Mellberg going into 6th and last major tournament
There's a streak of gray now in Olof Mellberg's trademark well-groomed beard, a fitting sign of age for Sweden's ultimate work horse.
Mellberg has been the ever-present central pillar of the Swedish back line for more than a decade, a man who doesn't grab a lot of headlines but whose tournament experience is matched by few outfield players in modern football.
Going into his sixth major championship - which he says will be his last - Mellberg may hope some of that experience rubs off on the team's other defenders, none of whom have played a single minute at a World Cup or European Championship. The 34-year-old Mellberg played every minute of Sweden's games in his previous five tournaments, and was the captain in three of them.
Of the other defenders in the Sweden squad, Andreas Granqvist is the only one to have been to a major tournament, but he remained on the bench for all three games at Euro 2008.
As usual, the stoic Mellberg isn't displaying any signs of concern.
''I think the young guys have a positive effects at these gatherings,'' the Olympiakos defender said Saturday. ''I remember what it was like when I first came in, everything felt new and positive. ... And it feels like it's the same way for many of the guys here, they're not showing any exaggerated nervousness or stress.''
Perhaps they've picked that up from Mellberg, whose composure on the field provides a much-needed element of stability to the Swedish defense. Mellberg is about the only member of the Swedish back four who is guaranteed a starting spot, and provides an example for the other defenders of how to approach the big games.
''That's the kind of thing that's hard to learn,'' fullback Behrang Safari said. ''That's a type of experience that he has gathered over the years, that has made him the type of player that he is.''
Mellberg's career is one highlighted by steady workmanship, toughness and grit, rather than flair and spectacular tackles. He has scored seven goals in 112 internationals, most of them with his head, and is not known for his skill with the ball. But his strength in the air and ability to read the game has proved crucial to Sweden on countless occasions, and has earned the respect of both teammates and fans.
A recent poll showed that the former Aston Villa captain was the second most popular player among Swedish supporters, after Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
''Things have been going well for me for a while, and that's probably why,'' Mellberg said about his popularity. ''But I know from experience that those things go up and down. But of course, it's nice when they go up.''
There certainly has been some controversial moments during Mellberg's long international career.
Perhaps the most famous came ahead of the 2002 World Cup, when he got into a scrap with Freddie Ljungberg following a hard tackle in training, earning him a reputation for being hotheaded.
In 2006, Mellberg, Ibrahimovic and Christian Wilhelmsson were sent home by then-coach Lars Lagerback after they stayed out past a curfew ahead of a qualifier for Euro 2008. However, he was welcomed back into the team a couple of months later and has stayed out of trouble since.
He now has a chance to match the record for appearances at the European Championship, if Sweden earns an unlikely spot in the final. Former Netherlands goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar and former France defender Lilian Thuram both have 16, while Mellberg has played in 10 games after Sweden went out in the group stage of Euro 2000 and 2008, and lost in the quarterfinals in 2004.
''I saw that somewhere, I wasn't aware of it,'' Mellberg said. ''But of course, I feel like I've played in a lot of championship games. But the most important thing is that we win them.''
Mellberg said before the tournament that he will retire from internationals after the Euros, even though coach Erik Hamren probably would have liked him to stay on for the qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup - and possibly beyond.
''He's still getting better every year,'' Hamren said.