Despite not playing football until age 14, Swedish defender Olof Mellberg managed to become one of the most underrated players in Premier League history.
It’s July 9th, 2000. Centre court at Wimbledon is playing host to a scintillating men’s singles final between world number one Pete Sampras and young Swedish pretender Olof Mellberg. It seems far-fetched to be imagining this in 2018, considering the football career Mellberg had, but up until the age of 14 this was his dream.
As a young kid growing up in Gullspang, Sweden, he only ever dreamed of emulating national tennis hero Bjorn Borg. The tennis legend retired prematurely when Mellberg was age five, but Mellberg spent his childhood endlessly hitting a tennis ball.
During his teenage years at age 14 he began to realise that it was going to be very difficult to make a career as a professional tennis players, and so he began searching for a new sport to practice.
He found the game of football and started his career slowly in his mid-teens, but once he learned the ins and outs of the sport, he ascended to legendary status in the game. His footballing career, just like his dream of becoming a tennis player, took him across the world and had him face off against some of the world’s greatest athletes, and the kid from Sweden managed to loft himself into the game’s highest echelons despite discovering the game late compared to the players he took the field with and against.
The Football Love Affair Begins
Mellberg told CNN Sport in 2014 about his modest ambitions when he started playing. “I never thought about becoming a professional football player. I actually didn’t start playing football properly until I was about 14, 15. I just enjoy the physical side of it and I think it suits me, my physique, and also the mental aspect.”
He began playing for local club Gullspang FC, before being scouted and signed by Swedish Premier League side Degerfors IF in 1996. The 19-year old had gone in three very quick years from a teenager who had never played before to a promising young talent in the top national league.
He impressed as a regular in a team fighting bravely against relegation, which occured in his second season in 1997. At the end of that season, he was signed by the capital club AIK. Mellberg made an instant impact for the club, which went from mid-table in 1997 to league champions just a year later. His success in Sweden hadn’t gone unnoticed in Europe, and he was soon snapped up by La Liga side Racing Santander that summer.
The step up from the Swedish league to a prominent league such as La Liga was initially difficult for Mellberg. As he told CNN Sport in 2014. “They wanted me to adapt to Spain and learn the language before giving me the opportunity.” After a longer period of adjustment, Mellberg made his La Liga debut on 29th November 1998, a 1-0 loss to Real Sociedad. In the second half of the season Mellberg became one of the teams regular centre-back as they fought against relegation.
Across the next two seasons, Mellberg was an anchor of the side, playing all but three league matches across the two seasons. The team were a lower mid-table side for the majority of his time there, however, after a very difficult 2000/01 season, the club found themselves relegated to the second division in 19th place. The performances of the Swede in a bad side had impressed those in Spain, with strong rumours that summer linking him with a move to either FC Barcelona or Valencia.
The Aston Villa Years
Despite having famous suitors back in Spain, in a somewhat surprising move it was Premier League club Aston Villa that signed Mellberg for €6.8 million in July 2001. Manager John Gregory left him out of the squad for his first match against Portsmouth, as he made his Premier League debut in August 2001 on the opening day of the 2001/02 season. He quickly became one of the first names on the team-sheet and was made captain in his first season at the club as they rose to 6th in the Premier League table and reached the League Cup semi-finals.
The following season started brightly, with a run to the semi-finals of the Intertoto Cup, falling to French side Lille. The Premier League season was a massive step back from the previous year, as the team fell from 6th to 16th in a difficult year for the Midlands club. In May of that season, manager Graham Taylor was sacked, with the new man David O’Leary appointed in May 2003.
The appointment of O’Leary led to an upturn in fortunes for Villa, as they once again established themselves as a top ten Premier League side. Mellberg was a consistent presence in defence as they ended the year 6th in the league, with another League Cup semi-final loss. At season’s end, the club were unable to claim a European place as their’s went to Middlesbrough’s League Cup triumph and Millwall’s F.A Cup final appearance.
At this point, Mellberg was a firm fan favourite for his high level of play and his distinctive thick beard. He had become a captain and leader at the club, in a period of tremendous overachievement for Villa. The team slipped down to tenth in the league, with Mellberg missing eight games through injury, although he did score three goals that season, a record for him at Villa.
The 2005/06 was another disappointing one for Villa, with the club struggling for the first half of the season before an upturn in form in the second half propelled them to Premier League safety in 16th place. Mellberg missed a large chunk of games at the end of the season, which was especially important as that summer he was set to captain Sweden at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Sweden progressed from Group B alongside England, however, they fell in the second round to hosts Germany 2-0. After this game, Mellberg stepped down as captain of Sweden.
Returning to Aston Villa in the summer of 2006 it was all change at the club. Mellberg had resigned from his role of captain of Villa, to be replaced by midfielder Gareth Barry. During the summer the club had been sold to American Randy Lerner, who had appointed Martin O’Neill as manager after David O’Leary’s contract had not been renewed. All of this change at the club was always likely to have an effect on the pitch, with the club finishing mid-table in 11th by season’s end.
For the 2007/08 season the signing of defender Zat Knight prompted O’Neill to play Mellberg at right-back, in a move which helped Villa to achieve a 6th place finish at season’s end, only five points away from European qualification.
The season was bittersweet for the Swede as it was announced in January 2008 that he had signed a pre-contract agreement to join Italian side Juventus in the summer. As a show of respect for his final game away to West Ham Mellberg spent £40,000 of his own money giving every travelling fan a home or away shirt with a Thanks 4 the Memories slogan. After seven years at Villa, he had firmly cemented his legacy as one of the club’s greatest ever players.
Travels Through Europe and Retirement