The brothers who redefined Swedish football after World War II
The Swedish striker Gunnar Nordahl scored lots of goals. He kept banging them in for more than 20 years. He won Olympic gold in London in 1948 as well as Allsvenskan four times and Serie A twice, helping his teams push for success by being the league’s top scorer no fewer than nine times. When he retired he was behind only Silvio Piola in Serie A’s all-time goalscoring chart and he remains the most prolific foreigner.
He may have been a natural, endowed with a physique reminiscent of the Everton legend Dixie Dean, legs made for running, and feet that could hit the ball from any angle inside the area in a way that the German Gerd Müller later refined. But behind every ‘natural’ who conquers the football world there is usually an equally remarkable coach. In Nordahl’s case you could say there were three, all Hungarians: István Wampetits at Degerfors, Lajos Czeizler at IFK Norrköping and AC Milan, and Béla Guttmann at Milan. Wampetits made his career take off, Czeizler made him great, and Guttmann reignited him at Milan, when his career was entering its twilight.
Nordahl was born in Hörnefors, in the north of Sweden, in 1921. The coastal community relied on a sulphite mill, where wood was made into pulp for paper production. No more than 900 people lived there. But the Nordahl family was significant in numbers. The parents Emil and Nikolina raised 10 children – six boys and four girls. Wilhelm, the oldest of the boys, died aged seven the year before Gunnar was born, but the other five would all become useful footballers. Bertil, Knut and Gunnar were Olympic champions in 1948. They also won the coveted Swedish Player of the Year award in successive years, starting with the youngest (Gunnar) in 1947 followed by Bertil and Knut. The trio also went to Italy in that order. Gunnar to Milan, Bertil to Atalanta and Knut to Roma. Gösta also played for Sweden, while his twin Göran just spent one homesick year with IFK Norrköping.
When Gunnar looked back in his 1954 autobiography Guld och gröna planer (Gold and Green Fields) he still couldn’t really work out how it had all come about. His father was interested in football, and very proud of his sons, but had never played himself. His mother, who was a local politician, never really got the hang of football but still had, as we shall see, found ways to influence her children’s careers. “We were sound and strong and competed with each other,” he wrote. “Nothing was impossible. If one succeeded, the others had to do equally well.”
When he grew up he was told stories about the ancestors of his father, Walloon blacksmiths from southern Belgium and northern France who came to Sweden in the 17th century. “And maybe we also inherited their fiery temper, if it came from them.” But he still couldn’t see how this would have shaped him and his brothers into top-class footballers.
Environment was more important. Hörnefors IF had a decent side as early as 1930. Football was a popular and growing sport in the area with many local rivalries, although the northern counties would not be connected with the national league system until 1953. The reason was simple: travelling south was too expensive and too time-consuming for amateurs. By boat or train, the capital Stockholm was a day or two away. As it was, Umeå (15,000 inhabitants) and Skellefteå (10,000) were the hubs of the area. Besides, they also had to grapple with climatic conditions. The long winters, late springs and depressingly bad pitches remained a handicap well into modern times. The northern game wouldn’t come into its own until the 1980s.
Clubs had to be content with southern elite teams visiting in the summer as part of their holidays. In 1939, when Gunnar was still only 17 and had been playing first-team football for little more than two years, Degerfors toured the northern region of Norrland, playing the Västerbotten County XI. Degerfors had debuted in Allsvenskan in 1938-39 but were relegated immediately, finishing behind Örgryte on goal average. The hosts beat them 3-2 with Gunnar scoring twice.
The Degerfors coach István Wampetits was impressed. He had worked with his team, or rather the whole club, for two years. He had won promotion immediately in 1938, failed at the next stage and was looking for reinforcements to have another go. He had in fact tried to get Gunnar the year before, without having seen him play. He wrote to the family and became a regular correspondent with Gunnar’s mother Nikolina. She was receptive to the approach as Degerfors offered a good job at the local steel mill. But she also thought it a bit early for Gunnar to leave home: “Maybe next year.”
Nordahl had started working when he left school in 1934. At first he helped an old man and his horse to deliver beer from a local brewery. Then he had a short stint emptying latrine buckets, starting at four in the morning. Finally, when he was old enough, he was accepted at the sulphite mill, where his father Emil and brother Bertil already worked. Meanwhile, Knut had other plans. The most gifted of the brothers, he got a job behind the counter at the local grocers. He was a real gentleman and the housewives appreciated his good manners.
Gunnar had indeed made an impression on Wampetits and they had a talk after that game in the summer of 1939. Gunnar promised to go to Degerfors. Well, almost. By now word was out. Late in the autumn the County Västerbotten XI were invited to play in Stockholm, against the second-division side Reymersholms IK. There is a famous photo taken after the game, in which Gunnar, Bertil and Knut are sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Aston chatting with Reymersholm’s Czechoslovakian coach Václav Simon, his two star players and Ivan Eklind, the referee. Reymersholm had held Västerbotten to a 1–1 draw and Simon was interested. His chairman, though, wasn’t convinced and nothing came of it. The club boss regarding signing players from the north as too much of a gamble. A northerner had yet to play in Allsvenskan, the Swedish national league that had been established in 1924.
From Stockholm the brothers went west for a trial with Örebro SK in a game against Hallstahammars SK. Both clubs had appointed Hungarian coaches that year. Kálmán Konrád, happy to slip out of Czechoslovakia just before annexation, had taken charge at ÖSK while Lajos Czeizler had been lured from Karlskoga IF to Hallstahammar. Karlskoga and Degerfors are neighbouring towns, Örebro is not very far away and if you go another 50km you may have passed through Hallstahammar. Needless to say, Wampetits was there to watch. Örebro won 3–1, but nothing sensational was shown by the brothers.
Gunnar Nordahl decided to stay with Hörnefors IF through the 1939-40 season. What he didn’t know was that his local league would be postponed in the spring, a decision prompted by governmental fuel restrictions implemented because of the war. Players were also called up to the army and a substitute league was organised for clubs in the vicinity. As an amateur (all football in Sweden was amateur until 1967) he didn’t have a contract and was free to leave for another club without any compensation. The snag was that he had to sit out a three-month quarantine before he was eligible for his next club.
In the spring of 1940 Nordahl drew closer to Degerfors. Still a teenager, he was at the same time flattered by fresh approaches from Gårda BK of Gothenburg and from IFK Norrköping, who had won promotion to Allsvenskan. Norrköping invited him to play two trial games. He was instructed not to show himself publicly, which he accepted but thought was weird: “It is probably how things work at this level.” Gunnar then went to Gothenburg for talks. Gårda put him up in a posh hotel. He was shown the sights and started to imagine what it would be like playing together with the young Gårda inside-right Gunnar Gren. He then called his mother: “Gothenburg seems nice, I think I am staying here.” Nikolina would have none of that. “Oh no, you’re not! Honour your promise to Degerfors and get back here at once!”
Degerfors presented a package that was approved by Nikolina. He would stay in digs at a Mrs Benjaminsson’s. Her son, Bengt, played for the team. Gunnar also got a job as turner at the steel mill. He fell in love with the rural area: ”It was beautiful, with forests, water and free open spaces. And the camaraderie within the club was marvellous.” The Degerfors coach István Wampetits, who in his playing days had operated both at right-half and as a striker with Bocskai of Debrecen, took the freshman under his wing. “For the first time I got to know real football training,” Nordahl wrote. “Wampetits spent a lot of time with me. Sometimes it is said that the great coaches only deal with ready-made players, something that supposedly makes their job easy. Well, I can tell you that I was far from ready when Wampetits took hold of me. He taught me lots of things that I never would have been able to figure out by myself.”
Degerfors, back in Allsvenskan in the shortest possible time after their relegation, started the season in a sensational way. They were top of the table with nine points after five rounds. Then Gunnar, the northern starlet, became eligible after serving his quarantine. His debut came on September 8, six weeks before his 19th birthday, as Degerfors hosted Gårda BK.
Gunnar had arrived at Degerfors in July. Their supporters had been able to watch him in training for quite some time. They knew that their club had been chasing him for two years and they soon realised why Wampetits had been so eager to get him. It would be easy to believe that his record in senior football to that point – 68 goals in 41 league games – would have given him self-confidence. But he wasn’t like that at all.
“We won the game 2-1 but I didn’t do too well,” Nordahl said. “I of course wanted to do my very best, but there is so much affecting you when you are new in a side. You are burdened by responsibility, you are not used to interacting with your new teammates and they don’t seem to understand you either.” He had in fact scored the equaliser in the middle of the second half. Erik Lundin secured victory with a penalty in the very last minute.
“In Allsvenskan everything was much faster than I was used to. There was no time to think. In reality I was making things too difficult for myself. Most newcomers don’t get the hang of it for four or five games. But by then it might be too late. Big clubs don’t always have enough time to let a new guy find his feet. The spectators and the press get edgy and before you know it you’re lining up with the reserves. Many talented players have been lost in that way and it could have happened to me as well.”
Degerfors lost their next game, their first defeat of the season, away to Landskrona. Nordahl opened the scoring and Benjaminsson added a second but the home team came back to win 3-2. Then followed a 4-1 home defeat to AIK. Nordahl scored but again to no avail.
The team were losing ground. Nordahl was a suitable scapegoat. Should he, perhaps, be moved to outside-right? No! said Wampetits, who used his full authority to keep his golden nugget at number 9. Nordahl remained, and showed his gratitude to his coach by scoring twice as Degerfors came from behind to beat AIK 2-1 in Stockholm. Disappointment turned into success and before long Gunnar Nordahl was being talked about as a possible international.
Degerfors spent the winter break in second place behind Helsingborg and defended their position during the spring. For a newly promoted team it was a remarkable feat, equalled only once in club history (in 1963). Nordahl was second in the goalscorers chart with 15 in 17 games.
Nordahl was rewarded with a first taste of the national team. The outbreak of war of course affected international football, which more or less went into hibernation. The Swedish Football Association did their best to compensate. The national team played an annual game against a team picked by press representatives, while the clubs contested a cup competition to fill their schedules during the summer, when they usually hosted continental guests.
Gunnar Nordahl was picked to lead the attack against the press selection. Henry ‘Garvis’ Carlsson opened the scoring for the press side but the Nationals soon got going and won 8–1. The remarkable thing, at least from Nordahl’s point of view, was that he didn’t score. He had to wait another year for his real international debut.
Meanwhile, Bertil and Knut also drew attention. Nikolina seemed more confident about her older sons’ ability to adjust to new surroundings, and didn’t act on their behalf as she had done with Gunnar. Bertil left for IFK Eskilstuna in the second division and Knut went to IFK Norrköping, where he got a job as a policeman.
Bertil, who had been an attacker with Hörnefors, preferably as Gunnar’s linkman on the left, had a hard time in Eskilstuna. He was unable to get into the team after his transfer quarantine. Eskilstuna had failed in the promotional play-offs in 1940-41 and when he joined they were again runaway leaders of their regional group. The team was working well and there were no injury gaps to fill. He wasn’t even getting the occasional game. Bertil was restricted to playing with the stiffs.
Knut, mostly a centre-half at home, got his chance with Norrköping towards the end of 1941-42. His first game was against Degerfors, at left-half. Then Lajos Czeizler, who was by then coaching Norrköping, came up with an idea that would become a standard solution over his eight seasons at the club. His international striker Oskar Holmqvist, powerful though he was, was showing signs of age and moved to left-back. Knut was handed the number 9 shirt and responded by scoring once in the final three games. Next season he would lead IFK Norrköping to their first league title. Knut was a strange creature in that position. He was the tallest in the team, an obvious target for crosses, but also the fastest, clocked at 11.3 seconds over 100 metres. He was not selfish in the way centre-forwards are reputed to be and preferred providing service to the inside-right Sven Person rather than add his own name to the scoresheet.
Bertil was stuck in Eskilstuna. He was feeling miserable in a way that is hard to imagine. As a teenager he had stuttered, something that marked him out in a small community. He had worked hard to overcome it, in no small part by proving himself as a footballer.
Gunnar understood the severity of the situation and brought it up with Wampetits, who said, ”Alright, bring him over and we’ll see.” Bertil, who was through his quarantine without ever playing for Eskilstuna, was eligible immediately and made his debut in the seventh game (of 22) of the 1942-43 season, at home against Gårda. He was given the number 8 shirt, again lining up alongside Gunnar. Degerfors won 2–1. Both goals were scored by Gunnar, who was unavailable for the next game against GAIS. Bertil replaced him at centre-forward. The team won 5–4 but Bertil didn’t score. Four games remained before the winter break. Bertil was picked as outside-left for three of them, but the oldest Nordahl still couldn’t find a goal.
Wampetits kept an eye on Bertil. During winter training it dawned on him that Bertil was too slow and clumsy on the ball for Allsvenskan. But he had aggression. Bertil Nordahl didn’t play football, he seemed to be in a constant fight on the pitch, at war with himself.
Wampetits contemplated his team, especially the centre-half position which had bothered him since the veteran Evert Holmgren retired. When Degerfors got underway again in the spring, away to Malmö FF, Bertil got his chance as a stopper. The 1–1 draw was good enough, even though Malmö had some way to go to become a power in the league. Bertil played well and Gunnar secured the point. Within two years, Bertil was an international in that position. He became a regular when the Englishman George Raynor took over as national team coach in the summer of 1946.
Gunnar was a hot commodity at Degerfors from the start and even more so after finishing as Allsvenskan top scorer with 16 goals in 1942-43. During the following season approaches were made by IFK Norrköping’s manager Carl-Elis Halldén. Knut had made a good impression and Halldén was always on the look-out for improvements. Maybe he even recruited the first Nordahl to get the second.
Norrköping had a strategy when getting players from other parts of the country. They preferred bachelors. Knut had arrived alone but met and married a local woman whose parents ran a milliners. That would tie him down to Norrköping for the foreseeable future. Knut was also doing well in his day job in the police force, where he had joined the goalkeeper Torsten Lindberg and centre-half Einar Stéen. Halldén had got to know Knut and understood there was an emotional bond between him and Gunnar, who always found it easier to relate to Knut than to Bertil. But that didn’t mean Halldén knew Gunnar. His first offer was for Gunnar to become yet another copper in the IFK ranks. Gunnar politely said no, ”Because it would make me feel bad to nick people.”
Knut was a soft-spoken realist while Gunnar was idealistic. Halldén, who was very well connected, then proposed another opportunity. Gunnar should become a fireman. Done! He also needed something better than bachelor’s digs for him and his soon-to-be wife Irma. They had met in Degerfors and she fell for Gunnar without knowing he was a footballer. The club was able set them up and connections were needed there as well, because the industrial town of Norrköping wasn’t well off when it came to housing.
Gunnar, once again, had to sit out a three-month quarantine. He made his Norrköping debut in the third game of 1944-45, a 5–1-win at home against Elfsborg. He scored twice. Knut watched the goals from afar. He had been converted to right-back by Lajos Czeizler, all in the best interests of the team.
Gunnar came to Norrköping as an established star, after 58 goals in 77 league games for Degerfors and with nine caps and seven goals for Sweden. He would ride the crest of a wave during his first four seasons at Norrköping. The team won the league every year and he added three top-goalscorer awards as the war ended.
From 1945 he became a menace to defences all over Europe. IFK hosted clubs such as Newcastle United (5-0), Charlton Athletic (2-2), Chelsea (4-1), Hibs (3-1), Austria Vienna (4-4), Dinamo Moscow (1-5). They also went on a celebrated undefeated tour of England late in 1946 as well as visiting Italy (beating Juventus 3-1) and Austria a year later. The spring of 1948 saw Norrköping beat a succession of professional teams: Burnley 3-1, Portsmouth 2-1, Austria Vienna 5-1 and Stade Français 3-1 before a 4-0 defeat to Juventus.
During the spring of 1948, the national team manager Putte Kock and coach George Raynor worked with the team to prepare it for the Olympics in London. Sweden had been routinely hammering their Scandinavian neighbours since the war ended but late in 1947 they lost 4-2 to England at Highbury. Kock and Raynor were disappointed and realised new input was needed. A defeat to the Netherlands at Amsterdam two months before the Olympics underlined that need.
The dress rehearsal came against Austria – an unusual choice given Sweden and Austria were paired for the first round in London. The management decided to bring in the Norrköping captain Birger Rosengren at right-half (and give him the armband as well) while the forward line was picked in an inventive way, stressing general ability rather than selection by position. Kjell Rosén, who played at number 4 for Malmö FF, was handed the number 7 shirt and Nils Liedholm, usually at 8 for Norrköping, played at 11. Both were intelligent players – Rosén is even rated as Malmö FF’s best player in the first half of the 20th century. All three Nordahls were included: Knut as right-back, Bertil as stopper and Gunnar as striker, between Gunnar Gren (IFK Gothenburg) and Garvis Carlsson (AIK). This new mixture withstood the test and beat Austria 3-2.
The Olympic Games started well enough with a 3-0 victory against the Austrians, followed by a 12-0 demolition of South Korea in the quarter-final. Then Denmark, the old enemy for the Swedes, stood between them and the final. Sweden had a good team but so had the Danes. Scouts from French, Italian and Spanish clubs had reason to get tickets for this one. They could get them easily: the game only drew 20,000 to Wembley Stadium.
Denmark were anxious about the condition of Knud Lundberg, the tallest and slowest but also cleverest of their attackers. He had been injured during the first game against Egypt and there was a sigh of relief in the Swedish camp when they learned he was still unable to play. The opposition were tough and the game opened in the worst possible way, with Seebach scoring for Denmark after only two minutes.
The Swedes were not beaten, not yet, and especially not Bertil Nordahl. He was obviously difficult to face, as the Denmark inside-right John Hansen (later a goal-scoring ace for Juventus) observed in his book Bolden i mål (The Ball into the Goal), published a year after the event: “You can feel it for yourselves: the lump that is still there in my head. Every time my comb touches it I think about him – Bertil Nordahl, and he is not getting any gentle sentiments. We got a corner, taken by [Johannes] Pløger. I tried to get in position and heard the Swedish captain Birger Rosengren make a remark to Bertil Nordahl: 'It’s him, over there!’ He pointed at me. The ball came, I made a dash to head it, and I hit it, so it was my ball, no question about it. But at the same time Nordahl came jumping into me, like a tiger, to headbutt me. I went down and cannot remember anything more from the first half. That was murder.” Later in the game Bertil got the third Swedish caution when he brought down Carl Aage Præst in a ”ruthless and almost deadly way”. But Hansen also gave Bertil credit: “His fighting early on, when we had the pressure on them, helped the Swedes turn the game in their favour.” They did, by getting four goals before half-time. Hansen’s reply, with 15 minutes left, was not enough to spark a comeback.
In his book Football Ambassador at Large, George Raynor relates how he got Bertil Nordahl to surpass himself in the final against Yugoslavia: “Bertil Nordahl went into a hard tackle and came out second best. We had to take him to the touchline for treatment and I saw that he was white with pain. The doctor bandaged his leg, but when the bandage was on Bertil couldn’t even walk. So I ordered the bandage to be taken off.
“At that time Yugoslavia were pressing hard, trying to take advantage of our weakness. Our skipper [Birger Rosengren] was getting worried and shouted to me: 'Get Bertil back. We’re being hard pressed.’ I shouted back that we were doing our job off the field and he had to do his on the field and keep the Yugoslavs out.
“The position looked desperate because Bertil, a tower of strength in our defence, was obviously in pain. So I decided to try a gamble. 'There’s nothing serious about this injury, Bertil,’ I said. ‘You’ll be all right once you get back on the field so go out there and try.’
“The big centre-half did just that, and straight away he broke up a dangerous Yugoslav attack and paved the way for our third goal, the goal which made it certain that Sweden would be the Olympic champions of 1948. And after the match he never mentioned his injury again.”
This incident occurred midway through the second half. Gren had put Sweden ahead, with Stjepan Bobek equalising and Gunnar Nordahl giving Sweden the edge again after 48 minutes. Then Gunnar was cut down in the area when attempting to shoot. The penalty was converted by Gren and the exhausted Swedes held on to win 3-1. Meanwhile the Danes beat the Matt Busby-managed Great Britain team 5-3 for the bronze medal.
The Scandinavian success would have repercussions. Football in Sweden and Denmark remained amateur and a race began for their players, who could be recruited cheaply without the need for a transfer fee. Gunnar Nordahl, top scorer of the tournament with seven (although four of those were gifts from South Korea), was high on every scouting list. In the end most of Sweden’s gold medal winners would end up abroad.
The Danes, who already had four players in France, lost five more after the Olympic Games. John Hansen went to Juventus while Helge Bronée (Nancy) and Erling Sørensen (Strasbourg) moved to the French league. Karl Aage Hansen (Huddersfield Town) and Viggo Jensen (Hull City) tried their luck as amateurs in England.
The Swedes were more reluctant. Once again anxiety hampered Gunnar. Moving would mean a change at all levels in life. No Swede had made any impression abroad since the heyday of the American Soccer League in the 1920s. All of Europe remained uncharted territory. Leaving Sweden also meant giving up his place in the national team.
Gunnar, and IFK Norrköping, suffered during the autumn. Halfway through the season they were eighth in the table. Gunnar had scored only six times in 10 games. Many of his teammates were slowed down by age and niggling injuries. When they went on tour to Portugal in December they beat Benfica but lost disastrously to Sporting Lisbon 8-2.
A generation was coming to its end but Gunnar was only 27 and in his prime. He had amassed 93 goals in 92 league games for Norrköping and 43 in 33 internationals. It was time to go. Stade Français, who had faced him twice in the summer, led the chase. Gunnar was invited to Paris but turned the offer down at the last minute. Stade ended up signing Garvis Carlsson, who spent two months in Paris as an amateur during the Swedish winter break.
The next serious approach came early in 1949 from AC Milan. A little more than three weeks later Gunnar was wearing the number nine shirt when Milan faced Pro Patria at the Arena Civica.
Milan had acted swiftly. Gunnar sought the advice of his coach Lajos Czeizler, who had worked in Italy for almost a decade. They agreed to meet the Milan secretary Giannino Giannotti in Stockholm. Gunnar was overwhelmed by the terms – “I still owed 330 kronor on our furniture and thought this was like winning a hundred grand on the lottery” – but Czeizler had a few objections. Giannotti had to make a phone call. On the line, the club president Umberto Trabattoni gave a free hand to his secretary and probably added something to the effect of “Make sure you get him!”.
When everything was settled it was time for Gunnar to call Irma in Norrköping. He told her what was at stake and her reply was short and simple: “Sign!” Gunnar Nordahl became a Milan player on January 13.
Milan were in dire need of a finisher. They had begun the season inconsistently, winning 10 and losing seven of their first 21 games to lie fifth. The veteran striker Héctor Puricelli had scored only twice in his 11 outings. His replacements Aurelio Santagostino and Francesco De Gregori were still inexperienced. Milan expected better, even though they had not been champions since 1907. The fans demanded a saviour and the coach Giuseppe Bigogno hoped the newcomer would help save his job.
Gunnar’s flight landed in Zurich where he was met by Giannotti and the technical director Antonio Busini. They boarded the train for Milan. Gunnar felt comfortable; they seemed to be good people. But as they crossed the border at Chiasso and got closer to their destination, interest in their compartment rose at every stop. At the Centrale station in Milan late in the evening it was mayhem, a passion around football he had never encountered before. The platform was packed with people waving scarves, holding up banners and flags. As soon as Gunnar appeared he was grabbed from the steps of the train and carried away on the shoulders of the thousands of fans – seven thousand of them, according to reports. He was frightened. But the journalist Wille Engdahl, who had travelled with him, just looked amused: ”See you at the hotel, if you survive this!”
The Hotel Bristol-Schmidt is located some 400m from the station, on Via Scarlatti. It didn’t seem particularly attractive, and as for the view… “my eyes bounced off a firewall a few metres away.” Nordahl felt an awkwardness during the first days, something that Engdahl luckily was able to disperse. But he hit rock bottom when Engdahl left for Sweden after 10 days.
Still, Nordahl’s reception at the club was heartfelt, even from the ousted Puricelli. Gunnar watched a 1-1 draw in Bergamo and was picked to play against Pro Patria four days later. The Icelander Albert Gu∂mundsson (formerly of Rangers, Arsenal and Nancy) and the Irishman Paddy Sloan (formerly of Arsenal and Sheffield United) provided support as inside-forwards. Both were intelligent players, but a little slow.
Gu∂mundsson, however, knew how to handle himself in a game in which the pace was bewildering, even out of control by Swedish standards. “Don’t confuse yourself,” the Icelander told Gunnar. Milan were a goal down after 13 minutes but came back to win 3–2. Gunnar scored and continued to play well during the spring, ending the season with 16 goals in 15 games. Milan won 11 and lost two of 17 games after Nordahl’s arrival as they climbed to third place.
The season was marred by the Superga disaster. Torino were on their way to a fifth consecutive league triumph when the squad was wiped out in an air crash in hills just outside Turin on 4 May 1949. Four rounds remained of the season and their opponents agreed to field youth teams in those games. Torino lifted the scudetto but were never the same force again.
Serie A was more open than it had been for years. Three clubs decided to arm themselves for a real tilt at the title: Juventus, Internazionale and Milan. The coach Bigogno left Milan after three seasons. Puricelli, Gu∂mundsson and Sloan were also regarded as spent forces. The technical director Antonio Busini looked north for reinforcements. Lajos Czeizler was enticed from IFK Norrköping after eight successful seasons to take the reins while Gunnar welcomed Gunnar Gren from IFK Gothenburg and Nils Liedholm from Norrköping as new teammates. Czeizler repeated the instructions he had given Gunnar Nordahl back in Sweden: “Don’t chase the ball when we defend. Stay at the halfway line. You will need all your energy when we retrieve it and counterattack.”
Gunnar’s three-year-old son Thomas found Italy an interesting place. “When we got here nobody spoke like me. Now they all do,” he told a reporter. The Nordahl family was settling in Italy. And so did two other Nordahl families. Bertil had joined Atalanta soon after Gunnar signed for Milan. He would spend two and a half seasons in Italy before returning to Sweden in 1951, in the aftermath of a bribery scandal.
Then Knut went to Roma after the World Cup in Brazil in 1950. Roma made it a trio of Swedish players with the signings of wing-half Sune Andersson from AIK and Knut’s Norrköping teammate, the winger Stig Sundqvist. It didn’t go well. Roma were relegated in 1950-51 while Knut was affected by thyrotoxicosis. The three Swedes were not exactly hailed as heroes, but stayed on and brought the club back to Serie A the following season. Then Knut returned home.
At the other end of the table Juventus, with three Danes, were too strong for Milan during the first season of Gre-No-Li (1949-50), as their three Swedish players became known. Milan finished second behind Juve, who took the title by a margin of five points. But Milan outscored the champions, with 118 goals to 100. Nordahl (35), Gren and Liedholm (18 each) did more than their part, complemented by the outside-left Renzo Burini (21).
Czeizler and his three Swedish gems led Milan to the title in 1951, one point ahead of Inter, and they then hosted – and won – the Latin Cup after victories over Atlético Madrid (4-1) and Lille (5-0). Nordahl added another four goals to his league total of 34.
In 1952 Czeizler left and a year later Gren turned down a contract extension. His wife was unable to adjust to life in Italy. She detested the cold and damp winter climate in Milan and couldn’t accept her husband being away every Sunday. The family was all set to move back to Sweden when Fiorentina made an offer Gren couldn’t refuse.
Gren’s first replacement at Milan was the Dane Jørgen Leschly Sørensen, who arrived in 1953. After a year the Uruguayan Juan Alberto Schiaffino was added, a player of true class, while Liedholm was withdrawn to right-half. These modifications were the brainchild of the Hungarian coach Béla Guttmann. Gunnar kept on scoring and together they claimed another Serie A crown, seriously challenged by Udinese. But Udinese were subsequently relegated when it was discovered that they had bribed themselves to victory in the final game of the previous season, thus avoiding relegation.
Gunnar Nordahl captained the champions. Milan were then second behind Fiorentina in 1955-56. He wasn’t top scorer that season, beaten by Gino Pivatelli of Bologna. Captaincy in Italy, at least in those days, was a job handed to the player with the longest service to the club. For some it was the beginning of the end. In 1956 the bell tolled for Nordahl. His days at Milan were over after seven and a half seasons, 257 league games and 210 goals.
A move to Rome followed. The family by then had four members, his daughter Lotta being born in 1953. Gunnar had continuous success on the field but there was some friction within the family. Thomas and Lotta didn’t see enough of their father, and neither did Irma. And when they did find an opportunity to do something together, Gunnar would often be halted in the street by well-wishers who stole a few precious minutes of their time. Thomas’s reaction was to abandon football altogether: he went swimming. Lotta just felt a loss, being too young to understand.
Gunnar spent three seasons with Roma. He played regularly during the first (30 games; 13 goals), and retired during the second (four games; two goals) to coach the team when the Englishman Alec Stock returned home after just 11 games. His wife didn’t like Rome. Gunnar was in charge for the first eight games of the following season, then the Hungarian György Sárosi took over before Gunnar came back for the final 10. A lot of back-and-forth ended with the team finishing sixth.
In 1959 it was finally time to go back home. Gunnar Nordahl retired with 225 goals in Serie A, second in the all-time list only to Silvio Piola (274), although he has since been surpassed by Francesco Totti (250). There are pretty clear margins between those top three, but look at their averages: Piola and Totti played for more than 20 years, Gunnar for 10. The Swede’s goals per game (0.77) is superior to both Piola (0.51) and Totti (0.4). Along the way Nordahl notched 17 hat-tricks (equal to Giuseppe Meazza) and was the league’s top scorer on five occasions.
In the 20-plus years that followed, he coached Karlstads BIK, Degerfors IF, IFK Norrköping, IF Saab, IK Sleipner, Östers IF, AIK, and IFK Norrköping again until his retirement in 1980.
It was sometimes a bumpy ride. Degerfors took second place in 1963. Norrköping came close to league wins in 1966 and 1968, but his only true success with the by-then-declining club was a cup win in 1969. He then led Saab to promotion.
There were three teams from Östergötland in Allsvenskan in 1973 – Saab, Norrköping and Åtvidaberg. When Saab faced Norrköping for a derby, Nordahl felt he couldn’t take charge. He had always been heavy set, pre-season training in Italy was an ordeal to him, and now, 15 years after his retirement, he more than ever lived up to the name given to him by Italian fans: il Bisonte, the Bison. His heart suffered from his weight and he took sick leave for the game.
He did well with Öster followed by two seasons with AIK in Stockholm. It didn’t work out. Gunnar and Irma had a small apartment not too far from Råsunda Stadium. Gunnar felt the pressure intensely and suffered his first heart attack in the spring of 1977. A month later, while Gunnar was recuperating, Irma felt a stinging pain in her arm while knitting. It was a fatal heart attack. For Gunnar it was a devastating blow and he was all alone in Stockholm.
There was a pattern in his coaching career. Things usually went well the first year, then he found it harder to retain the attention of the players who were tired of the same old stories being told again. Was he too soft? Maybe. He certainly wanted to be one of the boys, a member of the gang rather than its leader. And he never wanted to let anyone down.
He was a kind man and when things had got back to normal after his return to Sweden he reconnected with his children. Thomas finally took up football and Gunnar gave him his Allsvenskan debut for Degerfors in 1964. Lotta provided support when he became a widower.
He bought a house in Åby, outside Norrköping, met another woman and continued to follow his old club. Once, it may have been 25 or 30 years ago, I had gone from Stockholm to Norrköping to watch a league game. At half-time there was the usual cup of coffee in the cramped room beneath the stand where board members and old players mixed with journalists. When the game was about to start we marched up the steep stairs to the stand. I was among the last, together with Gunnar and the club chairman.
Nordahl sneaked up behind him and, as he huffed and puffed his way upwards, whispered, “Could I please have a trial with IFK?”. Then the happy prankster turned towards me, all smiles, while the ever-serious chairman just looked bewildered. I believe it was the last time I saw him.