140. Nils Liedholm
Captain of the Swedish team that reached the World Cup final on home soil in 1958, Nils Liedholm was one of the trio of Swedish stars who formed a legendary partnership at AC Milan in the early 1950s. A tall, elegant inside-left who was renowned for his exceptionally accurate passing, he was also an excellent tactician who remained in Italy after the end of his playing days to enjoy a coaching career that lasted more than 30 years.
Liedholm was born in Valdemarsvik on 8 October 1922 and in his youth was a gifted all-round sportsman. He would run and ski long distances and was an excellent ice hockey player, but it was in football where his greatest talent lay. At the age of 16 he joined his local side Valdemarsviks IF where he stayed for four years, a period which was interrupted by compulsory military service. While serving in the military, Liedholm promised a fellow recruit that he would join Division Two side IK Sleipner and duly did so in 1943.
Liedholm stayed at Sleipner for three years, coming close to promotion to the top flight in 1944 and developing a reputation as one of the most gifted players in Sweden. In 1946 he was offered the chance to play in Sweden’s top division, the Allsvenskan, with two-time reigning league champions IFK Norrköping. With Norrköping, he formed a formidable partnership with centre forward Gunnar Nordahl and between them they helped the club extend their run of league title successes to four in a row by 1948.
Early in his time with Norrköping, Liedholm had broken into the national team and in the summer of 1948 he was selected in the squad for the Olympic Games in London. Moved out to the left wing because of the strength in depth of the Swedish forward line, Liedholm could cross the ball as well as he could pass it and proved just as accomplished in that position. Contributing two goals in the 12-0 win over Korea, his performances helped Sweden reach the final where a 3-1 win over Yugoslavia sealed the gold medals.
With Swedish football still strictly amateur, clubs from across Europe began to offer professional deals to leading players from that team, with Nordahl immediately moving to AC Milan in Italy. One year later in 1949, Liedholm got the chance to join his former team-mate and it was with Milan that he would enjoy the greatest period of his playing career. Together with Nordahl and fellow Olympic champion Gunnar Gren, he formed part of a formidable forward trio nicknamed ‘Gre-No-Li’.
It is claimed that two years went by before Liedholm misplaced a single pass while playing for Milan at the San Siro. Whether or not that is true, his passing ability over long or short distances was second to none at the time and from the deeper position of inside forward he was able to control games with ease. He was also exceptionally fit, one of the first players to recognised the importance of physical conditioning for a long career. Although he was primarily a goal creator, usually for Nordahl, Liedholm also possessed a powerful left-footed shot which brought him 18 league goals in his first season with Milan.
Prior to the arrival of their Swedish trio, Milan had not been Italian champions since long before the Serie A era but finished second in Liedholm’s first season and in 1950-51 went one better, a total of 107 league goals helping the club finish one point clear of city rivals Inter. They would go on to finish no lower than third in any of the next six years, with further league titles coming in 1955 and 1957. In 1958 Liedholm helped the club to reach the European Cup final when. Playing at inside-right, he scored one and made two more as a 4-0 win overturned a first leg deficit in the semi-final against Manchester United, a team admittedly severely weakened in the aftermath of the Munich air crash. With Liedholm as captain, Milan agonisingly lost the final 3-2 after extra-time to Real Madrid despite leading twice.
Like the other Swedish players in Italy, Liedholm’s international career suffered due to his decision to turn professional as Sweden picked only amateur players. He missed the World Cup in 1950, where Sweden finished third, but by 1958 that policy had been reversed. That summer he got the chance to captain his country in the World Cup on home soil, scoring a twice-taken penalty in their opening victory over Mexico. Although he missed a penalty in the next game against Hungary, Sweden won 2-1 to seal their place in the last eight.
Victories over the Soviet Union and West Germany took Sweden into the World Cup final for the first time, where against favourites Brazil it was Liedholm who gave his country the lead in only the fourth minute. That joy did not last long however, as Brazil hit back to seal a comprehensive 5-2 win, but having been almost 36 years old at the time Liedholm remains the oldest player to score a goal in the World Cup final. The final proved to be the last of his 23 international appearances.
He played on for two more years with Milan before retiring in 1961. Immediately he was offered a job as assistant coach at Milan and was on the coaching staff when the club won their first European Cup in 1963. Becoming manager soon afterwards, he led Milan to second place in Serie A in 1965, narrowly losing out on the title to Inter. Afte leaving in 1966, Liedholm led both Verona and Varese to promotion from Serie B before joining Fiorentina in 1971, where he is remembered for putting together an attractive, entertaining team.
In 1973 Liedholm moved to AS Roma and spent the next sixteen years with either them or Milan, to whom he returned for two further spells as manager. His first major honour as a manager came with Milan in 1979, when despite the fact that Perugia went through the entire Serie A season unbeaten, Liedholm’s team still finished three points ahead of them. It was to be with Roma however, in his second spell between 1979 and 1984, that he enjoyed his greatest success as a coach.
During that period he became famous for being one of the first coaches to successfully implement a zonal marking system within Italian football and the system was remarkably successful. Roma won the Coppa Italia in 1980 and 1981, on penalties each time, before claiming only the second league title in their history in 1983. A year later Liedholm’s team won the Coppa Italian again and also reached the European Cup final against Liverpool, but on that occasion their luck with penalty shoot-outs ran out as Liverpool triumphed in Roma’s own stadium.
Another spell with Milan in the mid-1980s saw Liedholm give a young Paolo Maldini his debut for the club, before he effectively retired in 1989 after a third spell in charge of Roma. Liedholm was tempted out of retirement twice, with Verona in 1992 and for the final few games of the 1996-97 season with Roma, but eventually moved to live in northern Italy where he ran a vineyard which his son still operates today. Having initially only intended to move to Italy for a couple of years to play for Milan, Liedholm spent nearly six decades there before his death in November 2007, at the age of 85.