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Swedish club Ostersund finds success on and off soccer field

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BERLIN (AP) More famous for snow sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon, the “Winter City” of Ostersund is making quite a name for itself on the soccer field.

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The club from the northern Swedish city has progressed so quickly that even reaching the last 32 of the Europa League isn’t enough for everyone.

“I’m a little bit low and down because we wanted to win the group and we didn’t do that,” Ostersunds FK chairman Daniel Kindberg told The Associated Press after his team was held to a 1-1 draw at Hertha Berlin. “I expected us to win the group and I expected us to be among the first seeds in the draw, but unfortunately we are not.”

Expectations like that were unthinkable only a few years ago.

Ostersund was formed in 1996 following the amalgamation of three local clubs. After more than a decade in the third division, the team was relegated in 2010, when Kindberg quit amid bickering at the boardroom level. He went back after the players threatened to quit, too.

When Kindberg returned, he sought backing from local companies and appointed Graham Potter, a former defender from England, as coach. Potter led the team to promotion in his first season, and then again to the second division in his next. The team reached Sweden’s top division in 2015.

“Graham is very important as a coach, manager, friend, brother. He has fantastic leadership. He’s one of a kind, one of the absolute most promising managers in Europe, no doubt about it,” Kindred said. “I said that five years ago that he was Scandinavia’s best manager and now he’s been selected two years in a row, the best manager in Sweden. So I think I know what I’m talking about.”

This season, Ostersund is playing in the Europa League for the first time. The team qualified for Europe’s second-tier club competition by winning the Swedish Cup.

The team’s success has continued, finishing second in Group J and earning a spot in the next round. With a group of unknowns and players rejected by other clubs, Ostersund became the first Swedish team since Helsingborg in 2007 to reach the knockout stages of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.

Kindberg, a former army man, acknowledged it’s been a “good” year, but added he was disappointed with the team’s fifth-place finish in the Swedish league.

“We’re going for the championship,” Kindberg said at a team party following Thursday’s draw at Hertha, adding he is looking to make it a treble by also winning another Swedish Cup and the Europa League.

Part of the team’s success has to do with its off-the-field activities.

While Potter takes care of the soccer, Kindred said the club has “five key individuals” who look after other aspects, including the social side and the cultural productions.

The team has staged art exhibitions, written books, helped refugees, made sure local women get home safely at night, and last year players performed Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet on stage. Two weeks ago, they produced a show celebrating the Sami people, the native reindeer herders from across Lapland.

“It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Kindred, explaining the reason behind the stage productions. “It’s a training method in decision-making and courage. That’s what it really is.”

Some players, however, took some convincing when the methods were first introduced.

“I said, `It’s OK, it’s fine. We respect you fully, but you have to play somewhere else.’ So that’s it. They didn’t object anymore,” Kindred said. “Everybody thinks football is about passing the ball, tactics. That’s a small part of football. The big part is the mental game, and the war to win the hearts and minds of people. That’s what football’s about.”

The social work undertaken by the club is just as important as the cultural or sporting side. Kindred said it’s part of Ostersund’s holistic approach.

“To take a stand for rightful things, for poor people, for people in danger, for human rights, it’s very important for us, because everyone wants to do good,” he said. “We started this path six years ago. We decided at that time it was important for us, for our identity. Our war against evil and bad things in society. We show that on the pitch, and we try and show it off the pitch. We try to do our best every day.”

The work off the field is even bringing in new fans.

Birgitta Karlsson said she was never interested in soccer until this year, but she travelled 23 hours by train and boat to see the team play in Berlin.

“There’s something really special with them,” Karlsson said. “They are good ambassadors for young people, for old people, for friendship, for being kind to each other, for children.”

Of the 15,686 spectators at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, about a quarter provided noisy support for Ostersund. After the game, the visiting players lined up in front of them and led a “Viking clap,” staying long afterward to continue the party.

“We are at the beginning of a journey that we hope will change the world and we hope will change things,” Kindberg said. “We have no limits at all. Every year, the Euro league is to be won. Every year, the Champions League is to be won. We need to be champions because that’s what we are.

“It’s easy. Football is the easiest game on Earth. It is people who complicate it. We try to be simple.”

Biggest travel winners, losers from World Cup draw

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The World Cup draw is important on so many levels.

Every team’s first game sets the tone for the rest of the group stage, and possible opponents could give fans hope or fear for whether the team will make it to the knockout stage.

But for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the draw was important from a travel perspective as well.

According to the blog Kalingrad Guide, Colombia won the “shortest travel” sweepstakes. By being placed in H3, Colombia and its fans will only have 472 miles to travel within the group stage, from Saransk to Kazan to Samara.

At the other end is Sweden, which will have around 2,896 miles to travel between host cities. Sweden starts in central Russia in Nizhny Novogrod before traveling to the southern-most host city Sochi, before a trip to the eastern-most host city, Yekaterinburg.

That doesn’t take into account either the travel for teams between their game sites and their home base. For example, England will have to travel more than 500 miles each way for all three of its group stage matches from its home base to the game.

For what it’s worth, Germany in 2014 had one of the longest travel schedules throughout Brazil, and they still managed to win the whole thing. We’ll see what happens this time around.

Italy misses World Cup for first time in 60 years as Sweden advances

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Another footballing giant has missed out on next summer’s World Cup, and this time it is four-time world champions Italy.

[ MORE: USMNT looks to forge ahead with match against Portugal ]

The Azzurri drew Sweden, 0-0, on Monday in their UEFA World Cup qualifying second leg at the San Siro, but the result was good enough for the Swedes to reach Russia in 2018 after coming away with a 1-0 victory in the first leg.

Gian Piero Ventura’s Italy became the first Azzurri side since 1958 to miss out of qualification into the world’s most prominent competition. That tournament was ironically held in Sweden, where the hosts finished runners’ up to Brazil.

Meanwhile, for Sweden, the Euro nation reaches the World Cup for the first time since 2006, after previously missing out on two successive editions of the competition (2010 & 2014).

The visitors sat back for much of the match and absorbed Italy’s pressure, but the Azzurri often made the task easy for Sweden with their lack of build up.

The Italians were desperate to get a first goal before halftime, when Ciro Immobile found himself in on goal, but his shot took a slight deflection from Swedish goalkeeper Robin Olsen and was ultimately cleared before the ball could trickle over the goal line by Andreas Granqvist.

Jorginho’s inclusion in the starting XI for the suspended Marco Verratti was a big talking point heading into the match, and the Napoli midfielder nearly made a major impact in the 27th minute.

The 25-year-old played a brilliant flicked ball over the top of Sweden back line towards Ciro Immobile, but the final shot by Antonio Candreva wasn’t on target.

Sweden didn’t have the ideal start to the second leg, with the Blue-Yellow forced to make a substitution inside the opening 20 minutes for the injured Jakob Johansson.

Marco Parolo had a legitimate shout for a penalty kick after just eight minutes when the Italian attacker was contacted in the Swedish penalty area.

The visitors had their own claim for a penalty in the 12th minute after the ball appeared to pop up and catch the arm of Candreva, however, the referee opted to play on once again.

[ MORE: Switzerland clinches World Cup berth ]

Italy joins Chile, Holland, the U.S. Men’s National Team, Ghana and the Ivory Coast as some of the most recognizable countries to miss out on next year’s World Cup.

Ventura calls on Italy to combat Sweden’s physicality with talent

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MILAN (AP) Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura is hoping his players can combat Sweden’s physicality with their footballing talent when they meet again in the second leg of their World Cup playoff on Monday.

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Italy was outraged at Sweden’s physical approach in the first leg, protesting for yellow cards at perceived excessive contact, and Ventura felt Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was too lenient.

Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci will play on Monday with a protective mask after his nose was broken during the match.

“I think the match could have been controlled in a more sportsmanlike manner,” Ventura said in a press conference on Sunday. “And that much is evident if someone tomorrow has to play with a mask on.

“But we’re Italy. If we qualify we have to do so by playing football. That doesn’t mean that Sweden doesn’t. I don’t know what kind of match it will be tomorrow, but I hope there will be better sporting behavior.”

[ MORE: Italy facing key changes ahead of decisive 2nd leg vs. Sweden ]

Italy finished behind Spain in its qualifying group and is now in danger of missing its first World Cup since 1958 after losing the first leg of its playoff 1-0 in Sweden.

“I know the match is fundamental for us, but it’s the same scenario that there was when I joined the national team,” said Ventura, who replaced Antonio Conte after the 2016 European Championship. “We knew that Spain was in our group and we could end up in the playoffs. We can’t be surprised to have got to this point.

“I honestly don’t understand: people are surprised we’re here playing this playoff but that was the scenario from the beginning. Now we’re here, if we lose we’ll make certain decisions, if we win we’ll make others.”

Ventura insisted he was calm and he appeared relaxed at the pre-match press conference, laughing and joking with Italy captain and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

The match has an added significance for Buffon, who is set to retire at the end of the season. Should Italy fail to qualify it could be the veteran goalkeeper’s last international match after 20 years between the posts for the Azzurri.

[ MORE: Serie B coach’s epic rant meant to motivate Italy ]

“It’s happened so many times in my career that I’ve been in front of important crossroads,” Buffon said. “It doesn’t change anything concerning my future, what would change is that a win, more than meaning I would continue in the national shirt, would mean so much for all of us and for the footballing movement.

“At the moment my situation is secondary, it doesn’t matter.”

Buffon, who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, has experienced the build-up to many important matches in a long and glittering career with Italy and Juventus.

As well as the World Cup final, Buffon also reached the final of Euro 2012 with Italy, and he also lost three Champions League finals with Juventus.

“Certainly it’s a very tense moment, it’s inevitable looking at the place that’s at stake and looking at the sense of responsibility that each one of us must have,” Buffon said.

“We’re the same as before any important event. Us players are experiencing this calmly, but each of us is experiencing it in their own personal way. Personally, I’ve been tense since Friday, I have the right focus for this match.”

Italy forced into key changes ahead of 2nd leg vs. Sweden

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MILAN (AP) The sight of Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne being brought on for the final 15 minutes of Italy’s World Cup playoff in Sweden was a welcome one for away fans.

[ MORE: One of the favorites — Spain in fine form, thrash Costa Rica 5-0 ]

With Italy trailing 1-0 in the first leg, the Azzurri desperately needed the creative skills of the 26-year-old Insigne.

But fans and even the Italy players themselves were bemused when Insigne took up Marco Verratti’s central midfield role.

Insigne had to explain to his teammates, saying “in the middle” before shrugging his shoulders with resignation and responding “yes” to their incredulity.

The substitution failed to change the score and Italy was left at serious risk of failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.

[ MORE: Shaqiri promises “nice party” in Switzerland “when we qualify” ]

“The coach knows what kind of player I am, and when I’m called upon I always try to give my best,” Insigne said. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make a difference tonight. If the coach asks me to play for one minute or 90, I’ll always try to give 100 per cent.

“The coach asked if I felt ready to replace Verratti and I said yes because we have to give 100 per cent in any role the coach asks us to play, and even more with the national jersey … I’m disappointed, but now we must get our heads down and work because we have the return match Monday and we have to try to win it at all costs.”

It is this creative midfield role that will be Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura’s biggest headache as he ponders what changes to ring for the second leg in Milan on Monday.

Verratti is suspended after picking up a second booking in Sweden. Jorginho has been in fantastic form for Napoli this season and seems the most natural replacement but he has never played for Italy before. However, the only other option is Roberto Gagliardini and the Inter Milan midfielder lacks the offensive capabilities needed this time round.

Italy was too predictable and slow to punish Sweden’s well-organized defense on Friday. Although Ventura shelved his unpopular 4-2-4 formation, the 3-5-2 system didn’t work either.

The players appear perfectly suited to a 4-3-3 system used by Napoli and Roma, who are playing the best football in Italy at the moment.

[ MORE: WCQ — Ireland, Denmark all square ahead of decisive second leg ]

Ventura will have better options up front for the return match. Simone Zaza should be back from the knee injury which kept him out of Friday’s match, while Andrea Belotti — who has only just returned from injury — will also be in better shape.

Matteo Darmian was Italy’s best player on Friday and should start again at San Siro.

The veteran “BBC” defense of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini also proved solid. Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was rarely tested and the only goal was deflected in off Daniele De Rossi.

Buffon has called for Italy to play with more ferocity in Milan.

“We’ll need a physical Italy side,” the Italy captain said. “But a physical match will not be enough: we have to keep our balance, conceding a goal would be disastrous.

“We can talk about our mistakes but it won’t help anything. We need to hold our heads high and stand tall to come back. We need to be fierce, us and the whole San Siro.”