For Sweden’s coach, it’s all about taking the pressure off

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              Sweden coach Peter Gerhardsson, middle, talks to players as they take a drinks brake during the of the Women's World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between Germany and Sweden at Roazhon Park in Rennes, France, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (AP Photo/David Vincent)
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LYON, France (AP) — Sweden’s coach has a simple message for his players ahead of their Women’s World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands.

Approach Wednesday’s game like when you first kicked a ball around, playing soccer with your friends all those years ago.

“As a kid you start to play football because it’s fun,” Peter Gerhardsson said. “Maybe there’s a 5-year-old in each player who thinks that it’s fun making their own decisions out on the pitch.”

It has been 16 years since the Swedes reached their only Women’s World Cup final, which they lost. Expectations are high again, especially after Sweden knocked out two-time champion Germany in the quarterfinals Saturday with a confident performance.

Despite what’s at stake, Gerhardsson’s approach is about helping players figure out how to cope with pressure.

“We don’t lie down on mats in large groups and listen to relaxation tapes. Players are different, some want a lot of information and some don’t want any,” Gerhardsson said through a translator Monday. “You need to meet them somewhere in the middle. They are responsible and they resolve a lot of situations themselves. They’re incredibly skilled at doing so, and maybe that’s why we’ve achieved what we have here.”

The Netherlands became the European champion two years ago, beating the Swedes 2-0 in the quarterfinals.

A chance for payback gives the game an extra edge. But even so, Gerhardsson thinks the best approach is not to focus too much on the occasion itself.

“For many of them, this match is probably the biggest game of their careers. But it’s important to let players take responsibility,” he said at a news conference. “Whether you’re nervous or you think it’s going to be tough, you can still take a corner kick or shoot at goal, you can still take action.”

The 59-year-old Gerhardsson is a former forward. He had a modest playing career in Sweden with unheralded Stockholm-based teams Hammarby and Vasalunds from 1978-90.

He’s not a big name back home, nothing like the imposing and brazenly self-promoting striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Gerhardsson only took charge of the women’s national team two years ago, following an equally modest coaching career. He sees himself as a sort of last resort, someone players can turn to for more specific coaching advice. But only if they deem it necessary.

He prefers to empower them. Over-coaching, he said, takes away spontaneity — the ability to improvise that the players learned on their own when discovering the game and first developing skills at a young age.

“If I intervene too much, you’ve lost that touch,” he said. “I think the players know how to manage this best.”

Even when it comes to relaxation, Gerhardsson leaves it up to them and doesn’t impose methods.

“It’s perfect for me, lying in my room and reading a book. Others want to have a cup of coffee,” veteran defender Nilla Fischer said. “It’s important to recover in terms of psychological aspect. I’m happy with the choices we have available.”

Pressure, what pressure?

It’s a World Cup semifinal, yes, but’s it’s also just a game.