Team Sweden HC BD Kennedy ready for rivalry with Finland to reach ‘new level’ in European Championship semi-final

International competitions always come with an added intensity, but there is nothing in sport quite like a national rivalry. A perfect mix of proximity and tangled history fueled by a healthy dose of patriotism and even the friendliest of neighbours can become embittered enemies, if only for a night.

The Summer Olympics have that sort of competitive nationalism broadcasting through every television screen in the world right now, but more than 8,000 kilometers away from Tokyo, BD Kennedy is readying for one of the most heated national rivalries around in a very different type of competition.

After a year in which international games were an impossibility, the Team Sweden head coach is ready to get back on the field and finish the delayed 2020 European Championship of American Football. It just so happens that his team’s first opponent on Saturday is also his country’s most historic rival.

“This is a huge game and that starts with the fact that it is Sweden versus Finland. This is a natural rivalry and always a great game,” Kennedy said after a hard day of preparations. “When you add the significance of a European Championship semi-final, it takes an already heated rivalry to a new level.”

The slugfest between the two Nordic neighbors has been a near-annual occurrence since 1992, with Finland leading the head-to-head matchup 17-11. This time the game carries more weight than simple national bragging rights, with a chance to advance to the European Championship game on the line.

Sweden hasn’t medaled in European men’s competition since they took home the gold medal way back in 2005 and last fell short of the podium in 2018, losing 35-21 in the bronze medal game to, who else, Finland. Kennedy knows full well what the Finns will bring to the table once again.

“Finland’s strength is usually that they are well coached and very talented,” he said. “I expect them to have guys that play hard every play. Our only way to combat that is to play our best football, one play at a time.”

Team Sweden warming up before practice Photo: Svenska Amerikansk Fotbollförbundet

Sweden will have to execute their game plan with much less time on the field to gel as a team than typically afforded them. The ongoing COVID pandemic means their training camp in Tyresö runs just three day, from August 4 to 6, before breaking for the game on August 7.

“There are all sorts of challenges, you just have to do the best you can in putting the guys in a solid environment to prepare to play,” Kennedy acknowledged. “Practice time is short, but preparation can be longer by using digital meetings.”

Online install sessions over the past few weeks have been productive thanks in part to an experienced Swedish roster, but it is far from the same one that qualified the team to get to this stage back in 2019, knocking off Russia and Great Britain in qualification.

Some players have retired over the course of the pandemic, while other national team staples are tied up playing for teams in other countries. The defense in particular will be missing some marquee names, with star defensive end Malcolm Engström making a name for himself in the GFL with Potsdam and do-it-all linebacker Sebastien Gauthier a standout with the ELF’s Frankfurt Galaxy.

Those losses are less than ideal, but on the other side of the ball, veteran leadership will not be a problem. Quarterback Philip Juhlin, who led the team in that heartbreaking defeat in 2018, is back behind center and will have an impressive supporting cast of receivers to throw to while sitting behind an experienced offensive line. With all the pandemic turmoil, Juhlin’s steady hand could prove critical.

“Having Philip at QB means a lot. He has run this offensive system since 2019, actually a little longer than that. He is a tremendous leader and a very solid quarterback,” Kennedy raved. “Having him at the helm is a big deal for us.”

Both head coach and quarterback are focused on ending Sweden’s string of bad luck on the international stage and have their sights set on a chance at gold. Kennedy is well aware of what it takes to get there, having served as offensive coordinator for the country’s title run back in 2005 and coming up just short of World Championship bronze as the head coach in 2007.

Having taken back the national team reigns in 2019, this will be the long time Carlstad Crusader head coach’s first shot at European glory as the man in charge. That’s the goal, but there is no chance he’ll get caught looking past Finland.

“In any tournament, the goal is to win it. It would mean a lot to get to the championship game and have a chance to play for the European Championship, but our focus will be on the moment we are in and that is the game against Finland on August 7, ” Kennedy stressed.

National bragging rights come first, medals will follow after.

Watch Team Sweden play Team Finland in the IFAF European Championship semifinal, Saturday, August 7 at 12:30 CET (12:30 pm, 06:30 am ET).

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.