Gunnar Nordahl: The Swede who demolished Italian defences

On a cold night on 4th September 2014 in front of 15,421 fans at the Friends Arena just north of Stockholm City Centre, Zlatan Ibrahimović became the Swedish national team’s all-time leading goal-scorer after scoring his 49th and 50th international goals.

The two strikes came in a 2–0 friendly victory over Estonia who are separated by just 250 miles of the Baltic Sea. The goal to break Sven Rydell’s 82-year-old record came on his 99th appearance for Sweden in typical fashion – a delightful back-heel from a cross that beat Estonian keeper Segei Pareiko.

The heavy-weight striker was then subsequently booked for removing his shirt to reveal a personalised Sweden shirt complete with the number 50 which read, “Ni gjorde det möjligt” or “it’s you who made it possible” in English in tribute to the fans.

Long before Ibrahimović became the darling of the Swedish crowds, the Nordic nation had a similarly prolific heavy-weight striker in Gunnar Nordahl who was banging in goals for the Blågult (The Blue-Yellow’s) almost a full six decades prior to Ibrahimović’s debut in 2001.

Gunnar Nordahl was born in the small industrial community of Hörnefors, just south of Umeå on 19th October 1921 and grew up in a footballing family. Remarkably, all five of the boys in the family would go on to become professional footballers with varying degrees of success.

Before his debut for his hometown club Hörnefors IF in 1935, the youngster had begun to try his hand at other things to help garner some extra income for his family and briefly worked at Ängeråns Brewery and Modomsjö Sulphite as he was considered too weak for the first team.

His breakthrough came in 1937 when he established himself as a first team regular and went on to play three seasons for the amateur club before signing for newly promoted Allsvenskan team Degerfors IF.

In his first season in Sweden’s top-flight the striker bagged 15 goals in 17 appearances almost helping his new team to the championship at the first attempt. Nordahl’s older brother Bertil also played in midfield as the team narrowly missed out to Hälsingborgs IF who clinched the title by just two points.

Nordahl during his time with Degerfors IF.
Nordahl during his time with Degerfors IF.

Nordahl stayed with the team for a further three seasons but could not win a championship with the club, finishing in sixth, fourth and sixth in respective seasons. At the conclusion of the 1943–44 season, Nordahl joined IFK Norrköping who were starting to show signs of developing into one of Sweden’s elite clubs after lifting the championship the year before.

IFK Norrköping’s season started in mediocre fashion with several poor results but the team recovered to win the league by five points. The team’s upturn in form coincided with Nordahl finding his feet at the club which resulted in the striker becoming the Allsvenskan’s top-scorer for the first time with 27 goals in a 22 game season.

Without doubt, Nordahl’s most awe-inspiring performance that campaign came on a rainy November night at Idrottsparken alongside his other brother Knut who also had an exceptional game.  The younger brother scored an incredible seven goals in a 9-1 win against that season’s whipping boys Landskrona BoIS. It is an Allsvenskan record that he still shares today with Arne Hjertsson who scored the same number for Malmö FF just one season prior in June 1943.

During the four-and-a-half seasons that Nordahl stayed with the Eastern club nicknamed the Kamraterna (The comrades), Norrköping established themselves as one of Swedish football’s super powers lifting the title in each of his four years at the club. From 1943 to 1963 the club won the championship eleven times and only twice since; with the latest being just one week ago on the last day of the 2015 Allsvenskan.

During Nordahl’s trophy-laden spell, the striker won the Allsvenskan top-scorer award on three occasions, scoring a total of 93 goals in 95 league games at just shy of one goal per game.

By the time his Swedish domestic career ended when A.C. Milan signed the striker after a hugely impressive London Olympic’s in 1948, Nordahl was already an established international for the Swedish national team.

Since debuting in 1945, the powerful striker scored an incredible 43 goals in 30 matches at 1.43 per game before being forced to retire from international football at 28. At the time, a rule prevented professionals playing for the Swedish national team and thus was ineligible for further games after he joined the red and black half of Milan.

When comparing Nordahl’s 1.43 goals per game at international level, it by far superior to any other Swedish national team member on the top 10 scorers list. All-time top-scorer Ibrahimović scores 0.54 per game to date, Sven Rydell scored 1.14, Celtic legend Henrik Larsson managed just 0.35 per game and Milan team-mate Gunnar Gren scored 0.56 per game during his time on the international scene.

A.C. Milan decided to make Nordahl a professional after a hugely impressive seven goal haul at the 1948 Olympics on the way to clinching a Gold medal for Sweden. The team, managed by Englishman George Raynor overcame several teams on the way to the final including South Korea (12-0) and rivals Denmark (4-2) before overcoming Yugoslavia 3-1 in the final with Nordahl and Gren scoring the goals to win gold.

In joining Milan on January 22nd 1949, Nordahl became a pioneer by becoming the first Swedish player to depart the Nordic nation to play in a foreign league; and in joining the Italian league, Nordahl had joined arguably the most competitive one in world football at the time.

Although arriving half-way through the season, Nordahl settled in Italy remarkably well and seemed to switch from amateur to professional football with ease scoring in 16 goals in 15 appearances for the Rossoneri.

Milan ended the season in third position behind city rivals Internazionale and the legendary Torino team that clinched their fifth Serie A triumph in a row before tragedy struck when the entire team was lost in the fatal Superga Air Disaster of 4th May 1949.

In his first full season in Milan, ‘Il Cannoniere’ (The Gunner) or ‘Il Bisonte’ (The Bison) as Nordahl became known was a revelation as Milan narrowly missed out to Juventus at the top of the table.

In the off-season Milan had signed Sweden team-mates Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm which proved to be an excellent piece of business as the three forged an almost telepathic formidable attacking line that was labelled ‘Gre-No-Li’.

'Gre-No-Li' - An attacking threesome consisting of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm.
‘Gre-No-Li’ – An attacking threesome consisting of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm.

The Gre-No-Li partnership plundered 71 league goals for Milan in a season where they scored 118 in the league with Gunnar Nordahl picking up his first Capocannonieri award with 35 goals in 37 games.

The 1950-51 season was the campaign where the introduction of the Swedes paid dividends as the Rossoneri pipped Internazionale to the title by just one point. Gre-No-Li formed the spine of the team with Nordahl leading the line with his powerful play.  The striker once again finished the season as the top-scorer with 34 goals, 11 ahead of Juventus’ second-placed Dane Karl Aage Hansen.

The legendary Gre-No-Li partnership disbanded in 1953 when Gunnar Gren transferred to Fiorentina but it didn’t stop the remaining Swedes winning another Scudetto in the 1954-55 season.

During his seven-and-a-half seasons in Northern Italy, Gunnar Nordahl won the championship twice as well as the Coppa Italia on four occasions. In 257 appearances for the San Siro club the Swede scored 210 goals in 257 games and won the Capocannonieri award on a record five occasions.

Gunnar Nordahl after scoring one of his many A.C. Milan goals.
Gunnar Nordahl after scoring one of his many A.C. Milan goals.

After leaving Milan for a brief stint in Italy’s capital with Roma, Nordahl retired from the Italian game a legend after scoring a total of 225 goals in 291 and doing his part in paving the way for future imports to the Italian game.

Since those days, Serie A has seen some wonderful foreign players, especially strikers including Marco van Basten, Ronaldo, Gabriel Batitsuta and Zlatan Ibrahimović to name a few, but Nordahl’s goal-scoring ratio of 0.77 goals per game meant that he is the most efficient goal-scorer to have ever played in the championship.

In 2013 Francesco Totti dislodged the Swede from second place on the list of Serie A’s all-time top-scorers a full 55 years after his retirement.

Still, it was a remarkable achievement for the Roma idol as he has traditionally been used in the trequartista role during his two decades at the top. That said, Totti still has some way to go to catch the record holder Silvio Piola who scored 274 goals during his Serie A career.

Gunnar Nordahl went on to manage Roma briefly along with many clubs without success back in his homeland before retiring from the game completely. After football, Nordahl worked for a Swedish travel agency that brought Swedish tourists to Italy before passing away on 15th September 1995 at the age of 73.

Without doubt, he will be remembered fondly by all Sweden and AC Milan fans for his record-breaking football during his career and his records will live long into the future.


2 thoughts on “Gunnar Nordahl: The Swede who demolished Italian defences

  1. Very interesting article. Nordahl really is a Serie A legend. By the way, the Bison in Italian would be “Il Bisonte” not “Il Bistone’

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