The position of striker, or centre-forward, is seen by many as the most important and pressurised position within any football team. The burden of being the person responsible for getting the goals that could lead your team to victory, even trophies, is one that has separated the great from the good.
In the illustrious history of the beautiful game, there has been a who’s who of clinical strikers, with names such as Pelé, Puskas, Di Stefano, Ronaldo, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, all heralded as contenders for the prestigious crown of greatest ever. Yet, there is one man who has gone under the radar but is a contender, and his name is Gunnar Nordahl. With the lack of footage available on many platforms nowadays, it is no surprise that many have not heard the name. However, in his home nation and Italy, his legacy is one that is revered to this day.
Born on the 19th of October 1921, Nils Gunnar Nordahl was one of ten children and grew up living in poverty within the locality of Hörnefors, situated in the Umeå Municipality of Sweden. Due to growing up in a poor area, it is no surprise that Nordahl’s parents worked hard just to provide their children with a roof over their head. So, it is safe to say that such luxuries as a football were non-existent.
It was not until the age of 8, that the youngster finally discovered the game of football. It was through playing in his local schoolyard where he fell in love with instantly. Despite this lateness in starting to play compared to his fellow classmates, Nordahl’s passion for the game was unrivalled. As he entered his teenage years, he became head and shoulders above the rest of his peers, both physically and in footballing ability.
In order to help support his family, the youngster was sent to work in a brewery but the long hours of manual labour was not enough to stop him from practising his craft on the pitch regularly. This dedication, in combination with undeniable potential, saw local side Hörnefors IF scout the youngster to their academy, and it was here that he progressed through the ranks to make his debut at the age of sixteen in 1937.
Surging up the Swedish ranks
For local side Hörnefors IF, Nordahl fast became the rising star of Swedish football. Here, he managed to score sixty-eight goals in forty-one appearances during his 3 years with the club, an average of just under 2 goals per game. His presence in the side was immediate, as his goals helped the club better their 8th-place finish in the Uppsvenska Västra from the previous season, to finish 3rd. What’s more impressive, is that the striker did this whilst at the same time earning a profession as a fireman, a title that was to later follow him in his football career.
In the 1939-1940 season, Nordahl’s twenty-three goals helped seal his side’s promotion to the second division of Swedish football. However, his impressive displays at such a young age saw Swedish first-division side Degerfors IF acquire the striker’s services at the end of the campaign.
At Degerfors IF, Nordahl continued where he left off at his previous club by finding the net fifty-nine times in his seventy-seven appearances for the club over a four-year period. Again, his goals contributed greatly in helping the side to finish runners-up in the Allsvenskan in his first season. One game in particular, against top-of-the-table Malmö, is still talked about today because in this game Nordahl went on to score an unforgettable goal.
The goal came as a result of the young striker firing a fierce shot that was so hard, it ripped the net and continued on into the crowd. An impressive display, on top of this outstanding goal, saw Malmö offer the Swede a contract right after the game.
With his star continuing to grow brighter, a choice of Malmö or IFK Norrköping presented itself to Nordahl. So, in 1944, the striker chose the latter as his new club to represent and in his 5 seasons with FK Norrköping, Nordahl spearheaded the team to four Allsvenskan league titles in his first 4 seasons. On top of club success, his scoring only increased as he went on to bag ninety-three goals in ninety-five appearances, an average of just under a goal a game. So clinical was the Swede, that he bagged 7 of the goals in Norrköping’s 11-1 annihilation of Djurgardens, a feat that has rarely been replicated since.
The 1948 Olympics
Now a household name in his native Sweden, it came as no surprise that a call up to the national side followed in 1942. Yet, it was six years later where Nordahl announced himself to the world as his side took part in the 1948 Olympic Games, in London. To make the tournament unique, it was the first to be broadcast on television with the semi-finals, final and bronze medal play-off all being shown live on the BBC television service.
This tournament also had another first, as it was the first international appearance of the trio that would later go on to be named ‘Gre-No-Li’, a contraction of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm’s surnames.
This trio wasted little time in clicking as their telepathic play attracted a lot of attention as Sweden went on to win 3-0 in their first-round tie against Austria, at White Hart Lane.
Awaiting Sweden in the quarters was South Korea, but this tie was to be no contest with the Swedes dismantling their opponents 12-0 at Selhurst Park. All three of Sweden’s front line got in on the action, but it was Nordahl who bagged four of the goals in a very impressive manner.
To decide one of the games’ finalists, an all-Scandinavian encounter took place in front of 20,000 strong crowd at the Empire Stadium, Wembley as we know it today. Both Sweden and Denmark came into the tie with clinical strikers who were in good form, with Sweden’s Gunnar Nordhal and Denmark’s John Hansen tipped to be the top goalscorers of the tournament. Hansen won the head-to-head battle in terms of goals, but his late 77th-minute strike was not enough to stop Sweden as they went on to win 4-2 and book their place in the final of the Olympic games.
A date with destiny & international retirement
On the 13th of August 1948, in front of 60,000 fans at the Empire Stadium, Sweden and Yugoslavia went head to head to decide who was to be crowned the 1948 Olympic champions. After a cagey start to the match, it was Sweden that broke the deadlock through a goal from Gunnar Gren, assisted by Nordahl.
Despite taking a well-deserved lead, Yugoslavia began to pile on the pressure and got their reward with an equaliser 3 minutes before half-time, scored by Stjepan Bobek.
With the game evenly poised, the next forty-five minutes of the second half saw Sweden turn up the heat on their opponents and, after only 3 minutes, regain the lead through a goal from none other than Gunnar Nordhal. A converted penalty from Gren, in the 67th minute, further calmed the Swede’s nerves as they cruised to a 3-1 victory to become Olympic champions.
The Swedish sensation went on to finish as joint top goalscorer, alongside Denmark’s John Hansen with seven goals. To this day, this victory remains the only international title Sweden have achieved at senior men’s football level.
Following on from this success, Sweden went on to win their remaining five friendly fixtures to close out 1948. Nordahl’s goal run continued to as he bagged all five goals in his side’s 5-3 win against Norway as well as many more. However, despite becoming Olympic champions, the tournament was to be Nordahl’s last for Sweden, despite not reaching his peak yet.
Strange as it may appear at first, the reasoning behind such a decision was due to the country’s rule of only allowing amateurs to represent the side at international level. Unfortunately for Sweden, their three star men all signed for Italian giants AC Milan within the space of a few months. As a result, they were considered professionals and, therefore, had to retire from international football.
To this day, Nordahl is still third overall in Sweden’s all-time goalscorers list with forty-three goals in only thirty-three appearances. This goal return puts him one place above the great Henrik Larsson and with only Sven Rydell and Zlatan Ibrahimović ahead of him. This is quite a remarkable feat considering Larsson alone played seventy-three more times for Sweden than Nordahl and Ibrahimović, who sits atop the list, has played eighty-eight more times yet only managed 19 more goals.
According to many fans in Sweden, Nordahl is still considered the nation’s greatest-ever player, despite his position in the goal rankings. Furthermore, the majority wonder what could have been, not only with his goal record but even the outcome of the 1958 World Cup final against Brazil and a certain Péle. It is safe to say that history may have been altered that night, had Sweden had their talisman in the lineup.
From Norrköping to Milan
After catching the attention of football fans worldwide with his performances in the 1948 Olympics, it was no surprise that many sides were looking to bring the centre forward to Europe.
Initially it was the Old Lady, Juventus, who made first contact for the Swede. But, when they decided to go for Danish striker Johannes Ploger as well, Nordahl decided to join fellow Italian giants AC Milan instead. So, on the 22nd of January 1949, Nordahl became the first player from his homeland to play in a foreign league. As a result of his humble upbringing, the rising star declined the option of being housed in a high-end apartment in the centre of Milan and opted for a small, modest home on the outskirts of the city instead.
Despite being an Olympic gold medalist, Nordahl received very little fanfare upon his arrival. To many Italian fans, he was seen as a relatively unknown player due to their home-grown talent being complemented by foreign stars from either Uruguay and Argentina in the west, or the Magic Magyars of Hungary from the east.
This influx of top foreign players combined with local talent made Serie A one of the pioneers for what we see today in Europe’s top divisions. The influence of these players was undeniable but did not impact the development of the country’s own home-grown talent.
Another reason for the hesitancy of Milan’s fans was a lack of confidence in whether the striker could adapt from the amateur levels of Swedish football to play in what was arguably the most competitive division in European football.
However, the striker killed any doubts quickly as he scored on his debut in Milan’s 3-2 victory over Pro Patria. By the end of the 1948/49 season, all remaining doubts about the Swede were put to bed as he went on to score sixteen goals in his fifteen appearances. So impressed were Milan, that they offered him a new two-year deal after only six months of the striker being at the club.
His elegant touch and formidable size of 5’11”, tall for the time, combined with the ability to finish with both feet, saw the Rossoneri fans dub him ‘Il Cannoniere’ (The Gunner) and ‘Il Bistone’ (The Bison).
An impressive debut season with Milan saw the club look to build the side around their new star and began by following his request to bring in fellow international teammates Gren and Liedholm in the summer of 1949.
The trio formed a new spine for a Milan side that was on the ascendance since Nordahl’s arrival mid-way through the previous season. Like the centre-forward, this trio have gone under the radar in terms of the best-attacking frontlines in football history. Only the Wunderteam of Austria in the 1930s and the famous Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento combination of Real Madrid were seen as rivals to the Italian side’s Swedish strike force.
Nordahl was the out-and-out striker, leading the line and scoring the goals in clinical fashion, while Gren took his place as the quick, direct inside forward. Sitting behind both, as the advanced playmaker, was the youngest of the trio Nils Liedholm. Over the course of the 1950/51 season, he became a role model for midfielders across Europe with his ability to not only dictate the play but pick a pass with precision accuracy. To those in the team, Liedholm was the pendulum that made Milan tick, but it was Nordahl who caused opposition defences to have nightmares at the thought of marking him.
In their first full season together, the trio scored a combined seventy-one goals, with Nordahl netting thirty-five of them to break the post-war goals record for a single season in Serie A.
This incredible goal return also saw the Swede crowned the Capocannoniere, top goalscorer for the season in what was to be the first of many.
Despite this impressive full season together, the Rossoneri finished second but only 5 points behind champions Juventus. However, the parts were now in place for the side to try and win their first Scudetto in forty-four years the following season.
The First Scudetto and Latin Cup
With their quest for Scudetto success falling just short the following season, the 1950/51 season was one that Milan fans felt was going to be the one. Their hopes were soon heightened as the telepathy between the three Swedish players failed to falter, but rather soared to new levels. Nordahl, himself, went on to claim a second Capocannoniere with a total of thirty-four goals, many assisted by his fellow countrymen in Gren and Liedholm. On top of this, the striker’s goals helped catapult his side to ending the club’s long forty-four-year wait for an Italian title.
As a mark of respect, the Milan faithful crowned their talismanic striker with another name, ‘Il Pompiere’ –The Fireman. Seen as quite random, the reasoning behind the name was in honour of the profession Nordahl worked as whilst learning his footballing trade back home in Sweden.
As well as becoming the champions of Italy, Milan’s victory meant they were entered into the Latin Cup, an international football tournament consisting of the league winners from the Southwest European nations of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
The competition came about in 1949 when the football federations for each of the nations came together to request that FIFA launch the competition.
At the time, European clubs could not afford heavy travel costs so the competition was staged at the end of every season in a host country. The layout consisted of two semi-finals, a third-place play-off and a final.
In one of the semi-final ties, Milan saw Spanish champions Atlético Madrid come to the San Siro with the hopes of silencing the Italian side’s dangerous attacking line.
However, this was not the case as Milan went on to win 4-1 with Nordahl scoring a solo goal alongside a hat-trick from midfielder Mario Renosto.
In front of a packed San Siro crowd, the champions of Italy and France were to go head to head to crown the new Latin Cup holders.
Lille OSC had encountered a more difficult path to the final, compared to their fellow finalists, as they had initially drawn 1-1 against Portuguese champions Sporting Lisbon.
A replay the following day saw a classic encounter with the score line at 4-4 after 90 minutes. However, two goals in the opening 7 minutes of extra time saw the French side come out on top as 6-4 winners.
On the 24th of June 1951, Nordahl went on to further show why he was seen as one of, if not the most dangerous and prolific strikers in world football. The striker bagged a hat-trick to help AC Milan go on to win 5-0 with a dominant display.
History made and the second Scudetto
With the forty-four-year wait for an Italian title now over, many expected the Rossoneri to go and dominate the top division. However, the 1951-52 season was to be a disappointing one for both AC Milan and Nordahl.
Milan ended the season in second place, 7 points behind winners Juventus, whilst their top striker came second in the top scorers list behind Juventus striker John Hansen.
This was to be the last time that the Swede was to finish second to anyone during the remainder of his Milan career and the following season was to be the last time Gre-No-Li played together in football.
For the next three seasons, Nordahl went on to be the Capocannoniere with goal tallies of twenty-six, twenty-three and twenty-six respectively. To this day, the Swedish striker holds the record for most Serie A top-scorer (Capocannoniere) titles in history, with 5, and is joint top for the most consecutive top-scorer titles alongside Michel Platini on 3.
The 1952/53 season was to be the end of an era for Milan, as it was the last time Gre-No-Li played together. The sale of Gunnar Gren to fellow Italian side Fiorentina in the summer of 1953, meant only Nordahl and Liedholm remained.
Gren had been player-manager for the Rossoneri in his last season, where he managed to lead the side to a 3rd place finish.
With one-third of their dynamic attacking frontline gone, another 3rd place finish followed. As a result, the 1954/55 season was already seen as one of little expectation by the Milan fans.
However, the clinical finishing of a now thirty-three-year-old Nordahl and the midfield magnificence of Liedholm meant Milan still had two of the best footballers in world football.
The duo got their one more shot at success, as they helped lead Milan to another Scudetto and qualification to the inaugural European Cup. This cup replaced the Latin Cup as the cup competition for the winners of each top division to compete in.
The end of an era
With the transfer of Gunnar Gren to Fiorentina, the beginning of the end of this historic trio had begun.
So historical was this period for Milan and these three Swedes, that many trace the dominance of AC Milan through the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium back to the revolution that Gre-No-Li started.
Without these Scandinavian superstars laying the groundwork for one of Europe’s most successful sides ever, who knows where Milan would be today amongst the pantheon of football’s most prestigious clubs.
Off the pitch, Gunnar Nordahl was a reserved man, but on the pitch he was a powerful, behemoth of a man. However, now at the age of thirty-three years old and following a second Scudetto title, father time was slowly catching up to the Swedish striker.
Despite this, a new stage was to present itself to Nordahl in the form of the European Cup. This competition saw the best teams in Europe pitted against each other, and the same could be said for the star power throughout the top leagues on the continent.
Milan went as far as the semi-finals, where they were eventually beaten over two legs by Spanish champions, and eventual winners, Real Madrid. Nordahl found the bet for his side but Los Blancos, led by a new generation of top talent in Alfredo Di Stéfano, we’re too much for the Italians.
Despite not being at the peak of his powers like he had been in years past, Nordahl went on to finish with four goals in the competition, only four behind the top scorer Miloš Milutinović of Partizan Belgrade.
Fighting on two fronts throughout the season, in both the European Cup and Serie A, had a major impact on the Rossenori’s attempt to regain their title.
The side finished the 1955/56 season in 2nd place behind Fiorentina but managed to win the Latin Cup for a second time, a cup now played by the runners-up of each league.
Another Capocannoniere title was bestowed on Nordahl this season and again in the 1956/57 season, as mentioned earlier, before the Swedish great called time on his Milan career. A challenge awaited, with fellow Italian side Roma bringing his services to the Italian capital. Nordahl left the Rossoneri having scored two hundred and ten goals in his two hundred and sixty-eight games, making him the club’s all-time goalscorer to this day.
In his two years as a player with Roma, the Swede managed to bag fifteen goals in his thirty-four appearances, which is still an impressive goal return for an ageing star.
For the 1958/59 season, Nordahl was named player-manager and finished the season in 6th place respectively, considering his lack of coaching experience. This was to be the Swede’s last dance in his love affair with Italy, as he said goodbye to what had become his second home.
It is safe to say that with his departure in 1959, Nordahl left behind one of the greatest legacies in Italian football history. Overall, he scored 225 goals in 291 matches for both Milan and Roma.
This record puts him third overall in Serie A’s all-time list of scorers and first in the list of non-Italian players.
To add to these accolades, the Swedish striker also holds the record for the most braces (49) and hat-tricks (17) in Serie A history, further showing the clinical consistency he had in front of goal.
However, the Swede would not enjoy as much success after his retirement. A return to his homeland followed. Here, he managed several clubs including two of his old sides in Degerfors IF and FK Norrköping, but no success came except a few second-place finishes.
Unfortunately, Nordahl was unable to use his great reputation to advance his career after football and, despite being a very humble man off the pitch, lost most of his fortune as a result of the lack of work after coaching.
In his last years, Nordahl worked with Roma’s youth team for a brief spell, before going on to work for a Swedish travel agency, bringing Swedish tourists to Italy.
Death and legacy
As a result of his legendary status, Nordahl was often invited back to the San Siro as a Guest of Honour and later was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.
Off the field, the striker maintained close ties with his longtime teammate and friend, Nils Liedholm.
However, on the 15th of September 1993, the footballing world lost an icon, when Nils Gunnar Nordahl passed away peacefully at the age of seventy-three, in the small city of Alghero in Sardinia.
The Swede’s legacy is one that can be argued as being one of the best in the game, yet it is never spoken of except by his fellow countrymen or the Rossoneri fans.
As well as his goal-scoring record mentioned earlier, his Serie A record for the most goals in a single season with thirty-five, lasted until Gonzalo Higuaín of Napoli bettered it by a goal in the 2015/16 season. This feat was replicated in the 2019/20 season by Lazio’s Ciro Immobile.
Despite the record being broken, it goes to show that in the list of greats that were to apply their trade in the top division of Italy, Nordahl’s record was only been bettered twice, and by a single goal.
To the Milan faithful, his name is still immortalised in the pantheon of club greats. So much so, that at the time of Andriy Shevchenko scoring his 100th Milan goal, the supporters were quoted as saying “Well he can double that number, and then add another twenty-six, then, and only then, has he passed Il Cannoniere.”
In 2017, Nordahl was recognized by modern-day football magazine, FourFourTwo, for his contribution to the game as they listed him at number fifty-four in their list of the one hundred greatest players of all time.
Nordahl’s legacy is one of incredible brilliance on the football pitch, especially in front of goal, where he managed to rack up records and accolades longer than most clubs have titles.
His pioneering status as being one of, if not the first European exports to apply his trade in another country meant that he paved the way for some of the great that followed him.
Players like Maradona, Van Basten, Ronaldo, Gullit and even his fellow countryman Ibrahimović, all owe a debt of gratitude to the once-great Swede.
Hopefully, one day, his name will get the recognition it deserves among the new generation of fans on the streets as his legacy is one that may never be replicated again.