BY KARAN TEJWANI
Recent years in football have seen attacking dominance by Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, with the two sides possessing six of the best footballers in the planet. Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar have been unstoppable in front of goal for the Blaugrana over the past three years, bagging at least 100 for each of the last three seasons, while Real Madrid have won two Champions League honours in the same period with the deadly trio of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Their managers have made those three a permanent fixture in both sides’ starting line-ups for nearly three years and they have been rewarded. But similarly, there was another great attacking trident, almost 60 years ago, that dominated the scene on international and domestic levels in Sweden and Italy. This was the first great attacking triumvirate in football and started a new chapter for AC Milan, who were finally starting to succeed after being in the shadow of rivals Inter and Juventus. Writing their names in Italian football folklore were Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, together labelled as ‘Gre-No-Li’.
The trio first came to international prominence in England during the 1948 Olympic Games, where Sweden convincingly won gold. Having established themselves at two different clubs in Sweden, the Olympics was their first chance at proving themselves together. Swedish side Norrköping were the dominant force in Sweden at the time largely due to the contributions of Nordahl and Liedholm as they won the league title for four consecutive years between 1945 and 1948. And it was around this time that Gunnar Gren, the oldest of the three stars, was plying his trade with his local club Göteborg as they challenged Norrköping, but failed to win anything in that period. Gren, however, to some consolation, was the inaugural recipient of the Swedish Gulbollen in 1946, the award given to the best Swedish footballer of that year.
At the Olympics in London, Sweden were a force to be reckoned with and the three were an integral part of the side. The competition was the first major international tournament since the 1938 World Cup due to World War 2 and the Scandinavians would lay down a marker for the rest of the world to follow. Led by English coach George Raynor, the Swedes would begin their quest with a comfortable 3-0 win over European rivals Austria at White Hart Lane, with Nordahl scoring a brace. A thumping of South Korea followed this, not just by a goal or two, but by 12. Yes, Sweden 12, South Korea 0. This time, all three got on the scoresheet, with Nordahl scoring four, Liedholm two and Gren scoring a solitary goal.
Next in the bracket was Denmark, where neither of them scored, but Nordahl did have a key role to play in the equaliser after they fell behind to an early Denmark goal. On the attack, Nordahl realised he was in an offside position, and realised that he would not be able to come back in line in time. Knowing this, he jumped into the Danish goal, and outside the field of play, allowing Henry Carlsson to head the ball into the net and legalising the goal. The Swedes would add another three, with Carlsson getting a second and Kjell Rosén scoring a brace of his own as they went into the break with a 4-1 lead. Denmark were only able to score a late consolation as Sweden were through to the final, where they would meet Yugoslavia for a first shot at Olympic gold.
In the final itself, Sweden were hardly troubled by Yugoslavia as 60,000 at Wembley witnessed another brilliant attacking display. Gunnar Gren scored for the second time in the tournament midway through the first half, but the scores were level as they approached the break. Then early in the second half, Nordahl started and finished an excellent passing move to score for the seventh time in the tournament, which was the joint-highest alongside Denmark’s John Hansen. The game was sealed just after the hour as Gren would score his second of the game from the penalty spot as Sweden were winners and added 16 medals to their country’s tally to take them to second in the overall chart.
Gunnar Nordahl was the only out-and-out forward of the three, hence his ability to score more goals. Gunnar Gren played primarily as an inside-forward with his technical ability being largely influential in attack, while Nils Liedholm supported Gren and was one of the finest playmakers in the world at the time, possessing the elegance required to be successful in that position. His impressive ability to pick out a pass made him a dream teammate for forwards.
The trident would be reunited in Italy, with AC Milan, although that may have not been possible had it not been for a slight change in plans in Turin. The first of the three to sign for Milan was the oldest, Gunnar Nordahl. However, he was due to sign for Juventus. But while negotiations were taking place, Milan were intent on bringing Johannes Pløger to the club, who himself had a starring role in Denmark’s run to the semi-finals at the Olympics. En route to Italy, he encountered a bizarre twist of fate where he met with Juventus officials in Switzerland who offered him a higher pay. Pløger agreed to join the Bianconeri and Nordahl instead had to make do with signing for Milan for the rest of the 1948/49 season, wearing red alongside black rather than the intended white.
Nordahl continued his impressive form for Milan in attack as they would finish behind the formidable force of Torino and Inter. That summer saw a change in the landscape of Italian football as Nordahl convinced the Milan board to bring his compatriots, Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm to the club. In their first season together, Torino’s challenge for the title was wrecked following the Superga air tragedy that year and AC Milan only had Inter and Juventus to compete with. In the first local derby that season AC Milan were level on points with their rivals and four behind Juventus. During the game, the Rossoneri took a sensational 4-1 lead within the first 20 minutes and had their sights firmly set on victory. But their shoddiness in defence cost them, as they were pegged back and remarkably, ended up losing 6-5, with the trio taking the blame for being tactically inept without the ball.
They would recover from this slump and strung together an impressive set of results to head into the most crucial game of the season, a potential title-decider against Juventus, who were just three points ahead of them. Milan displayed an excellent attacking display that day, where all three scored as they ran out 7-1 winners, with Nordahl bagging a hat-trick; it was the first clear display of their potential together. They were not able to get the job done altogether, however, as Juventus ended up winning the league. To some consolation, Nordahl finished that season with 35 goals – the most in a single Serie A season until the 2015/16 campaign when Gonzalo Higuaín scored 36 for Napoli.
The following season saw greater consistency in results from AC Milan, and brought out the brilliance of the creative cast of Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren. Liedholm was now being a pioneer for footballers everywhere, with his emphasis on fitness creating a trend for all footballers at the time. In an era where smoking and drinking was a common pastime for athletes, Liedholm spent more time on running tracks and in gyms. Gren was nicknamed Il Professore and this campaign had him creating chances left, right and centre as Milan’s attacking play was controlled by this prodigious talent. Nordahl continued to be a monster in front of goal and established himself as one of the greatest forwards of all time in that season, with his 34 goals powering Milan to the Scudetto.
The club were flawless throughout the season and did better than the previous campaign to hold on to what they had. Their title success had to come down to the final day of the campaign, where Milan and Inter played at the same time against Lazio and Torino respectively. The task was simple: win. But just like all simple stories, this one had to have a twist as the capital club won their game versus AC Milan 2-1 and it all came down to Torino’s result. As the news came through, Milan’s anxious wait ended with a burst of excitement as Torino had defeated Inter by the same score line and the final result there was met by a pitch invasion, with Milan winning their first Scudetto in 44 years.
The success would prove the be the first and last together at club level as Gunnar Gren would depart for Fiorentina in 1953, after finishing runners-up to Juventus in Serie A. Nordahl and Liedholm would go on to win another Serie A honour in 1955 and that saw the former leaving for the capital with AS Roma. He finished as Milan’s record goal scorer with 210 goals in 257 appearances – a feat that included five finishes on the league’s top scorer charts; a record that still stands. For Roma, he would add another 15 and is the third highest goal getter in Italian league history, behind Francesco Totti and Silvio Piola. Liedholm stayed and captained the side until 1961, even going as far as reaching the European Cup Final where they lost to Real Madrid in 1958.
While Gren retired from national duty, Liedholm and Nordahl would take Sweden to the Final of the FIFA World Cup where they would meet a 17-year-old Brazilian who went by the name of Pelé and beat them by five goals to two. The trident’s lack of appearances for their national side while at the peak of their powers was due to the Swedish FA’s unwillingness to choose professional footballers, a pact that was broken just in time for the World Cup in 1958.
The three would continue to make a name for themselves in Italy even after their playing careers ended, going on to manage in the country. Liedholm took the reins at AC Milan on four separate occasions, including once as a player-manager, while Nordahl and Gren had less successful managerial stints in the country with Roma and Juventus respectively being their most prominent tasks, albeit both of them being very short spells.
As players, their legacies can only be matched in Sweden by one Zlatan Ibrahimović, but as a trio, they set the benchmark for togetherness and quality that all others had to surpass. They are right up there amongst the greatest of all time, along with likes of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law; the three R’s of Brazil at the 2002 World Cup – Ronaldo, Romario and Ronaldinho; and even Real Madrid’s history makers Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Francisco Gento.
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