Don’t Underestimate the Swedes

I recently came across possibly the greatest treasure trove of ultimate videos anywhere on the planet: the YouTube account of FrisbeeSweden.

Sure, the quality of footage might be a little shaky, but equally, this is a rare insight into the deep, dark past of ultimate. Over the course of nearly 30 years, Sweden was a consistent semi-finalist at WUGC.  In fact, there is only one year – 2008 – when they lost in quarters, and three other occasions when they failed to get a medal.

With 9 medals (1 gold, 6 silver and 2 bronze) over a course of 13 championships, Sweden deserves to be a key figure in any conversation about the greatest ever ultimate nations.  And here is footage of all of their major games through the years.  I got watching some, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there.

The Swedish Game — Intelligent and Built on Years of Knowledge

Compare the styles of the two from the 2000 final; USA rarely completed a break throw –  or in fact any throw of any difficulty at all – relying on hard running, patience and physical defense1.  Compare to Sweden, showing off a variety of technically difficult throws and intelligent poaching & switching defenses to compensate for the superior athleticism of the Americans.

The Swedes lost that game, but it is clear that they show off far superior throwing; it’s not until a third of the way through the game that the US team complete any non-basic throw, and it’s not until the second half that they complete a huck. The Swedish style is intelligent, has incredibly well-refined structure & clearly there’s a wealth of knowledge in Swedish ultimate that can be tapped.

Aggressive Defense Started to Trump Throwing Skill

In a short space of time in the 90’s, we see a remarkable change in the speed of the game, athleticism of the athletes, and physicality of defense, particularly from the North Americans.  Let’s look at two games between Sweden and Canada, just two years apart.

The 1992 Canadian team resemble a modern pick up team in terms of skills and decision making, and they are thrashed by the Swedes.  USA went on to defeat Sweden in the final 22-20; they repeated the win in 1996, and again (in controversial circumstances) in 2000.

It is the 1994 Canadian team that are the first that resemble the aggressive playing style of what would become the dominant Canadian teams of the 2000’s, albeit with far more sloppy execution and decision making;  just look at the number of collisions and aggressive bids from the Canadians in the Colchester final.  While the Swedes look and play in a very similar way to their 1992 winning style, the Canadians had taken away a lesson from that 21-8 defeat in Japan; play faster on O and more aggressive on D.  The Swedes don’t seem to have any answer other than to play the same way they have always played, very calmly.  In this game, the greater skill level of the Swedes is sufficient to give them a 19-17 win, but the takeaway lesson is clear: getting fired up can get you results.

The UK Angle

Certainly for the last 10 years, it has been clear that the UK took its playing style from the US – with a greater emphasis on physicality and gritty defense – as opposed to the rest of Europe which seemed to emphasize throwing prowess.  UK club teams at the time seemed to be scrabbling around, trying to discover things for ourselves; meanwhile, Swedish ultimate had access to a treasure trove of knowledge built over decades of being the best in the world.  The UK’s style was driven by imported players from the US, yet I think we could have – and should have – learned from our Scandinavian neighbors.

When I first played high level European ultimate with Clapham in 2004, I was amazed that we managed to beat teams which all seemed to have far, far better throwers than any of the players on my team.  As things were explained to me, running track is the easiest way to get blocks, and we were certainly reliant upon our D line to win games.

To a rookie like me, it seemed strange that a team of hard running grafters – poorly skilled as we were – could defeat a team of incredible throwers. I distinctly remember watching Skogsyddans play Clapham one year later, and the ease with which Per Matteson threw 60m+ into a strong wind to defeat Clapham’s zone; I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone throw that far upwind, and I’m fairly sure Clapham’s deep defender hadn’t either.

Origins

Where did this all come from? I spoke to Martin Filipovski Hargeby, one of the key players of Sweden from the late 1990s onwards, and Danny Eriksson, who was a dominant player in the 1980s and even won a US National title with NYNY.  Both have won numerous European titles, Worlds medals and more Swedish national championships than they care to remember.  Martin & Danny have also helped coach Swedish teams until the present day, and were responsible for Sweden’s European gold in 2011 and World semis berth in 2012.

“You have to give indoor playing in Sweden some recognition for bringing some quickness to the game” said Martin.  Indoor is, of course, often lauded for its ability to develop quick and unconventional throws — plus faster decision making.

According to Danny, NYNY took the Swedish style of play back with them; “some speedy guys like Johnny Gewirtz [a former NYNY star defender who went on to play with Furious] loved to be one of the three handlers working their way upfield and that was a start of an isolation play developing later.”   Back in the mid-80’s, SFMSC a club team from Örebro and a European powerhouse that went to play in US, were responsible for pushing / evolving Swedish tactics.  One of the top US players visited Sweden to do some tactical sharing – such as the introduction of the Stanford dump & swing, while simultaneously doing some “spywork” in Danny’s words – and typically the Swedes played against the top US teams in Worlds every two years, with many of the Swedes being invited to go to the US to play.

Trouble Recruiting In Sweden

While ultimate in the UK has been on the rise since 2000, arguably the opposite could be said for Sweden; they have failed to win a Worlds medal since Heilbronn (despite being one point away from silver in 2012).   They have been on the decline as a nation for a number of years – Joel Hogberg’s recent interview tells of difficulties recruiting new players over the last 15 years – yet clearly they were capable of becoming European champions & defeating the home favourite at the World championships one year later.

To the outsider, the number of clubs in Sweden – and the demise of arguably the strongest club in European history, Skogshyddan – indicate that things in the Swedish domestic scene are far from perfect.  In particular, Martin tells me that there is little to no university ultimate in Sweden, which removes a large number of recruits.  But, most players are recruited from schools, so they tend to have a higher skill level than other nations.  Recent results show a return to form for Swedish ultimate, and Joel’s excitement about their youth scene should be sufficient to make the rest of the world aware that Swedish ultimate is on the up.

Elimination Play Strategy

If there is one thing that British teams have learned to their cost, it is this: never underestimate the Swedes in elimination play.  They may have lost in pools to the team that you hammered earlier; it doesn’t matter.  If you are playing in an elimination game, expect to fight to the wire.

GB Open found this to our cost in 2011, beating the Swedes by 3 in pools, then losing the final by 2.  It was only by looking back at the pool game that something became obvious to me; that the Swedes were just testing us, and were more than happy to lose the pool game.  They were probing for weaknesses.  They pulled out a zone which slowed GB down a lot, and forced some uncomfortable resets, then the zone disappeared for the remainder of the game.  The purpose of the pool game for Sweden was very different than the purpose of the game for GB; for GB, it was about instilling belief in the ability of our young, inexperienced team to deliver against one of the world’s strongest ultimate nations.

The purpose of the game for Sweden though, was to work out which strategy would allow them to beat GB during a later elimination game, one that they knew would surely come.  Not that they intentionally throw games, just that the Swedes know that they can get just as much from a loss as they could from a win. According to Martin, pool play is often to do with getting the team together and prepared for elimination: “if we lose some pool games that don´t really bother us much because we know that it all starts in elimination rounds”.

The Risk of Losing Pool Games

Very rarely do British teams take this kind of approach.  Time and again though at major tournaments I see the Swedes resting their stars – I recall talking to Sebastian Sperrong in Japan; he was sitting down icing his leg during a game.  I asked if he was injured and was given a wry smile in return: “No I’m fine”; Martin admits that Swedish teams often save their legs for later on.

It seems that some US teams try to take this route if they can, but the approach of championship contenders is more along the lines of getting ahead by a few breaks, then resting the stars.  I’m aware that some teams take the route of losing game to get specific matchups – most recently Oakland’s attempt to qualify as #1 seed by throwing pool games and attempting to take down Truck Stop in quarters – but this is very, very rare.

Notably though, Doublewide lost heavily to Revolver at USAU Nationals 2012 in power pools, then went on to beat them in the final.  Doublewide intentionally held back the defensive strategy they used in the final (exactly as Sweden had done to GB at EUC 2011), and certainly once the game was out of reach at half-time there is little doubt that they gave up trying to win and instead focussed on what other positives they could get from the game. Despite it’s rarity elsewhere, Sweden seem to make a habit of it; EUC 2011, WUGC 2012 (lost games in pool to ensure a quarterfinals matchup vs Japan, the team they thought they had the best chance of defeating), and ECBU 2013 (a heavy loss to Germany in pools becomes a one-sided victory in semi finals), all with good outcomes for the Swedes.

Throwing games is a risky strategy – and it is sure to annoy those who feel it is a breach of SOTG – but you don’t need to win all of your games to win the championship, and if you can lose a pool game that gives you an advantage later then why not? Here is a team with a clear philosophy.  They are a nation that know their strengths and their weaknesses, when to fight and when to save their legs for another battle.  As Martin says, “Swedes want to be underdogs”, and part of the national psyche is that Swedish teams don’t like starting strong, preferring instead to gain momentum.

Summary

I’m not sure what we’ll see from Swedish teams at WUCC 2014, just don’t forget that the Swedish club team Viksjöfors went from 6th in Europe 2009 to 8th in the world in 2010.    All I can say is, don’t rely on your scouting reports, and if you were fortunate enough to beat them in pools only to later see them in elimination play, don’t rest on your laurels… they may have a trick up their sleeves.

Kom igen Sverige!

Sweden – Medal History:

1983 – Bronze; 1984 – Silver; 1986 – Silver; 1988 – Bronze; 1990 – Silver; 1992 – Gold; 1994 – Silver; 1996 – Silver; 1998 – 4th; 2000 – Silver; 2004 – 4th; 2008 – quarter finalists; 2012 – 4th

Video Sources:

1992 WUGC Sweden 21 – 8 Canada

1994 WUGC Sweden 19 – 17 Canada

1996 WUGC Sweden 17 – 16 USA

2000 WUGC Sweden 18 – 19 USA


  1. This may be harsh; their zone seems to slow Sweden a lot so could well have been innovative for its day 

  1. Sion "Brummie" Scone
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    Sion "Brummie" Scone coached GB Open from 2010-2012, and also coached the GB World Games team in 2013, and the u24 Men in 2018. He has been running skills clinics in the UK and around the world since 2005. He played GB Open 2007-12, and GB World Games 2009. He lives in Birmingham, UK. You can reach him by email (sionscone@gmail.com) or on Twitter (@sionscone).

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