensive or defensive or boring is something he leaves to the media to talk about. For him, good football is the kind that gets your team two points.
And the operative word here is “team.”
“Each player only has the ball for about 30–45 seconds during a 90-minute football match,” Lagerbäck explains. “The crowd watches the ball, but
I want to see what the players do when they don’t have it. Of course, the seconds they do have the ball are important, but they’re not everything. If you want to win a football match, you can’t have crowd pleasers on your team. Not even a team of 11 Zlatan Ibrahimovićs would win, even though he is unbelievably skilled.”
"Football is the only team sport in which a division 3 team can beat a division 1 team"
No coach would ever say no to having a Pelé or a Messi or a Ronaldo or a Zlatan on the team. It’s just that for coaches like Lagerbäck, preparation and organization is everything, and if Pelé or Messi or Zlatan aren’t ready to get on the same page as the coach, everything comes crumbling down.
“It’s unbelievably important that every single player follows the game plan,” says Lagerbäck. “The more organized the team is, the better its chances of winning the game are. That’s why football is the only team sport in which a division 3 team can beat a division 1 team. The more the players know how to work together and what to do in different situations, the more they can automate parts of their game, and I think many people underestimate how valuable that is.”
Runs with the old school Swedish style
Football talk often circles around a few number combinations, like 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1, and how the coach has set his pieces on the field. As much as we love our stars, we also seem to love the idea of football being like a chess game on grass, a battle between two masterminds sitting on plastic seats on the sideline.
“Maybe it’s all the money that’s in the sport, but it’s more complicated to be a coach now than it was 20 years ago, even in Sweden, even if we’ve had a little different leadership culture here,” he says.
Lagerbäck holds onto the old school Swedish style because it’s his style. Co-manager Heimir Hallgrímsson says, “I was shocked to see how willing he was to give me freedom to have my own ideas. We work together and he always respects my suggestions. I was expecting an experienced coach to be more of a dictator, but he’s the opposite of that.”
The Swedish style has served Lagerbäck well. After being a part-time teacher, part-time coach of lower division teams, and part-time federation instructor for a decade, he got a coach instructor’s position at the Swedish federation, and was in charge of the national junior teams, including the under-21 team, which he coached together with Tommy Söderberg. He was also scouting opponents for the Tommy Svensson-coached Sweden men’s team in the 1992 European championship which Denmark won* and the 1994 World Cup.*
When Tommy Söderberg got the nod to be the manager of the men’s team in 1998, he chose Lagerbäck as his assistant. Two years later, Lagerbäck was promoted to co-manager and “Lars-Tommy” coached Sweden to three major tournaments (2 Euros and the 2002 World Cup*). After Söderberg stepped down, Lagerbäck’s Sweden qualified for the next two tournaments as well.
No other Swedish manager has taken his team through five straight qualifications. And while Sweden didn’t make it to the 2010 World Cup, Lagerbäck did, as the manager of Nigeria.
Lagerbäck’s Nigeria was ousted after the group stage, having lost two matches and drawn one. It seems that while he could bring his football tactics to Nigeria, he did have to adapt his style of leadership. “The government was very involved with the national team,” he says.
Going into Euro 2016 as underdogs
In Iceland, Lagerbäck doesn’t need to worry about the government, or stars with inflated egos, or high expectations, even if making the playoff round in the 2014 World Cup qualification did raise the hopes of the Icelandic people. Lagerbäck, the realistic optimist, is taking his inexperienced team into Euro 2016 as underdogs. And he likes that. That’s the way it’s always been for him.
When Lagerbäck became manager for Iceland, he had an idea of what to expect. He knew some of the country’s federation people through Nordic football connections even though he didn’t know all the players very well. “The first time I met with the players, there was a lot of one-way communication as I explained to them how I wanted to see the team play,” he says. “Since then, we’ve set our guidelines, together with the players, so they have had their say on how they want things done.”
The way he wanted to see the team play was the same way he wants to see every team play. As a team. Working together, for each other, as agreed.
“I don’t think an Icelandic, or a Swedish team, can get the results they want if they don’t work as a team. We have several good players, but more importantly, we’ve found a system that works very well. We’re well organized, the team functions well, and then we have good individual players. We go over different situations during practice again and again, and then add some video analysis on top of that. Our practices aren’t a lot of fun, but as long as we’re winning, the players stay onboard.”
Lagerbäck’s Iceland didn’t get off to a winning start. They played four friendlies without a win but the team believed in Lagerbäck. (That’s what five straight qualifications gets you).
Then the winning started. In the 2014 World Cup qualifications, Iceland finished second in its group and advanced to the playoff round, where they drew nil-nil against Croatia at home but lost the second leg in Zagreb 2-0.
90% of the work is done before the match
In the Euro 2016 qualification, Iceland won six of its ten games, lost two, and drew two, finishing second behind the Czech Republic, and seven points ahead of the Netherlands, the European powerhouse of the early 21st century. Last September, Iceland beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam, the first loss in a qualification game at home for the Dutch team since 1996. After the match, the Iceland team danced a wild dance in the dressing room. Somewhere in the bowels of the Amsterdam Arena, there was Lars Lagerbäck from Medelpad, calm but happy.
Lagerbäck certainly looks calm most of the time, but Heimir Hallgrímsson says, “He looks calmer than he is.” And while unlike many of his peers, Lagerbäck stays on the bench throughout matches, if you look closely you can see him muttering to himself.
“The match itself is a big rush, and it’s exciting,” he says. But he’s not stressed during the game. He’s done 90% of the work before the match. He knows what he’s doing.
"We hope to stay in France for a month"
Lagerbäck says that 10% of Iceland’s population will travel to France to cheer for their football team in Euro 2016. And the whole nation stands behind the team. One Icelandic brewery even made a tribute beer called “Lars.”
“We hope to stay in France for a month. If Greece could win it in 2004,* Iceland can win it too. There’s always a chance.”
Lagerbäck’s contract with Iceland expires after the tournament. “I guess I should semi-retire at least,” he says. “That’d be smart. I know I’ve been very privileged to have had the chance to travel the world, meet people, experience exciting things. I’m not going to retire bitter. I don’t know what I’ll do after this.”
Except for one thing. He will return to his forest in Medelpad, and he’ll just be Lars. And exhale.
Text: Risto Pakarinen
Published: June 15, 2016