Head coach BD Kennedy keeping Team Sweden ‘grounded and focused’ ahead of gold medal game against Italy

It been a longer journey than initially expected, with more than a few twists and turns along the way, but Team Sweden is finally ready to reach its end.

The group that first assembled back in 2019 to vie for the IFAF European Championship has changed a lot over the course of the pandemic delays that followed, but the constant has been head coach BD Kennedy. Last serving at the helm of the national team in 2007, Kennedy has seized the reigns with gusto and weathered roster turnover to put his team into Saturday’s gold medal game.

Sweden knocked off Russia and Great Britain in qualifiers more than two years ago, then mounted a come from behind victory against Finland in the semi-finals this August to advance to the title game for the first time since the nation won it all back in 2005.

Up against an explosive Italian squad with far less game experience, Sweden has the horses necessary to get the job done. Led by veteran quarterback Philip Juhlin and a star-studded receiving corps, along with world class defensive stars like William James and Malcolm Engstrom, the Swedes have a chance to claim the trophy on home soil in Malmo, a once in a lifetime opportunity for a football player.

Ahead of the pivotal game, American Football International reached out to head coach BD Kennedy to get his perspective on the matchup.

American Football International: When it comes to football in Europe, the stage doesn’t get any bigger than the European championship game. How do you keep a team grounded and focused ahead of what will be the biggest game of most of their lives?

BD Kennedy: First of all, we will obviously acknowledge the fact that this is a huge game. At the same time, we have emphasized throughout this entire tournament and the game against Finland a few weeks ago, that the key is to focus on the task at hand. We have the philosophy that if you are on the roster, you are the best Swedish player in the country. You are on the team to perform and our plan is for each player to focus on doing his job, being a good teammate and performing at his highest level. 

AFI: It has been a while since Team Italy has been able to take the field. What sort of challenge does playing a team with so little recent tape pose and what do you expect them to bring to the table?

Kennedy: Italy has not played a game since 2019. The only film we have from them is the games they played in 2019. So obviously there is a challenge in knowing if they are still doing the same X’s and O’s they did against Austria and Switzerland. But at the end of the day, we can only prepare for what we have seen and be ready to make any adjustments that need to be made to put our players in the best position to be successful. They have had camps and practices and will certainly be ready to hit the field and play a game. I expect them to be fast and physical on defense and have the ability to move the ball on the ground and through the air.

AFI: Your team has the advantage of having played a tune-up game in the annual Finnkampen, a resounding victory for your group. What do you take away from that contest that can help you this week?

Kennedy: The yearly “friendly” game against Finland gave us the opportunity to look at our entire roster. Projected starters played only the first quarter.  The other 3 quarters we played the rest of the roster. The reason we did that is that our philosophy on the National Team is that if you are on the roster, you should be able to help the team win. You should be able to contribute and make plays. I was extremely excited to see that every player that suited up for that game could contribute to the team’s success. It was an extremely tough job to reduce the entire roster to 45, but I feel certain that any player that starts or comes off the bench will have the opportunity to contribute in a positive way to the team.

AFI: Team Italy has a number of dual citizens playing in key positions. What sort of challenge will those players pose to you?

Kennedy: I have been asked a lot about how I feel about the number of dual passports. At the end of the day, when the IFAF representative checks every player’s passport and every Italian player has an Italian passport it is a moot point. To me, this is Team Italy and they have earned a spot to play in the Championship game, so that is our opponent.

AFI: What will be the key to success for your team this weekend? What battle has to be one for your team to emerge on top?

Kennedy: It’s football and I believe football starts in the trenches. We will need to control the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball, in order to increase our chances of winning the game. We will need to win the turnover battle, along with limiting big plays on D and making big plays on O. Special teams will be important, in field position and big play potential. On offense, getting speed in space will be extremely important for us and on defense it will be keeping leverage, pursuing the ball and creating turnovers. Finally, we have to stay focused and play smart football and ride out the ups and downs and twists and turns of momentum that occur in these types of games and concentrate on each play as it comes. 

AFI: Sweden has only taken home European gold once, in 2005. What would winning a second trophy mean for you and your team?

Kennedy: Without a doubt, it would be huge. This has been a long process and when this opportunity and idea was first shared with me by Robert Sundberg, our GM of the National Team, it was the goal that we would find our way to this game. I was fortunate enough to have been a part of the coaching staff when we won in 2005 and I know that is an extremely special moment. At the same time, anytime you get to represent your country in the sport you love to play, it is a special moment. 

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.