Thomas Ravelli: Sweden’s Most Divisive Keeper

The list of footballing greats produced by Sweden is long and a unifying factor behind these players achieving such a status in the game was moving abroad to prove themselves in a more demanding League.

Whether Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 or the Premier League wasn’t important; no player could expect to have a significant international profile if his career was spent exclusively plying his trade in the Swedish Allsvenskan. Unless his name was Thomas Ravelli of course. Apart from a brief MLS stint at the very end of his career, Sweden’s most famous, most decorated and most capped goalkeeper spent his entire career playing domestically with Östers and IFK Göteborg, so it’s testament to his talent that he still managed to forge a formidable reputation as one of the world’s best keepers during the 1990s.

The Ravelli family were Austrians of Italian descent who emigrated to Sweden when Thomas and his twin brother Andreas were young. Even by the age of five neither child spoke any Swedish whatsoever. The family was however a sporting one and the boys’ mother Margaret was a tennis player of some repute – and eventually a Swedish champion.

Thomas initially shone at track and field events, particularly the high jump, before an aptitude for football emerged. As a youth in the early 1970s he started training with the Atvidaberg club who were at that time Sweden’s most effective developers of youth talent, and when the family moved south to Vaxjo the twins joined the ranks of the local Östers club.

Aged just 17, Thomas made his debut in goal in a 1976 UEFA Cup tie with Hibernian but had to be patient to earn a regular first-team football. Ahead of him in the pecking order was the Swedish international Goran Hagberg and it took three years before Ravelli could finally displace him.

This was a golden age for the Östers club which won titles in 1978 (with Ravelli as a reserve), 1980 (with Ravelli as first choice) and 1981 (with Ravelli the inspiration-in-chief). With the Ravelli double act of the vociferous and spectacular Thomas in goal and his fierce and uncompromising twin Andreas in defence in front of him, Östers was not an easy team to play against. Or sometimes for.

While Thomas would earn plenty of respect for his undoubted capabilities, his personality and antagonistic approach meant he would never inspire much affection in his fellow Swedes. At odds with the even-tempered style of his compatriots, Ravelli was a driven character and vocal leader who spent his career constantly provoking and insulting opponents and hectoring his own teammates to challenge them to do better.

For a television programme about the keeper a microphone was placed behind his goal and viewers were shocked by the sheer levels of profanity Thomas directed at teammates and opponents alike.

As the 1980s progressed Östers declined as a force as Thomas Ravelli continued to improve and slowly outgrow them. Oddly little transfer interest generated around him. In 1986 he came close to signing for Stuttgart until the Bundesliga club ultimately preferred Eike Immel.

Two years later he was linked with a move to Brazil after good international performances for Sweden caught the eye, but when his transfer finally did happen in 1989 he would not have to move anywhere near as far.

IFK Göteborg had taken over from Östers as Sweden’s preeminent club but faced the annual loss of their best players to bigger Leagues. Nearing 30 and almost a veteran, Ravelli represented experience and professionalism and his acquisition underpinned much success that arrived during the eight seasons he spent there.

To add to the three championship medals won at Östers, Ravelli would win a further six with his new club between 1990 and 1996 as well as a domestic Cup win in 1991. It was his flamboyance and success on the international stage that would really establish him the household name he became however.

First capped in 1981, Thomas had to wait nine years for a first appearance at a major international tournament finals and the 1990 World Cup was broadly disastrous for everyone associated with Sweden. He was first choice at the 1992 European Championships and performed admirably, though his third and final tournament would be his most memorable – the 1994 World Cup in which Sweden achieved the giddy heights of third place.

It wasn’t just Ravelli’s performances that elevated the team. His fiery drive and sheer force of personality inspired a decent if unremarkable outfit to perform well above its natural level. Ravelli’s own personal highlight came in the quarter-final shoot-out against Romania as he saved two penalties to take his side through to the last four.

Almost comically late in the career of a man who had enjoyed so much success he was named as Swedish Goalkeeper of the Year for the first time in 1995 and again in 1997, the year he won the last of his 143 Swedish caps. Finally, if only at the age of 34, the Swedish footballing public had ‘got’ Ravelli and recognised that a team full of nice guys is all very well but it can only take you so far. Every good team needs a bastard like Thomas Ravelli.

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