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Last summer, Everton broke the transfer record for a women’s footballer.
Sweden’s squad had caught the eye, emphatically ending world champions USA’s 44-match unbeaten run in a stunning start on their path to a second successive Olympic Games final.
After a 4-2 comeback win over Australia in their second match, two players for Swedish side Rosengard, Anna Anvegard and midfielder Hanna Bennison, played key roles in a 2-0 victory over New Zealand.
Hanna Bennison declared it felt ‘amazing’ after she moved to Everton as an 18-year-old in 2021
Everton had a tricky campaign but ever-present Bennison was the Young Player of the Season
Forward Anvegard nodded the first goal from a corner. Bennison’s superb cross for Madelen Janogy’s second, arrowed into the penalty area less than half an hour into her first start at the Olympics, stole the show.
The Blagult’s stars were rapidly becoming even hotter property than they had been after the 2019 World Cup, when they beat England in their final game to finish third.
Everton faced stiff competition for Anvegard, major tournament debutant Bennison and one of their club and international teammates, defender Nathalie Bjorn.
Anvegard and Bjorn both joined Everton 20 days after that victory over the USA. Securing the signature of Bennison, who was 18 at the time, took longer.
Six weeks and one unsurpassed price tag later, Everton had their third alumni of the Malmo-based club.
‘As you can imagine, it was not a straightforward process,’ says Willie Kirk, the manager who signed Bennison.
‘There was a lot of interest in her. Two massive clubs actually lodged larger bids than Everton. But Hanna was adamant that she wanted to sign for Everton, so that put the club in a strong position.
‘Eventually, the two clubs agreed a significant six-figure fee. Everton made, in my opinion, the signing of the summer.’
Born: Lomma, Sweden
Youth career: GIF Nike, Rosengard
Senior debut: February 18 2018
Sweden debut: November 8 2019
Damallsvenskan record: 48 games, eight goals
Women’s Champions League: Seven games, two goals
Women’s Super League: 22 games, one goal, two assists
Internationals: 21 games, two assists
That price was between £120,000 and £185,000, according to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. Lisa Ek, a former veteran of Swedish top flight the Damallsvenskan who represents Bennison, said only that she expected the amount paid across the course of the deal to be the most a female Swedish footballer has ever received in a contract.
By far the most successful team in Women’s Champions League history, Lyon, might have looked on enviously. The eight-time winners tried to prise Bennison from Rosengard before she had even completed her education.
Bayern Munich and Manchester City were among nine major clubs vying for Bennison alongside Everton after the Olympics, according to Ek. But support rather than status was the priority for the prodigy as the end of her nine years at Rosengard neared.
Five criteria – long-term investment, strong finances, a club on the rise, a good dressing room culture and healthy recruitment – gave Everton the edge for Bennison and her advisors.
Kirk appreciated the blend of promise and brilliance Bennison had shown in her embryonic career in her homeland and internationally.
‘She has incredible potential and I thought she was a player who could make an impact immediately, but she was also a fantastic long-term investment — hence the long-term contract,’ he says.
‘I felt that I could work with her over the first year to work out exactly what type of midfielder we and she wanted her to be — then, over the subsequent years, help her on her way to become world-class player.’
That progression had already begun for the player given her debut by Rosengard as a 15-year-old.
Eleven minutes after coming on for her international bow against the USA in November 2019, Bennison picked up a pass with her side 3-0 down in front of almost 21,000 home fans in Ohio.
Bennison won the Goal NXGN Award for the best young female footballer in the world in 2021
The newcomer took two confident touches before chipping a beautifully-weighted pass beyond the USA defence to Bjorn, whose cross allowed Anvegard to score.
Within five minutes, Anvegard had added her second. Sweden could not complete the comeback, waiting until the Olympics to turn that scare into a shock against the team who have almost monopolised first place in the FIFA rankings since 2007.
Bennison’s hero is Sweden playmaker Dejan Kulusevski, and there is something of the Tottenham loanee’s shy temperament and steely focus about her off the pitch.
‘Our first meeting was over Zoom and what stuck me most about her was that she was very, very quiet — very humble,’ recalls Kirk.
‘But at the same time she also gave off a very strong self-confidence. I was very impressed with her throughout that first meeting.
‘For me, every player is different regardless of their age, ability and position.
‘With a younger player like Hanna, who is also new to the country, it was about making sure we didn’t over expose her too early, communicated with her regularly on and off the pitch in terms of her development and how she was adapting to a new country, and also gave her some space to find her own solutions on the pitch.’
In deciding to leave Malmo for Merseyside, Bennison could not have foreseen how turbulent her first season with the club would prove.
Willie Kirk (right) led Everton to the Women’s FA Cup final before adding Bennison to his squad
Fifth in the WSL in 2020/21, Everton had only been beaten in extra time by Manchester City in the Women’s FA Cup final. They had hopes of qualifying for the Women’s Champions League with a top-three finish the following season.
4-0 defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea in their first two league games made that ambition look distant. Two subsequent wins showed the squad’s potential, only for a 3-0 beating at Arsenal to signal Kirk’s departure after almost four years in charge.
It was unfortunate for Kirk and his squad, which included seven new signings and faced some tough early fixtures.
Their first win, at home to Birmingham, came from a flourish of ingenuity by Bennison in a tight game.
With the score 1-1 at the break, Kirk introduced his star signing and was rewarded with a sensational strike when Bennison deceived her marker, played a one-two with fellow new signing Toni Duggan and lashed in from long range to give Everton a lead they later extended.
It was an exquisite example of the free-flowing football Kirk had envisaged his team playing. Ek had explained that Bennison wanted to work with the former Manchester United assistant because he would encourage players to be creative, learning from mistakes rather than fearing them.
‘My time working with her was way too short,’ Kirk says when asked about his curtailed career with Bennison. ‘I loved the few months that I had with her.
‘She was such a good learner, always looking to improve different aspects of her game and such a hard worker.
Toffees fans were left open-mouthed by several of Bennison’s goal and assists in 2021/2022
‘She thought her heading was very poor but her technical skill is actually good. It’s just her decision making in certain scenarios that was poor, but I’m sure that will improve.’
Everton’s appointment of Jean-Luc Vasseur as manager at the end of October seemed a sure bet in pursuit of an upturn in results.
The former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder had won five trophies during his time in charge of Lyon between 2019 and 2021, including the Women’s Champions League, Division 1 Feminine and Coupe de France Feminine.
The 2019/20 UEFA Women’s Coach of the Year lasted 95 days and ten matches, winning one of his six league games.
The Euros debutant is now hoping she can help Sweden end a 38-year wait to triumph again
Chris Roberts and Claire Ditchburn acted as head coaches for the rest of the campaign as Everton finished tenth, only Leicester lying between them and relegated Birmingham.
Bennison has discussed how consistent upheaval risks inconsistent performances. She conceded that the changes had clearly affected results and said the team had found it difficult to create an identity, but added that the atmosphere among the players had remained good.
One constant was Bennison’s bright displays. The second-youngest member of Everton’s squad was the only player apart from the far more experienced Duggan to feature in all 22 WSL matches, winning the Young Player of the Season award at the end of them.
FIVE SWEDEN STARS TO WATCH
Caroline Seger has the most European caps
Caroline Seger: Midfielder Seger broke the European caps record for men and women when she made her 215th Sweden appearance in a friendly against Austria in June 2021. A legend of the sport, this will be a fourth Euros for the 37-year-old since she played in the 2005 finals in England.
Stina Blackstenius: The top scorer in Sweden in 2021, Blackstenius found the net in all but one of her country’s games at the Olympics, including two against the USA and one in the final. The forward has six goals in 11 club appearances since joining Arsenal from BK Hacken in January 2022.
Lina Hurtig: Hotshot Hurtig has won Serie A in successive seasons since joining Juventus from Linkopings. Scored four times in qualifying and twice at the Olympics, as well as putting Sweden in front in a 3-1 pre-Euros comeback win at home to Brazil.
Zecira Musovic: A WSL and FA Cup winner with Chelsea last season, it would be impossible not to mention charismatic Musovic’s witty savaging of sexism on social media. The goalkeeper’s promised mid-Euros blogs and vlogs should be unmissable.
Fridolina Rolfo: Scorer of the winner that took Sweden to the Olympics final, Rolfo was directly part of 19 goals in 26 games as new club Barcelona reached the Champions League final last season. The 2021 Sweden Forward of the Year has won the top flight in Spain, Germany and her homeland.
Her assists continued to be as likely to decide games as they were to evade or split defences. A diagonal rocket of a pass from near the halfway line allowed Aurora Galli to score the only goal of the game at Aston Villa, and a 91st-minute cross through a crowded penalty area set up Megan Finnegan’s equaliser in a 2-2 draw with Tottenham.
Incoming manager Brian Sorensen, who won league titles in his native Denmark with Fortuna Hjorring, should give Everton the stability to find their rhythm when his two-year deal begins, Bennison believes.
In the meantime, she heads to her first Euros with a Sweden side whose odds are not commensurate with their second-placed world ranking.
Sweden have not won the tournament since they beat England on penalties at Kenilworth Road in the two-legged final of the inaugural edition in 1984, but they have been finalists three times, most recently losing via golden goal to hosts Germany in 2001.
Group stage qualifiers in each of their ten appearances at the finals, they should progress to the knockout phase again from a tricky group.
The blockbuster game for Peter Gerhardsson’s side is their first in Group D, against holders the Netherlands at Bramall Lane on July 9.
Their opening opponents could be damaged or driven by their 5-1 defeat at Elland Road on June 24 against England, whose manager, Sarina Wiegman, guided Oranje to the trophy in 2017.
A game against a dangerous Switzerland side is Sweden’s second in Sheffield on July 13, followed by a clash on July 17 with Portugal, who are the beneficiaries of Russia being excluded.
That final group game takes place at Leigh Sports Village, less than 20 miles from the Walton Hall Park Stadium where Bennison, Bjorn and Avegard play for Everton.
Their talented squad, including Arsenal forward Stina Blackstenius and Chelsea defender Magda Eriksson, will be wiser for their Olympic pain.
Bennison’s productivity against New Zealand was the only start of the tournament for a player who is now a regular, and Anvegard was the first of three Swedes in a row to miss penalties after their team had been ahead in the final shootout.
The trio’s former skipper at Rosengard, Caroline Seger, also missed one of those spot kicks.
When she broke the European caps record for a male or female player shortly before the Olympics, Seger joked that her trailblazing career had paved the way for younger players such as Bennison to one day drive past her in a Ferrari.
While Seger expects to pass 230 international appearances, what can we expect to see from Bennison when she plays in the Euros for the first time?
‘She has terrific balance, very quick feet and can get herself out of tight situations,’ says Kirk. ‘Her awareness is a joke for someone so young.
‘She sees things now that some of the most experienced players around will never see and she is very explosive over the first few yards.
‘I’m still not sure what her best central midfield position is — and I’m not sure she does, either. I will, without doubt, be watching her and Sweden very closely.’
Sweden will enter the finals on a 30-match unbeaten run over 90 minutes, including 25 wins