A Swedish firefighter zipped down the wooden pole and bade farewell to his colleagues. The 27-year-old, whose upbringing unfolded in a necessitous, single-room home also inhabited by his parents and nine siblings, in a silent village on the country’s east coast, had landed a new job in the bustling fashion capital of the world.
He was offered a plush, company-financed apartment in Milan’s most chic district; he instead chose a simple flat on its outskirts. He attended his first function in a cheap, unbranded shirt and trousers; his colleagues were draped in the extravagant Brioni suits that were enrapturing Italy’s rich and famous, complimented by immaculately polished designer shoes and deluxe watches. The Hornefors native was unassuming; nationality and celebrity drenched the Italians in confidence.
On that downcast day in January 1949, he pondered whether his future would be bright in Lombardy. “It was a different world to me,” the Scandinavian later recalled. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to settle.”
But if the Swede felt substandard outside the workplace, it was his new companions who swallowed the feeling of inferiority inside the office. That office, for Gunnar Nordahl, was located inside opponents’ penalty areas. In them the infallible predator scored 210 goals in 257 Italian Serie A outings, during which time he won five Capocannoniere awards – no other player has won more than three – and fired Milan to two league crowns, the first of which ended their 44-year Scudetto drought.
Nordahl was born to score goals. He was not the most athletic, but he was so intelligent at finding space and could put the ball in the net with blindfolds on.
Nordahl had to unravel the labyrinthine byways of his nation’s regulations to move to Milan. Although doing so ended his fighting of flames and made him the first Swedish professional footballer, his subsequent seven-year spell in Lombardy was not the first exceptional chapter in his singular tale.
That tale began on 19 October 1921, when he was born into an abundant family and relative poverty. Nordahl’s father worked hard in a pulp mill to provide for what would eventually become ten children, who were cared for by their mother in cramped surroundings. Accordingly, the parents could not afford to buy a football for their five sons, all of whom become footballers.
Gunnar may have been eight before he kicked the real thing at school, but he was soon dwarfing his class-mates physically and technically. He did assume a job working in a brewery during his adolescence, but it was on the football field that he was soon giving out hangovers. Tall and barrel-chested, he debuted for local minnows Hornefors aged 16. Three seasons, 41 appearances and 68 goals later he was the property of Degerfors, for whom he continued to score with military regularity in the Swedish top tier.
By 1944 Nordahl had grown into the hulking 1.81m, 95kg frame for which he became renowned. So too had his arsenal. He was now fearsome in the air and his volleys invariably found the back of the net. One exception occurred against Malmo that same year, but the youngster still emerged celebrating: such was the force with which he struck the ball, the volley ripped violently through the fabric and hurtled into the crowd. It prompted the then-reigning Swedish champions to court his signature. So too did IFK Norkopping, who won the race due to the fact they offered Nordahl a job as a firefighter in the city.
He made the score-sheet 87 times in 85 league appearances for IFK, inspiring them to the title in each of his four seasons at the club, all of which he finished as the competition’s leading marksman. No man has ever seized the competition’s golden boot on more occasions; no man has ever scored more than the seven with which he blitzed Djurgardens in an 11-1 victory in 1945.
Nordahl also set copious records in Swedish colours, debuting in 1942 and hitting an outstanding 43 goals in 33 games. His international zenith came in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 1948. The infallible Ernst Ocwirk was the fulcrum of a formidable Austria side, while goal machines John Hansen and Faas Wilkes spearheaded Denmark and the Netherlands respectively. They were the favourites. Sweden? Nobody really knew a lot about them.
It was not long before they did. Ten minutes, in fact, is all it took Nordahl to put the Scandinavians two goals up en route to a 3-0 defeat of Austria. Korea Republic were then demolished 12-0 in the quarter-finals, before Sweden beat Denmark 4-2 to set up a decider against Yugoslavia, which they won 3-1. Nordahl’s seventh of the tournament – he finished as its joint-top scorer – proved the winner in front of over 60,000 fans at Wembley.
“Nordahl was born to score goals,” raved the co-coach of that gold-medal winning side, George Raynor. “He was not the most athletic, but he was so intelligent at finding space and could put the ball in the net with blindfolds on. If we’d had him in 1950, I’m certain we’d have done better than third place (Sweden claimed bronze behind Uruguay and Brazil at that FIFA World Cup™).”
Sadly, Nordahl’s decision to depart Sweden and turn pro in 1949 rendered him unable to represent his country. And while it was a decision his compatriots regretted at the time, it is one countless benefited from, with the historic transfer paving the way for Italy to welcome an influx of Swedes.
None, however, have come close to surpassing Il Canoniere. He made his Milan debut in a 3-2 win over Pro Patria. Naturally, he was on target. It proved the first 16 goals in 15 games he dispatched during the remainder of the 1948/49 campaign – figures that provoked I Rossoneri to ‘convince’ him to pen a new contract just six months into a two-and-a-half-year deal and act upon his recommendation to sign two of his former Sweden team-mates.
He scored tap-ins and spectacular goals. He would sneak into positions that others would not know existed. He was one of the best players there has ever been.
Reunited, Nils Liedholm, Gunnar Gren and Nordahl formed an immaculate trinity, nicknamed Gre-No-Li, which proved fundamental to Milan’s Serie A conquests of 1951 and ’54. “Gren, Liedholm and I had a telepathic understanding, which we developed through years of training together,” recalled Il Bisonte (The Bison).
“The one thing I realised when I got to Italy was that the movement in Sweden was more advanced, so I used to try and exploit that and find gaps between defenders. [Liedholm and Gren] would always give me perfect through-balls, which gave me a lot of simple finishes.”
That comment was quintessential of one of football history’s most modest figures. It was also wildly inaccurate. During Nordahl’s individual tour de force in 1949/50, a staggering 11 of his 35 goals – a post-war Serie A record – were volleys.
Gren later said of a man who rounded off an extraordinary career with two campaigns at Roma: “He hit the ball with such power, could even score goals with his [weaker] left foot. He scored tap-ins and spectacular goals. He would sneak into positions that others would not know existed. He was one of the best players there has ever been, and in my opinion one of the best goalscorers."
And while Gren offered that as opinion, statistics establish it as fact: Silvio Piola is the only man to have netted more times in Serie A than Nordahl, yet the iconic Italian required an extra 15 seasons to manage an additional 49 goals; Nordahl’s ratio of 0.77 goals per game outranks any other player to have made more than 100 appearances in the competition; and his 1.3 per game for Sweden is one of the greatest strike rates in international football history.
In September 1995 the flames went out on Nordahl’s life. His legend, however, will live on across Sweden and Milan infinitely. So too, probably, will many of his multiple goalscoring records.
Did You Know?
In a 1948 Olympic semi-final, Nordahl, realising he had strayed yards offside and with his team on the attack, darted into the back of Denmark’s net. It proved wise decision as the cross came in, the flag stayed down, and Henry Carlsson headed home a goal that helped Sweden win 4-2.
Four of Nordahl’s five brothers went on to become footballers, with three of them representing Sweden.
In 1950, a Juventus defender tripped while chasing Nordahl, which left the AC Milan striker clean through on goal. Incredibly, however, he stopped, kicked the ball out of play and went to see if his adversary was alright.
During his time in charge of Degerfors, whom he had represented as a player, Gunnar Nordahl handed son Thomas his professional debut in 1964. The midfielder went on to represent Sweden at Mexico 1970.