Ola Toivonen (right) holding the Swedish championship trophy after Malmö's success last season. (Photo: Malmö FF; Design by Theo Dimou)

Although sitting a mere 24th in the UEFA club coefficient rankings and 27th in FIFA’s rankings, Sweden is a nation who are notorious for punching above their weight on the international stage.

12 World Cup appearances, three Olympic medals and runners-up at the 1958 World Cup – not bad for a population that just eclipsed 10 million. Superstars in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrik Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg are labelled Swedish icons of the 21st century.

Recently retired forward and former Melbourne Victory captain Ola Toivonen can count himself as one of Sweden’s best talents – fortunate enough to step onto the pitch over 500 times for his country and eight different clubs.

For Toivonen, football was his destiny since he was a little boy kicking the ball around in the municipality of Degerfors, the team that would provide the 2018 World Cup quarter-finalists’ first professional contract.

In a one-on-one exclusive with The Inner Sanctum, Toivonen shared how the round ball became part of his everyday life.

“The passion for football was in my family in the early days, and it was no question that football was the sport I was going to pursue,” Toivonen told The Inner Sanctum.

“I grew up in a small village but there were many pitches around, so I always had the opportunity to play football in my spare time after kindergarten or school. All the kids would take their bikes, bring their ball, take a water bottle and ride their bikes to the pitch at school.

“If it was not training, we were playing football. We weren’t sitting indoors – my friends and I were just out playing football every day which allowed us to become better. I was involved in successful teams at the youth level and had good teams which made it more enjoyable.”

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It was that same village where Toivonen envisioned himself representing his country on the world stage – a dream that came true when he helped guide Sweden to an unexpected last-eight berth in Russia 2018, scoring a memorable goal against Germany in the group stage with a delicate yet sublime dink over Manuel Neuer.

Ibrahimovic, arguably one of the greatest strikers to ever lace a pair of boots, also helped shape Toivonen’s career – but it was playing for unique clubs around Europe attached with vastly high expectations that also helped his promising career progress.

“It was a surreal journey, and every opportunity that is lying around the corner, you take on the bounce and you see how it goes. Fortunately for me, everything turned out quite well,” he said.

“I had my ups and downs, but I had unique club experiences playing for Malmö, one of the biggest clubs in Scandinavia, became captain for PSV Eindhoven in Holland which is an amazing club, and played in European competition.

“I was successful with the national team which is the biggest honour for any professional player. Euro 2012 was my first major tournament for Sweden which was a great learning experience, but the run to the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals was the best memory of playing for my country – we were a tight-knit group who fought for each other and had a lot of quality.

“I was lucky to play alongside Zlatan for six or seven years, so many great stories and memories. I witnessed amazing goals from him at training and matchday where you saw things you couldn’t believe were possible. He was a great leader and very influential to the rest of the team.”

The latest episode of the A-Leagues of Our Own podcast featuring the interview with Ola Toivonen

As the final whistle blew after a 2-0 defeat against England in the 2018 World Cup to send the Swedes packing, it was time for Toivonen to switch his attention back toward club football. This time, however, he was at a crossroads.

Tempting offers received back in his native homeland soon became a distant memory once Melbourne Victory came calling – much to the excitement of supporters who witnessed his heroics only recently on the grandest of stages.

“I came off the back of a positive World Cup and thought to myself, ‘What is the next step? Should I move home to Sweden and finish my career there or is there a chance for a last adventure?” Toivonen explained.

“My family and I spoke to Kevin (Muscat) a lot before I decided to join the team. I did my research to figure out what kind of club it was, how the facilities were located, and how the facilities would benefit performance-wise.

“Once I knew the club was located in the middle of Melbourne with AAMI Park and the Australian Open (Melbourne Park) next to it with one of the best fan bases in Australia, I was eager to join. I was watching videos on YouTube to see what the atmosphere was like because I didn’t want to go to Australia and have no crowd (to play in front of).

“Everywhere I’ve played whether in Sweden, PSV, Stade Rennes, or Sunderland, there was always a great atmosphere. I made sure that if I was going to go to Australia, I didn’t want to go to a small team. I wanted to join a club that could compete for titles with the best fan base.

“Then I found out Keisuke Honda was arriving as well, so I was like, ‘Okay, this can be really good.'”

In 2019, Toivonen accepted the honour of wearing the captain’s armband for the four-time A-League champions, becoming the first foreigner to do so.

With that came added responsibility, a particular role that suited his natural leadership capabilities – contributing 23 goals across his 38 appearances to set the example.

There was an instant connection that sometimes is not easy to convey in words.

“The first season we were playing really good football and I think when we had the full squad available we were outstanding. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to win it (the championship) because we had a horrible game against Sydney where we lost 6-1,” he said.

“Melbourne is a great city and I only have positive things to say about the club because they made me feel welcome.”

Much to the disappointment of the Victory faithful and the A-League, Toivonen decided with a heavy heart not to renew his contract with the club after two seasons to pursue a move back to Malmö – a full circle moment having already donned the blue and white stripes as a 20-year-old.

After a successful second stint including 14 goals in 45 appearances across two seasons, the most decorated club in Swedish football reserved an important hierarchy position for Toivonen to offer an opportunity within the sport he cherishes.

“Right now I am the assistant sporting director working together with the boss himself, Daniel Andersson, who is the main sporting director who is doing a bit of everything at the club,” he said.

“I’m working really closely with our manager Henrik Rydström who is in his second year now. The first year we recruited him and became champions, so we’re really happy with him.

“My role involves being responsible for recruiting, making sure that the scouting progress is running well, and having complete responsibility for our U17 and U17 boys – making sure they show up to school, developing in the right way at training, and winning games because in Malmö we care about winning and development.”

Already familiar with the surroundings of the club having been exposed to the history, culture, and atmosphere – the 37-year-old has leant on those previous acquaintances to share his knowledge and expertise with a discernible passion.

He detailed the mindset of Malmö and where they want to be as a football club consistently.

“I played for Malmö for a short time before 2010 and finished my career at the same club in 2022, so I had two (experiences) here and I’ve been seeing how much the club is growing,” said Toivonen.

“What attracted me to the club and the city is the people, (who) are cocky, but they are winners and the club is a winning one.

“We strive to be the best in Scandinavia, (qualify) for Europe every second or third year, and the goal is of course to reach the Champions League group stage. It’s very, very difficult and almost impossible, but we managed to qualify a couple of times in the past eight years which gave us a real economic gap to our competitors.”

When asked about his aspirations moving forward, it’s clear that Toivonen only has his sights firmly set on the near future, notably referring to the term ‘we’ – perfectly epitomising Malmö’s emphasis on achieving their goals as a collective.

“Short-term is more focused on taking care of the boys (at Malmö) to make sure they are developing and that the pathway to the senior team is running smoothly, which the gap is now closing,” he said.

“We want to win the championship and ensure we qualify for a top European competition in the summer whether that is the Champions League or Europa League – that is what we are striving for.

“If we need to sell some of our players, we want to make sure that we receive as much money as possible to reinvest both on and off the pitch.”

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