While his former Aston Villa team-mates are sunning themselves on golden sands, contemplating next month’s third round Intertoto Cup tie, Olof Mellberg will be working a little harder.
The 30-year-old defender, who last month said goodbye to both fans and the club he served for seven years, will be part of the Sweden squad taking part in this summer’s Euro 2008 championships in Austria and Switzerland, which kicks off on June 7.
The Swedes, who also include Birmingham City’s Sebastian Larsson, are drawn in Group D, alongside Spain, holders Greece and England’s qualifying group conquerors, Russia.
“I think it’s one of the tougher groups definitely,” says Olof, who will be playing in his third European Championships. “It wasn’t the easiest draw, it looks pretty tough, but also quite even I think.
“Probably people see Spain as favourites in the group, then it’s open for the second place, but we’ve had some tight games against Spain as well – we won at home and lost away in the qualifiers; Greece just kept going after they won it last time (Euro 2004) and Russia went through in a really tough group.”
He adds: “It’s difficult to say because we have a long season behind us, and [Sweden] haven’t had that many games, we played against Brazil in a friendly a few weeks ago – we’ll see when we get together and hopefully everyone will be fit and in good form, that’s the main thing now.”
Sweden will be hoping to improve on their best ever performance, a semi-final place when the country hosted the championships in 1992; and while the likes of Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal are the bookmakers’ favourites, Olof is confident the Swedes can be one of the dark horses of the tournament:
“I think you’ve got the usual suspects who are favourites, but I also think it’s getting tighter and tighter and the differences between the teams are getting smaller and smaller,” he says.
“Hopefully we can see a few more surprises this time around – and hopefully we can be one of them. I think we’ve got a little bit of everything,” he adds.
“If you’d asked me when I started playing for the national team, it was definitely our defence, we were very well organised, we conceded very few goals – but it has definitely changed, we play with more attacking players now, compared to when I came into the team.
“If we can still stay solid at the back we are getting stronger going forward – you need a balance in a championship, it’s not the same as qualifying when you often are better than the opponents – we were favourites in almost all the games we played in qualifying.
“I hope we can get our strikers going in Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] and Johan [Elmander] and Marcus [Rosenberg], it’s always important to get them scoring; hopefully they can be key players for us.”
While Mellberg packs his bags for Euro 2008, however, he is in two minds over the British nations’ failure to qualify:
“Especially with the Danish people here [at Villa] we talked a lot about it, and we’ve got a lot of English players in this squad on the verge of being there, so it would have obviously been a really good experience for them, so it’s disappointing that England are not there,” says Olof.
“They belong there and I think all teams enjoy playing against England, they’re such massive games – I’ve played them a few times and they’re always special games.
“At the same time, because I have been here for so long it’s nice to play against players you don’t get to play against [in the Premier League].”
Heading off to Euro 2008 also marks the end of Mellberg’s prestigious time at Aston Villa, who he joined from Racing Santander in 2001.
He admits he will have plenty of memories – good and bad – to take with him to Serie A, when he joins Juventus next season.
“It’s been a fantastic seven years, up and down, but it’s been great,” he reflects. “In particular the start and the finish; the start of my career we were top of the league after ten games or something, we had a great atmosphere in the squad, a lot of big name players, I learned a lot from them.
“We had a good start, which was important for me as well, and now at the finish we’ve done well this season, and all the people at the club are positive about this season and the future, so it’s nice to leave on a high, feeling the future is bright.
He adds: “I’ve been captain for quite a few years which was a great honour; we had one really great season when I was the captain, a good run in the League Cup and finished sixth that year.
“There’s been a few disappointments as well; I definitely remember the Birmingham derbies, from huge disappointment in the beginning and fans storming the pitch and strange goals, and then turning it around and we’ve definitely dominated the derbies in the last few years and done the double this season – and 5-1 was obviously a fantastic way to finish that off. I’ve played in derbies before but no derby is quite as special as this one.”