During this year’s London Olympics, the football tournament was something of a sideshow, notable chiefly for favourites Brazil again failing to secure their first triumph at the games.
Yet there are many distinguished footballing careers that have been launched at the Olympics: the likes of Ferenc Puskás, Lev Yashin and Carlos Tevez all announced themselves on the international stage by playing an integral role in gold medal winning sides. And the previous time London acted as hosts, for the ‘austerity games’ of 1948, the event was the springboard for a trio of particularly gifted attackers. The three men, Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm – born on consecutive Octobers in the early 1920s – helped to fire an unfancied Sweden to gold in London, and would go on to form one of the most formidable front lines in world football.
Gren, the oldest of the three, was a technically accomplished inside-forward whose skills were apparent from an early age. Having won a ball-juggling contest in his native Gothenburg aged just 13; Gren was praised by a local newspaper which predicted that his tricks would be a good foundation for a career as a circus performer. Choosing to ignore this advice, he instead began playing for hometown club Garda BK, and his impressive performances there caused IFK Göteborg to sign him. He experienced instant success at IFK, winning the championship in the 1941-42 season, and continued to excel for both club and country over the next few years, receiving the inaugural Guldbollen (awarded to the best Swedish player of the year) in 1946. However, by this point his club side had been eclipsed by a new force in Swedish football: IFK Norrköping.
Norrköping won four successive league titles prior to the ’48 Olympics under Hungarian manager Lajos Czeizler, and central to their success were the contributions of Nordahl and Liedholm, the other two men in our trio. Nordahl grew up as one of ten children living in a single-room house in the tiny village of Hörnefors in northern Sweden. His performances as a teenage centre-forward for his village team caught the eye of top-flight side Degerfors, who signed him in 1940. The move to a higher level posed no problem for Nordahl, who captivated spectators with his powerful physique and thunderous shot, and continued his free-scoring form. Norrköping came calling in 1944, and the move was a huge success for both club and player: in the next four seasons, as his club won their four consecutive Allsvenskan titles, Nordahl hit an incredible 87 goals in 85 appearances, finishing as the league’s top scorer on three occasions (Gren pipped him to the honour by one goal in the other season). All of this was achieved while fulfilling his professional duties as a firefighter – professionalism was outlawed in Swedish football at the time, meaning that players needed to take day jobs to make a living.
Yet Nordahl was not the sole factor behind Norrköping’s accomplishments. He was joined in 1946 by the youngest of our trio, Nils Liedholm, who slotted in just behind Nordahl at inside-forward. Rangy, athletic, and noted for his incisive passing ability, Liedholm had followed a similar career path. He started out at his local side Valdemarsviks IF, before moving to a higher division with IK Sleipner, and then being snapped up by Czeizler at Norrköping. Earning a living by working in a lawyer’s office, Liedholm was known to train intensively in his spare time. As well as football, he practised javelin and shot put (which undoubtedly helped to develop his formidable long throw), and was even said to run across pine needles in order to strengthen his calves. While at Norrköping, Liedholm developed an almost telepathic understanding with Nordahl, providing many assists for his team-mate and averaging a goal every two games himself.
When the Olympics came round in 1948, the three had established themselves as key members of the Swedish national team. It would be the first major international football tournament in a decade, with the war having led to the cancellation of two World Cups. In charge of the Sweden side was English coach George Raynor, who had been appointed on the recommendation of FA secretary Stanley Rous. The competition was limited to amateurs only, and Raynor had the advantage of selecting from a country where professionalism had not yet taken hold. Yet the task was still a daunting one, and few gave the Swedes much hope of winning their first-round match against Austria, particularly as the Austrians had bent the rules slightly by including well-known players like Ernst Ocwirk who had played professionally. But two early goals from Nordahl set Sweden on their way to a 3-0 victory, and the crowd left White Hart Lane singing the praises of Raynor’s team.
Next they faced South Korea in the quarter-final at Selhurst Park, after the Koreans had pulled off a surprise 5-3 win over Mexico in the first round. The match was effectively over by half-time, as a goal apiece from Liedholm and Gren, plus a brace from Nordahl, gave Sweden a 4-0 lead. Yet the Swedes did not ease off in the second half, adding a further eight goals without reply – including another two for Nordahl – to seal a thumping 12-0 win. The semi-final, held at Wembley, presented a far tougher challenge in the form of rivals Denmark, who had dispatched Italy in the previous round. The Danes dominated the opening exchanges and took an early lead. Sweden found themselves with a chance to equalise after 18 minutes, but Nordahl was in an offside position as his team-mates surged forward. Realising he would not make it back onside quickly enough, the big centre-forward jumped into the goal (and therefore technically off the field of play), and Henry Carlsson’s header which sailed into the net along with him was allowed to stand. A resurgent Sweden followed this up with three further first-half goals, and Denmark could only muster a late consolation, leaving the final score at 4-2.
Yugoslavia awaited in the final, anticipating the stranglehold that Eastern Bloc countries would have over Olympic football in the coming years .The following eight tournaments were all won by Communist countries, as their players were classed as amateurs and given sham jobs by the state but allowed to train full-time. This pattern would only be broken in 1984 when professionals were finally allowed to compete. 60,000 fans packed into Wembley for the match, which took place immediately after Denmark had beaten Great Britain in the bronze medal match on the same ground. Sweden opened the scoring through Gren, but Yugoslavia equalised just before the break. Then, three minutes into the second half, Nordahl finished off a passing move that he had started himself back on the halfway line to put Sweden back in front. A Gren penalty made the scoreline 3-1, and that was how it finished. The triumph was just one among many for Sweden at the 1948 games, as their total of 16 golds put them second in the overall medal table.
Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s star men had caught the eye of scouts from countries with professional leagues, and so it was that Nordahl made the move to Milan. Arriving by train in January 1949, the reception he received in Milan was so frenzied – the train windows were reportedly smashed by over-eager supporters – that he hid out immediately in a hotel, fearing that he had made the wrong decision. Yet the transfer may never have happened were it not for a bizarre twist of fate. Milan had agreed to sign the Danish forward Johannes Pløger, who had netted in Denmark’s 5-3 defeat of Italy during the London games. Pløger was intercepted in Switzerland, however, by the manager of Juventus, who offered him a higher salary and convinced him to join the Turin club instead. Not long before, Juventus had expressed an interest in signing Nordahl and had received a telegram from the Swede indicating his willingness to join them, but the signing of Pløger put an end to that. All of this meant that Milan now found themselves without the Scandinavian striker they had expected, and Nordahl without the move to Italy he had been anticipating. Circumstances had conspired to bring them together, and so Nordahl found himself spearheading the AC Milan attack for the latter half of the 1948-49 season.
While Pløger struggled to make an impact in Turin (he would be shunted off to Novara just a few months later), Nordahl instantly continued his goalscoring exploits in Serie A. He notched 16 goals in 15 games, helping Milan to a third-placed finish behind Inter in second and champions Torino, who were the undisputed kings of Italian football at the time. Over the summer, Nordahl suggested to club president Toni Busini that they could be further improved by the addition of his two countrymen Liedholm and Gren, and by the appointment of Czeizler, his manager from Norrköping. These recommendations were swiftly acted upon, and the foundations were put in place for the ‘Gre-No-Li’ attack that would fire Milan to their first major success in almost half a century.
Liedholm and Gren arrived in Milan – accompanied by new Milan manager Czeizler – for the start of the 1949-50 season, at a time when Italian football was recovering from tragedy. Almost all the players of the great Torino side had died in the Superga air disaster that May, leaving a huge hole at the top of the Italian game. The two newly-signed Swedes made their Milan debuts in the first game of the season, away at Sampdoria, and their starring performances in a 3-1 Milan victory lifted the spectators’ spirits. One journalist at the game was so impressed by the displays of Liedholm and Gren that he compared the pair to Michelangelo and da Vinci.
Their early-season form was a little erratic, but by the time of the first Milan derby in early November, the club were level on points with third-placed Inter and four points behind leaders Juventus. A lightning start to the match saw Milan 4-1 up after just twenty minutes, with Liedholm and Nordahl both on the scoresheet. If Czeizler’s team were lethal going forward, though, it was not matched by solidity in defence, and Inter staged an incredible comeback to run out 6-5 winners. Renowned Italian football writer Gianni Brera pinned the blame for the defeat squarely on the Swedes, arguing that they ‘lacked tactical sense’, having continued to pour forward even when three goals up. One can imagine how harrowing the game must have been for Brera, who famously remarked that ‘the perfect game would end 0-0’.
Milan quickly recovered from this setback, however, winning 10 of their next 12 games to put themselves three points behind first-placed Juventus when the two sides met in Turin in February. Juve had triumphed 1-0 in the earlier meeting at the San Siro, and they took the lead in this encounter too, but they soon crumbled under the pressure of Milan’s relentless attacks. All three of the Swedish trio scored – with Nordahl bagging a hat-trick – as Milan routed the league leaders 7-1. Nordahl described the game years later as ‘the masterpiece of Gre-No-Li’ in which ‘we came close to perfection in our play’, adding that ‘it would be well worth the effort to do a film remake of that game in its entirety’. While Juventus may have lost the battle that day, they won the war by going on to secure the league title, finishing five points ahead of Milan in second. Nordahl was the league’s top scorer, with a record of 35 goals which has still not been matched in Serie A.
The following season, Milan picked up where they left off, winning their first 6 games and scoring 26 goals in the process. And this time they were able to achieve more consistency in their results, leading Serie A for the bulk of the season. The Swedes were integral to this success –as well as Nordahl’s goals, Milan benefitted greatly from Gren’s tactical know-how, which led to his nickname of ‘Il Professore’. Liedholm’s passing accuracy was also respected: he allegedly misplaced his first pass over a season into his Milan career, upon which the crowd broke out into applause which lasted for five minutes. The club’s strong form meant that victory in the final home game of the season, against Lazio, would guarantee the title ahead of nearest rivals Inter. Yet Lazio pulled off a surprise 2-1 win, leading to an agonizing wait in the dressing-room for confirmation of the score from Inter’s game away at Torino. Brera reported that club president Busini ‘fainted like a schoolgirl’ as he waited to hear the result. Then the news came through: Torino had beaten Inter 2-1, meaning that Milan could celebrate their first scudetto since 1907. Nordahl recalled how, in the scenes that followed, ‘the tifosi jumped over the stadium fences and joined us on the pitch, carrying us on their shoulders, crazy with joy’.
It would prove to be the only league title won while all three of the ‘Gre-No-Li’ were together at Milan. After finishing as runners-up to Juventus the next season, and in third the season after, the club allowed Gren to move to Fiorentina in 1953 (although not before a brief spell as manager the previous year). Nordahl and Liedholm maintained their partnership for three more seasons, firing Milan to another scudetto in 1954-55, before Nordahl departed for Roma. During his time at Milan, Nordahl hit 210 league goals and finished as Serie A top scorer on five occasions – another record yet to be surpassed. Liedholm captained the team to a further two championships in the late fifties, as well as the 1958 European Cup final in which they lost 3-2 to Real Madrid after extra time. He finished his career at Milan in 1961, having been christened ‘Il Barone’ after marrying into the Italian nobility.
While their move to Milan was an overwhelming success, it came at a price for the three Swedes. The Swedish FA refused to allow professionals to represent the national side, meaning that they missed out on being part of the 1950 World Cup squad, which finished a creditable third in their absence.
By the time of the 1958 competition, however, which was staged on home soil in Sweden, the FA had relented. The change came too late for Nordahl, who had just retired, but Liedholm and Gren – aged 35 and 37 respectively – were called up by Raynor, who had returned to manage Sweden after a spell in Italy himself.
The tournament proved to be a fitting swansong for the two greats, as Sweden progressed all the way to the final, with Gren scoring in the 3-1 semi-final win over holders West Germany in his home town of Gothenburg. In the final against Brazil, Liedholm gave the hosts an early lead, but the South Americans recovered to prevail 5-2 and win the tournament for the first time.
The 1958 World Cup is remembered primarily as the first step in a great career – that of Pele, who scored twice in the final aged just 17. But we should not forget that it also provided one of the final acts in two other great careers, of ‘Gre’ and ‘Li’, who were both already playing league football in Sweden when Pele was born. Nor should we forget that these two names will always sound incomplete without the addition of a ‘No’ between them.
By Simon Craft
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona