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World Cup stirring Nordic rivalries and solidarity

Gelendzhik (Russia) (AFP) – Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland — Nordic friends and rivals — are celebrating Midsummer in style, all unbeaten at the World Cup and eyeing progress to the knockout stages.

Deep linguistic, cultural and social links mean players and fans of the teams keep a close eye on how their cousins are doing.

Towering Sweden and FC Copenhagen goalkeeper Robin Olsen, whose parents are Danish, idolised Denmark and Manchester United great Peter Schmeichel when growing up.

“I have many friends there and follow their World Cup games but of course I hope us Swedes go further in Russia,” he told AFP.

Born and raised in Malmo, Olsen, tipped to move to a top league this summer, used to hold a Danish passport but declared for the “Blagult” in 2014.

“It was an easy decision to take, my heart told me to pick Sweden,” he said.

– Nordic rivalry –

When the Danes face Sweden “the whole country stops to watch,” Christian Baekgaard, a journalist with Copenhagen-based broadcaster TV2, told AFP at the Denmark training base in Anapa.

“We really want to beat them,” he said while watching Sweden’s World Cup opener against South Korea. “But when they play a match like this we support them”.

“Copenhagen is just 30 minutes from Malmo over a bridge. I feel connected to Sweden, it’s like a brotherhood. If we weren’t at the World Cup you would see Danes walking around in yellow shirts,” he said.

Although Norway are Sweden’s top rivals in winter sports, only the Danish rivalry counts these days in football for Swedish journalist Noa Bachner.

At the team’s training camp in Gelendzhik, Bachner admitted to a tinge of envy at the current Denmark set-up, led by Norwegian coach Age Hareide.

“Hareide has superb players at his disposal. Denmark leave men out of their squad that would be in the starting eleven for Sweden,” he said.

Denmark can boast Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen and, ranked 12th in the world, can justifiably claim to be the top Nordic side.

But there are dissenters.

“We have proved time and time again that we are the best Scandinavian side,” Swedish striker John Guidetti told AFP in Gelendzhik.

“If we meet one of our Nordic friends later in the World Cup we will wish them the best of luck but hopefully they will lose,” he said.

The striker memorably proclaimed Sweden as Nordic top dogs during a pitch-side interview after they beat Denmark in the semi-finals of the Under-21 European Championship in 2015.

“We won 4-1. We’re superior. This is the worst team we’ve met,” he grinned.

– Solidarity –

Tiny Iceland, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, have traditionally received little attention and much condescension from their larger Nordic cousins.

A notable exception was Sweden’s Lars Lagerback, now Norway’s coach, who steered unheralded Iceland to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals.

“He came in at a time (in 2011) when our football needed a guy like that, with valuable international experience,” said Iceland assistant coach Helgi Kolvidsson.

“We always tried to learn from Denmark or Sweden’s success and it’s great that now we have a good team of our own,” he said.

Icelanders are most likely to root for Denmark, who used to rule the island, despite a record 14-2 defeat at the hands of the Danes in 1967.

“Iceland have never beaten Denmark but we learn Danish in school and many of us go to school or work there,” said journalist Elvar Magnusson at the team’s base in Kabardinka.

But fellow minnows the Faroe Islands have been stepping up as Iceland’s own niche Nordic fan base.

Thousands turned out in the main square of the remote archipelago’s capital Torshavn to cheer on Iceland against Argentina on a big screen.

“We appreciate the support,” said Magnusson.

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