Zlatan effect pays off for Swedish champion Malmo

They were barely 10 years old when a cocky teenager named Zlatan

Ibrahimovic made his breakthrough at Malmo at the turn of the

century.

Inspired by his success, a group of young Malmo players became

Swedish champions Sunday, as the team beat Mjallby 2-0 in the final

round to win its 16th league title.

Like the AC Milan striker, whose parents are from the former

Yugoslavia, most of Malmo’s new players have immigrant roots.

Striker Agon Mehmeti was born in Kosovo, wingers Guillermo

Molins and Jiloan Hamad in Uruguay and Azerbaijan, respectively.

Midfielder Ivo Pekalski’s parents are from Poland.

Aged between 20 and 22, they are rising stars for Malmo and

Sweden’s Under-21 team.

They come from Malmo’s youth ranks or joined the club in their

late teens as part of coach Roland Nilsson’s efforts to build a

team from homegrown talent rather than import players with more

experience.

It took him three years. Nilsson – a former Sweden fullback who

played club football for Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry in the

1990s – struggled in his first two seasons in charge of Malmo. The

team placed sixth and seventh, unacceptably low for a club that is

Sweden’s most successful along with IFK Goteborg.

Critics said the team was too young, and Nilsson came under fire

for sticking to a Spanish-inspired possession game that many said

wouldn’t work in the physical Swedish league.

But Nilsson stayed the course and brought in Pep Clotets – who

coached youth and reserve teams at Espanyol – as his assistant this

season. No new players were brought in at the start of the league,

but Nilsson made some changes in the lineup.

Captain Daniel Andersson, 33, the only player who has remained

at Malmo since its last title in 2004, was moved back into defense.

Pekalski took his place in central midfield next to Brazilian

Wilton Figueiredo.

Andersson’s experience helped steady the back four while

Pekalski, who turned 20 on Wednesday, played with a maturity that

surprised everyone.

So did 18-year-old striker Dardan Rexhepi, who showed no nerves

when he started for the first time in the crucial home match

against archrival Helsingborg on Sept. 15. ”D-Rex” scored the

first goal as Malmo won 2-0.

Another key to Malmo’s success was goalkeeper Johan Dahlin, who

joined from Norwegian club Lyn in the summer of 2009. He set the

tone by saving a penalty in Malmo’s season opener against GAIS, and

kept a clean sheet in 15 of 29 matches.

The 2010 edition of Malmo is possibly the strongest since the

late 1980s when Roy Hodgson was the coach.

A section of Malmo’s 24,000-seat stadium, inaugurated last year,

goes by the unofficial name ”Roy’s Corner,” in honor of the

current Liverpool manager. Hodgson’s Malmo won the Swedish league

for five consecutive seasons, though it only clinched two

championship titles because of a playoff system used at the

time.

Another English coach, Bob Houghton, led Malmo to its brightest

moment: the 1979 European Cup final, which it lost to Nottingham

Forest.

No other Scandinavian team has reached the final of the European

Cup, now called the Champions League.

This year, Malmo trailed Helsingborg until the 21st round when

it moved top of the 16-team table. The southern Sweden rivals were

neck-and-neck from then on and headed into the final round tied on

points. Malmo had a superior goal difference and just needed to win

the last match to secure the title.

Helsingborg tied 0-0 with Kalmar on Sunday. Orebro finished

third ahead of Elfsborg. IF Brommapojkarna and Atvidabergs FF were

relegated while Gefle must survive a two-match playoff to stay in

the first division.

Malmo’s next challenge is holding on to its talented youngsters,

a must if it wants to be able to qualify for the Champions League

in 2011. Last year’s champion AIK lost several of its key players

and barely escaped relegation this season.

Molins is expected to find a bigger European club when the

transfer window opens this winter. Other players that could leave

Malmo include Dahlin, striker Daniel Larsson and Brazilian fullback

Ricardinho.