Spain vs Sweden, World Cup 1978 First Round

For twelve years Spain had waited. The World Cup 1978 in Argentina was to be the first tournament La Roja would compete in since 1966. One week into the competition Spain were already fighting for survival.

A stunning 1:2 defeat to Austria in their opening match and a goalless draw with Brazil left them joint third in Group 3. Their final opponents in the First Round had likewise drawn with Brazil and then lost to a tremendous Austrian side. When they met on June 11th at Estadio José Amalfitani in Buenos Aires only the winner could harbour any hopes of advancing.

The opening exchanges are accordingly cagey. The Spaniards technical prowes, though, is apparent from the get go. Whereas Sweden are stretched far between defence and attack, trying to gap the midfield with long balls, Spain rely on short passes and look to build from the back. Even when all three Swedish forwards press the centre backs, Spain swiftly by-pass them.

The first bit of action comes from a deep free kick: Santillana had snuck behind the Swedish back-line. Despite standing only 1.75m (5ft 9in) Carlos Alonso González aka Santillana was an able header of the ball. In this situation, seemingly hanging in the air, he guides a header past Ronnie Hellström. The Swedish goalkeeper is relieved both by seeing the ball clanging off the bar and the linesman’s flag going up (6’).

Spain’s midfield maestros

Spain up the tempo, force mistakes in midfield, and look to hit Sweden snappily on the counter. As is lore, the heart of the Spanish side is their central midfield. Julio Cardeñosa sits deepest of the bunch, bringing up play from the centre back position. Juan Manuel Asensi is the least involved in the passing game but offers bursting runs going forward. More crucial is Eugenio Leal and his interplay with Juan Gómez aka Juanito. The pair likely combined for more passes during the match than any other two players. With Leal drifting wide right and with Asensi as well as, on occasion, Cardeñosa bursting forward, Juanito sits atop the diamond, letting play develop and then picking his option.

Approximate formations and player movements for Spain vs Sweden, June 11th 1978

Approximate formations and player movements for Spain vs Sweden, June 11th 1978

Sweden can’t get a foothold in the match, are simply not present enough to be competitive. When in possession the off-ball movement is almost nonexistent and when defending they can hardly keep up with Spain’s passing. Off a Swedish free kick Juanito and Leal are breaking, the latter putting in a cross from the right edge of the box. At the far post Santillana is waiting. Roy Andersson clears at the last moment (17’).

Minutes later the break is on again. Sweden had poured into the Spanish box with numbers. The ball in is cleared, one pass by Cardeñosa sees Juanito with lots of space in front of him. Running at the Swedish back-line he blows by the defenders and bursts into the box. It’s either a deflection or Hellström’s fingertips that guide Juanito’s shot just barely over the bar (21’).

Hailing from Fuengirola at the Costa del Sol, Juan Gómez González had made the breakthrough into professional football in the Segunda División at Burgos. Having won promotion, Juanito, in his first season in the top flight, was awarded the Don Balón Award for the Best Spanish Player in. Still only 22 he had captured the eye of Real Madrid, who brought him in the very same summer. At Madrid his colleagues would include Santillana and Vicente Del Bosque. The latter being a notable absentee amongst the Spanish World Cup side in ‘78. Del Bosque had been left out of the squad as he had only recently recovered from a broken leg.

Asymmetrical wing play

Miguel Angel, goalkeeper at Real Madrid, had made the trip to Argentina. Against Sweden, though, it took more than half an hour before he would be called upon. Sweden had discovered their left wing suitable for attacks because Spain had doubled up on their left wing. Isidoro San Jose and Francisco Uría formed an interchanging full back/winger combo, taking turns going forward, hugging the touchline, and providing width in the process. Defending the right wing was a collaborative effort headed by Marcelino, who was aided by whoever was near him at the time. With 32 minutes gone it’s actually three defenders hovering around Thomas Sjöberg, though, none of them hinder the Swede putting in a cross. At the penalty spot Ralf Edström (standing 1.91m/6ft 3in) wraps himself around his marker, but puts his header straight into the arms of Miguel Angel.

Still just 25 years old, Edström was already four summers removed from possibly his finest form. At the World Cup 1974 in West Germany his goal scoring exploits (four goals in six matches) had seen Sweden reach the Second Round. Only Lato, Szarmach and Neeskens got onto the scoresheet more often. Twice, in 1972 and again in 1974, Edström won the Guldbollen, the trophy awarded to Sweden’s Player Of The Year. By 1978 he was plying his trade in Göteborg, where he scored six goals in 17 league matches for IFK.

Two minutes from half-time Edström almost opened his account in Argentina. As Bo Larsson puts in a corner from the left, Miguel Angel goes for the ball but comes up with air. Edström, towering over his marker, had already headed it towards goal; only to be denied by a goal line clearance ℅ Marcelino.

Antonio Olmo is off at half-time, being replaced by José Martínez Sánchez aka Pirri. Another Real Madrid stalwart the sweeper had scored the only goal, a late penalty, in Spain’s first qualifying match against Yugoslavia. As Pirri is more adventurous going forward, Asensi now slots in behind Cardeñosa to protect the space vacated by Pirri. Spain stretch the pitch wider in general now as Leal is moved out onto the right wing.

Sweden passive, with questionable substitutions

Long stretches of the second half consist of Spain spinning a web of passes around Sweden, pushing them ever further back. Though the heritage is obvious, what’s lacking in comparison to Spain under Aragones/Del Bosque is the final ball in the attacking third. Up until 30-35 yards Spain’s play is largely unobstructed, beyond that rises a sea of yellow shirts. As dominant as their style is, on the day the end product is lacking. And judging by the scorelines of the previous matches it wasn’t too different against Austria or Brazil.

An hour in Cardeñosa goes close. The Betis man latches on to a botched clearance on the edge of the box. With Hellström beaten, the shot bounces off the right post, rolls along the line and out of the mouth of the goal at the far post. Four minutes later Juanito runs at defence, lets rip from 20 yards out, and forces Hellström into a diving save.

Sweden make two changes in quick succession, bringing on Benny Wendt for Edström (59’) and Anders Linderoth for Sjöberg (66’). Curiously, looking for a goal Georg Ericson takes off the two players that combined to create the only half-chance from open play. Were the changes not made to simply give the newly introduced players a few World Cup minutes, his reasoning could have went thusly: His side’s biggest problem when attacking is the gap between forwards and the rest of the team. Not even long balls are working any more. The Swedish attacks are reduced to the full backs bringing up the ball and running into situations unfavorable just from a numbers game. Wendt subsequently is dropping back from the centre forward position, which Edström never did. Linderoth through the middle could prove a faster option on the counter.

Then again, Sjöberg had scored in every qualifying match Sweden played. They did the double over Switzerland, winning both matches 2:1, and split their series with Norway, winning 2:0 at home, and losing 1:2 away.

Spain: masters of the late goal

Meanwhile Spain had made it a habit to leave it late. László Kubala’s side scored four goals in as many matches during qualifying, all of them coming in the last twenty minutes of play. That was enough to win three of the four matches; only away to Romania had time run out and left them with a 0:1 defeat. Romania’s score had come eight minutes in by way of a Benito own goal. The return leg in Madrid was won 2:0, while Yugoslavia were twice bested 1:0.

And so, 15 minutes from time, the best move of the match produces the sole score. Linderoth had run into a wall of red shirts, bouncing off Antonio Biosca and losing the ball. Biosca starts the move at the back, Cardeñosa takes it into the Swedish half unopposed, and Asensi and Leal work it into the attacking third. Juanito steps on it 25 yards out, allowing the move to fully blossom. Santillana drifts wide pulling the Swedish defence apart. Asensi offers the run into the box, receives the perfectly timed through ball from Juanito, and slots a shot past Hellström, finishing a beautifully worked team move for the 1:0.

In a classic bit of too little, too late Sweden finally find their forward gear. Two crosses from the right wing almost prove perilous for Miguel Angel. The first goes wayward and nearly sneaks in over the goalkeeper, only for him to get his hand on it at the last moment. Another one is put in uncontested, this time finding a Swedish head at the penalty spot. Miguel Angel is beaten, but the header hits the bar.

As the German referee Ferdinand Biwersi blows the final whistle Spain have picked up their needed victory. Alas it’s all for naught. In the parllel match, played in Mar del Plata, Brazil have also won 1:0 against Austria. Roberto Dinamite had put the Selecao ahead shortly before half time, his side held on to pick up the points. Austria top the group, Brazil also advance as runners-up. Spain are left empty handed in third, whilst Sweden only gathered one point in four matches.


  • Man Of The Match: Between Juanito and Leal, the assist for the goal tips it in favor of Juanito
  • Best Hair: Leal
  • Viewing Recommendation: Yes, for fans of the Spanish side; otherwise not so much as only one side was really up for it; Sweden might have been too knackered after holding Brazil to a draw

Full match can be found over on footballia. If you’ve enjoyed the write-up, give us a like on Facebook and/or a follow on Twitter so you won’t miss any upcoming installments in the series.

About Sebastian

Sebastian writes and talks about football of all eras in German and English. His series of Retro Match Reports focus on British, German and Italian football history. For YYFP he is currently working his way through the late '70s and early '80s. Follow Sebastian on Twitter: @maltacalcio.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *