Marcus Berg on turning childhood dreams into reality for Sweden at World Cup 2018

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Marcus Berg in action for Sweden.

A seven-year-old child watches transfixed at his family home that is packed full of life and excitement.

This sense of wonderment cannot be diminished by a sizeable time difference pushing several kick-offs beyond even Scandinavia’s endless daylight hours at that time of year.

Almost 8,000 kilometres away, Sweden’s unlikely heroes are lighting up a sun-kissed summer at World Cup 1994.

This ‘Golden Generation’ of eccentric goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, forward Tomas Brolin – possessed of infamously ephemeral talent – and long-limbed centre forward Kennet Andersson were supposed to have spurned their best chance of success at Euro 1992.

They instead embarked on a remarkable run in America only ended at the semi-final stage by striker Romario’s late, unmarked header for Brazil – the eventual champions. Back home, life was never to be the same for Marcus Berg.

Those memories act as fuel for a journey that sees the now 31-year-old poised to lead the line for Blagult (The Blue-Yellow) at his first World Cup after a prolific and trophy laden debut campaign in the UAE at Al Ain.

“It was something that is so special to my generation,” the centre forward exclusively tells Sport360. “Everyone remembers that World Cup.

“It was in the United States, so it was [shown on television] in the night in Sweden. “We woke up and had friends or family over every night. They made a really good World Cup, so of course we hope and dream to have another World Cup like them.

“I was seven-years old. At that time, Sweden were not favourites and had players who were struggling a little bit.

“But they did a very good World Cup and this is something we must also believe in that we can do.

“I had a dream to become a footballer when I was young and to see that Sweden could make good results in the World Cup, it was a fantastic moment. It was also something that stayed in the memory, all days since I grew up.

“I hoped and believed that I could play a World Cup – and now I will. This is a very, very fantastic thing.”

Berg arrives in Russia this month as a striker who has come into his own. The false starts experienced at Hamburg and PSV Eindhoven after his Golden Boot success at 2009’s European Under-21 Championship are consigned to the past.

Sweden's forward Marcus Berg (c) reacts during a training session for Sweden.

Sweden’s forward Marcus Berg (c) reacts during a training session for Sweden.

So is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. One of the 21st-century’s giant sporting figures will definitely not be present, despite months of characteristic flirtations.

This decision by Sweden’s 62-goal record scorer has ensured Berg will no longer be a mere foil. In Ibrahimovic’s absence throughout qualifying, a vital eight goals helped set his nation on a course to defeating Italy in the play-offs. This result ended the Azzurri’s continuous 60-year record of participation, plus their Scandinavian opponent’s 12-year disappearance from the tournament.

For Berg, it is vital the likes of himself and emerging RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg embraced responsibility by emerging from the great man’s shadow.

“I think it was expected,” he says of Ibrahimovic’s teased decision. “He said ‘no’ and didn’t play in the whole of qualifications.

“He had made some interviews in the last months that maybe indicated that he wanted to come back. But I think it was more like a show from his side.

“It is sad for all who love football, because he’s still a fantastic player. He is also a big role model and inspiration for a lot of kids in the world.

Marcus Berg comes into the World Cup after a prolific debut campaign at Al Ain.

Marcus Berg comes into the World Cup after a prolific debut campaign at Al Ain.

“A lot of games we could just rely on him that he would make it for us. Sometimes, that is not only positive for a team.

“When he quit, a lot of players took steps forward and took more responsibility. That is normal.”

Berg was lured away last June from Greece’s Panathinaikos, where he’d struck 95 times in 151 matches. The Boss’ €3 million (Dh12.9m) investment was rewarded by 34 goals in 31 matches, plus a club-first double of the Arabian Gulf League and President’s Cup.

This move to the Middle East in a World Cup season led to inevitable dissenting voices about a drop in competitiveness. Berg insists he couldn’t have provided a better retort.

He says: “What more can I do apart from scoring goals and working hard? That is what I tried to do.

“Always, people will speak. But in Europe, people don’t know the league here [UAE] or the AFC Champions League.”

Head coach Janne Andersson’s current crop have been placed into Group F.

Holders Germany should storm into top spot, yet little separates Sweden, Mexico and South Korea.

Enthusiasm moulded by cherished memories forged 24 years ago, Berg unsurprisingly believes “everything can happen” in the coming weeks.

“It is a tough group, of course,” says Berg. “But it could be more difficult.

“Our first game is against South Korea and that is a very crucial game.

“In a World Cup, you have to aim to pass the group. After that, everything can happen.”

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Germany lead latest FIFA rankings ahead of Brazil and Belgium

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Reigning champions Germany go into the World Cup as the number one team in the world while hosts Russia will be the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

With little movement in the upper echelons from the last time FIFA published its rankings, Joachim Low’s side – bidding to become the first back-to-back winners in 56 years – remain ahead of Brazil at the top.

Belgium, Portugal and Argentina complete the top five while the only change in the top 10 sees Poland up two places to eighth in a straight swap with Spain.

Russia’s slide will be partly due to not playing competitive matches during the qualifying process and they are down four places since the last update, dropping them below 67th-ranked Saudi Arabia and down to 70th.

Australia and South Korea have climbed four places each and Uruguay three for a pre-tournament boost, but Tunisia drop seven places to 21st.

Chile, in ninth, are the highest-ranked team not involved in Russia this summer.

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How tears inspired Brazil striker Pele to become a World Cup legend

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Footballing legend: Pele.

The World Cup and Pele are inseparable.

More than the deified striker’s 1,283 goals in 1,363 games, the story of football’s defining career is told through memories formed by its grandest stage.

It is a tale of redemption which begins with a nine-year-old child forced to console his distraught father during 1950’s infamous Maracanazo as hosts Brazil are left forever scarred by Uruguay’s upset victory on home soil in the final.

Joyful successes bookmark adventures in 1958 and 1970.

Injury-ravaged appearances in-between feature a bit-part role for 1962’s victory and painful group-stage elimination during 1966. As the now 77-year-old illustrates in this exclusive interview ahead of the latest World Cup in Russia, the competition provides “the great history of my life”.

“The World Cup to me, it is amazing and it means a lot,” says Pele, now frail in body but certainly not mind, at Hublot’s Match of Friendship in Dubai.

“A lot. First of all, I have one In the World Cup in 1958, Brazil won and I was there. 1970, as well. This is the great history of my life history to tell to the people. My father was a football player and when Brazil played the 1950 [World Cup] in Brazil, they lost.

“I was almost 10-years old and I saw my father cry because Brazil lost. He was a footballer, too. Then I did not know what to say to my father. I said: ‘Father, do not cry as I will win the World Cup for you, do not worry, do not worry’.

“In the World Cup in 1958, Brazil won and I was there. 1970, as well. This is the great history of my life.”

Pele was the beguiling, 17-year-old prodigy in 1958 who struck a semi-final hat-trick against France. To add to his nascent legend, a brace followed against hosts Sweden in the decider.

These are goals that still place him in the record books as the youngest footballer to do so at the finals.

Fast forward 12 years, past the washouts caused by the brutal treatment of malevolent defenders, and Edson Arantes do Nascimento, to give his full name, is the talisman of an intoxicating team who fittingly led the tournament’s charge into glorious Technicolour.

Alongside the likes of Rivelino, Jairzinho, Gerson, Carlos Alberto, Tostao and Clodoaldo, arguably the finest team on record combined to lavish effect. ‘The Beautiful Game’ nickname popularised and used so adoringly by Pele never appeared more apt.

This victorious summer in Mexico saw the legend of ‘O Rei’ (The King) grow beyond the fathomable.

It featured an attempted lob from the half-way line against Czechoslovakia, England goalkeeper Gordon Banks scrambling away a header for the best save on record, a famous feint to dumbfound Uruguay shot stopper Ladislao Mazurkiewicz and the nonchalant blind pass which Alberto fired home in the final against Italy for the greatest team goal ever scored.

In total at World Cups, he won three – the most by any player – and scored 12 times. A record for the ages.

This lineage is passed down to Neymar. The 26-year-old is the current arbiter of the five-time champions’ hopes, a forward gifted with a preternatural touch on the ball ready for action after three months of inactivity caused by his broken metatarsal.

When asked which superstar of the current generation he would most like to play alongside, Pele’s admiration and affection for the €222 million (Dh952.8m) Paris Saint-Germain forward is made abundantly clear.

“Neymar,” he replies. “It is difficult to measure, but individually he is a very good player.

“I just make a joke with him sometimes and say: ‘Listen, you are a good player and you have everything. But you’ll never be like me, because you do not score goals with your head – you must be good with your head, too.’ This is because he is very good at dribbling, and off both feet. But he is a fantastic player, no doubt.”

Correlations between Pele and Neymar move beyond their shared experiences with Santos and Brazil.

Colombia full-back Juan Zuniga’s unpunished foul in the 2014’s quarter-finals broke a bone in the latter’s back and ruled him out of the semi-final.

From there, the Mineirazo inflicted by eventual-champions Germany’s 7-1 humiliation caused pain which sent Pele back to his childhood.

Brazilian forward Pele (c) congratulates his team-mate Vava (20) after he scored versus Sweden in World Cup 1958's final.

Brazilian forward Pele (c) congratulates his team-mate Vava (20) after he scored versus Sweden in World Cup 1958’s final.

“I do not like to talk about this,” he says, accompanied by a mournful laugh. “But this is football.

“Brazil was an excellent team, and then we had a little problem. Neymar got an injury and football is a box of surprises.

“I think Brazil now has a young team and I think Brazil could make a very good World Cup this year.”

The current generation are strong contenders at World Cup 2018.

Charismatic and learned head coach Tite has lifted the gloom inflicted by Luiz Felipe Scolari and then Dunga.

Electric football under the new man saw the Canarinha go from sixth in CONMEBOL qualifying with a third of the campaign gone, to booking their flights to Russia with four rounds to spare.

Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus, Barcelona playmaker Philippe Coutinho and goalkeeper Alisson provide a burgeoning support cast.

Neymar is a talent barely without compare.

One of just two rivals with superior graces – the other being Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronado – is former Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi.

The Argentina idol’s candidacy to join countryman Diego Maradona and Pele at the highest echelon falls flat in some quarters for a simple reason – he has never lifted the World Cup. At 30-years old, the last viable chance to join the joint FIFA Players of the 20th Century could be imminent.

This promises to be the next edition’s main narrative. Is it one Pele, the tournament’s totemic advocate, can agree with?

He says: “He [Messi] doesn’t need to win to be good – he’s good anyway, you know?

“But it is important for a player like him to have an opportunity to win the World Cup. He is an excellent player, no doubt.”

For Pele, this debate was ended 60 years ago. A sporting life continues to be lived without compare.

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