Gunnar Nordahl rewrote the goal scoring record books and in the process became a legend for both AC Milan and Sweden.
When Swedish footballers are brought up today, most people would think of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the most well-known Swedish player in modern history. Nordahl, however, who preceded Ibrahimovic by over half a century, is arguably the greatest goal-scorer Sweden has ever seen.
Born on 19 October 1921 to a large family living in poverty, Nordahl’s parents worked hard just to keep a roof over their 10 children’s heads, let alone give them the luxury of a football to play with. In an amazing twist of irony, however, all five of the boys in the family would go on to become professional footballers.
Gunnar Nordahl was eight years old before he kicked a real football for the first time in his local schoolyard. Even though he may have started playing much later than his peers, his passion for the sport was insatiable, and it soon became apparent that nothing would hold him back. His development soared once he hit his teenage years, and he was head and shoulders ahead of his schoolmates both physically and in footballing skill.
In his teenage years, Nordahl was sent to work at a brewery in order to help support his struggling family. Long hours of manual labour did not deter him from visiting the pitch regularly, and his undeniable potential was quickly realized by local club Hornefors IF, who quickly gave him a debut at just the tender age of 16.
During the three seasons he spent with Hornefors, he developed a reputation of a local star. In just 41 appearances, the youngster had already scored an astonishing 68 goals, averaging over 1.6 goals per game. His fantastic scoring record earned him a much deserved move to Degerfors and the highest level of Swedish football.
He showed no signs of slowing down even when faced with the toughest opponents, and smashed in 56 goals in 77 appearances in his four seasons with Degerfors, including one unforgettable goal against table toppers Malmo. Nordahl fired a fierce shot that was so hard, it literally ripped the net and continued on into the crowd. Malmo were so impressed by his technique that they offered him a contract.
By now the 1.81 meter tall, 95 kilogram mountain of a man had made a name for himself, and had his pick between Malmo and IFK Norrkoping for the next stage of his already incredible career. Nordahl ended up choosing Norrkoping because in addition to a footballing contract, the club had also offered him a position as a fire fighter in the city.
In four stunning seasons with Norrkoping, Nordahl made history, leading his club to the title in every season while also winning the Golden Boot for the league all four times. The Swede finished his stint at the club with 87 goals in 85 games, seven of those coming in Norrkoping’s 11-1 annihilation of Djurgardens.
Along with demolishing teams at a national level, Nordahl’s skill was also on full display on the international stage. Incredibly, he managed to score 43 goals in 33 games with Sweden, a record of 1.3 goals per game.
While he made his debut in 1942, it was six years later when he really lit up the world, driving an unknown and underestimated Swedish team to victory in the 1948 Olympics in London.
Buoyed by an early victory, the Swedes set out at full strength, brushing aside the Korea Republic 12-0, defeating favourites Denmark 4-2, and finally winning the competition by outshining Yugoslavia 3-1. Nordahl would finish joint top scorer, and his seventh and last goal of the tournament would be the winner against Yugoslavia.
Nordahl’s incredible play was hardly unnoticed, and in 1949 Italy’s AC Milan bought one of the best players in Europe. Scoring on his Rossoneri debut to win 3-2 against Pro Patria, Nordahl’s 16 goals in 15 games with the club in half a season was such a good record that the club renewed his contract just six months into his Milan career.
In Nordahl’s first full season with Milan, the Swede broke the post-war goal scoring record for a single season in Serie A, netting an astonishing 35 goals, 11 of which were volleys. While no slouch with his head, Nordahl became well-known for his stealthy movement and simple finishes, driving his club to new heights.
In fact, Nordahl had such a strong influence on Milan that the Rossoneri went out and bought two of his former Swedish teammates, Nils Liedholm and Gunnar Gren, forming the feared Gre-No-Li attacking trio that would terrorize Serie A defences in the coming years.
It was with his country mates at Milan where Nordahl thrived, claiming the Italian championship in 1951 and 1955 while becoming the Capocannoniere in all but the 1951/52 campaign during that period. The striker hit goal after goal assisted by his fellow Swedes, forming a “telepathic understanding, which we developed through years of training together,” as he put it himself.
In 1956, after 257 appearances and an incredible 210 goals for Milan, Nordahl left to join Roma in the twilight of his career. He would play for two more seasons, netting 15 times in 34 games despite his age, and became a player-coach in a third campaign with the club.
Unfortunately, the Swede would not enjoy as much success after his retirement. While a great footballer, Nordahl was unable to use his reputation to advance his career after football, and lost most of his fortune. Nordahl would return to Sweden in a nomadic but unsuccessful coaching career, and even returned to Roma to work with the youth team.
In his last years Nordahl worked with a Swedish travel agency, bringing Swedish tourists to Italy. He was often invited to back to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza as a Guest of Honour, and maintained close ties with Nils Liedholm.
Nordahl passed away on 15 September 1995, aged 73, in the small town of Alghero, Italy. While he slowly phased out of football in the years following his retirement, his legacy and his record remain a part of footballing history, both in Sweden and Italy.