Sweden on way to superpower?

16 August 2008

Three years may not seem like a long time. But the European basketball world has seen the rise of a new superpower since the summer of 2005 - the Sweden women's game.

Okay, adding Sweden to the likes of Spain, France, Serbia, Italy and Russia may seem a bit of a stretch just yet. But by reaching their first-ever semi-finals of the Termosteps U16 European Championship Women this summer, Sweden continue an amazing development since 2005.

Peter Johansson's Swedes have impressed observers in Katowice with an exciting style of basketball, which they hope gives them a chance in Saturday's semi-final showdown with Spain.

"It's hard to understand that we are in a semi-final of a European Championship and playing Spain. It's a great team. They are better than us if you look at it in a realistic way. Maybe we can win one of 15 games against them, and hopefully Saturday will be the one," said the coach.

Amanda Zahui, meanwhile, added that reaching the final four was very important after missing a chance at the semi-finals last summer. But still the center was confident of Sweden's chances against Spain.

"We can take them. They are good. But we are also good. Everybody thinks they are going to win, so we have nothing to lose. We just will play our game," said Zahui.

About two weeks ago Johansson's team lost to Spain by more than 20 points in a preparation game. But just the fact that Sweden had a warm-up against the four-time U16 champions Spain - as well as games against France, Russia, Italy and Turkey - is a tribute to fact how far Swedish basketball has come.

And that movement started in earnest in 2005 when the world of European basketball got their first exposure to the Eldebrink identical twins.

Elin (left) and Frida Eldebrink (Sweden)
Elin (left) and Frida Eldebrink (Sweden)

In 2005, the 17-year-old Södertälje natives Frida and Elin Eldebrink helped Sweden to second place at the U18 European Championship Division B to secure promotion to the Division A. The following summer, the Eldebrinks teamed with Louice Halvarsson in the Division A and sensationally captured U18 bronze medal to book their spot at the 2007 U19 World Championship.

And at the U19 worlds in 2007, the Eldebrink-Halvarsson trio pulled off perhaps the ultimate shock by knocking off Serbia in the semi-finals before losing to the United States to take the silver medal. Earlier this summer they went undefeated to clinch Sweden's promotion to Division A at the U20 European level, helping give the Swedish youth coming up behind them a different mind-set.

"Five or 10 years ago, everyone expected us to lose - even the players. But these (U16) players have not seen anything other than Swedish youth teams doing good. So for them, they think in their mind, we can do good. We can win the champioship. And that is so important," said Johansson.

Johansson coached the 2006 U16 group to the Division A and now the current squad is reaping the benefit from the recent success.

"You can see clearly that the Swedes have decided to invest in their women youth development, especially the U16 area. And they are building a strong program which is paying dividends here with a very quick and athletic basketball," said German coach Alexandra Maerz of the Swedes.

A big key for Sweden's future at the youth level will be the continued development of the already impressive Amanda Zahui, who is averaging 12.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in Katowice. The 1.90m center with roots from the Ivory Coast starred at the U16 tournament last summer as a 13-year-old with 12.4 points and 12.1 rebounds in helping Sweden to an all-time best fifth place.

And Zahui - along with other Swedish players - has been drawing rave reviews from opposing coaches in Poland - some who are amazed that she is only 14 years old.

"She's now 14 years old? I thought she was 16 years old. She's very good and tough. She plays good in the in post. Wow, I'm speechless," said Turkish coach Firat Okul.

Amanda Zahui (Sweden)
Amanda Zahui (Sweden)

"I think it's funny," said Zahui when asked what she thought about people thinking she is older than just 14. "If people think I'm good now, then think about in 10 years where can I play. When I'm 24, I want to play in Spain."

"It's unbelievable," said Spain coach Jose Igacio Hernandez, who will have to find a way to stop Zahui in Saturday's semi-finals. "Last year I think she was playing very well. But now she has developed a lot. She has a lot more experience and has a lot more moves."

The Sweden boss Johansson, meanwhile, knows he has an amazing talent.

"She's big. She takes a lot of room and can score close to the basket. She is stable down there. If she has a weakness it is on defense. She's a bit slow but that's because she's big," he said. "But she is so important for us in our offensive game and rebounding. So we need her on the court."

Zahui's talent also has the Swedish federation a bit perplexed about how to handle her schedule in the summer.

"Everybody hopes she can be part of something big in the future. We want to try to rush it a little bit slow, if you know what I mean. But not pushing it too much. I think we need to be very, very careful about that with her," said Johansson.

Zahui, after all, could join a growing list of players who are turning Sweden into an emerging power in Europe.

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