Like most central defenders, Amanda Ilestedt had never been considered much of a scorer.
Coming into the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the 30-year-old Swede had managed a respectable eight goals in 64 appearances for her country over a decade-long international career. But her main job — the one that earned her not just a spot on coach Peter Gerhardsson’s 23-woman roster for the tournament but a place in his starting lineup — was to keep the ball out of her team’s net, not put it in that of the opponent.
This World Cup is the Arsenal center back’s third and her fifth major competition overall. She had never scored in any previously — which is a little difficult to believe given what she’s done on the attacking side of things this summer.
Ilestedt has been nothing short of a goal machine Down Under. On Friday, her fourth strike in five games helped send Sweden eliminate Japan and advance to Tuesday’s semifinal against Spain (coverage begins at 3 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app.). On the internet, she is now officially better known for her scoring exploits than for her impressive knowledge of the Swedish supergroup ABBA.
Ilestedt’s first three goals came in the group stage. Two were game-winners. Her most recent tally was even more crucial, though, and also the only one of the four that she converted with her foot as opposed to her head.
It did arrive via a free kick, though. Set pieces have long been Sweden’s go-to for goals. It’s a logical strategy for the Scandinavian nation, which has had a recent propensity to churn out tall, athletic women’s players if not regular citizens: the average height of Sweden’s female population only ranks 20th in the world.
But there’s a lot more to it than height alone.
“Set pieces are very much structure, and it’s also technique and then it’s courage,” Gerhardsson said during a news conference in the first round, when six of Sweden’s nine goals came off crosses or corners.
Still, at almost 6-feet tall in her cleats, Ilestedt has long been a natural target in dead-ball situations. She’s just never been this efficient.
“It feels a bit unreal but I’m very pleased,” she said after building on a last-gasp goal in the opener against South Africa by nodding home two more in Sweden’s next contest, a 5-0 rout of Italy. “Maybe I didn’t expect three goals, but I know that’s one of my strengths and it’s something we’re working on a lot at training.”
Ilestedt didn’t score in the group finale versus Argentina and or shootout win over the U.S. following a scoreless 120 minutes in the round of 16. (She didn’t participate in the penalty-kick tiebreaker.)
But there she went playing hero again in the Blue and Yellow’s biggest test so far, opening the Swedes’ account in the first half of an eventual 2-1 quarterfinal win over Japan at Eden Park in Auckland. It’s been a remarkable month for a player who seemed to take a step backward at her last World Cup. After starting all four of Sweden’s games as a 22-year-old at Canada 2015, Ilestedt appeared in just three of seven games four years ago in France.
Ilestedt’s star-turn this summer hasn’t just been unlikely. It’s been nearly unprecedented. Only Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa has more goals at this World Cup. Miyazawa is obviously out of the tournament now, as are the only other players with four goals: France’s Kadidiatou Diani, Germany’s Alexandra Popp and the Netherlands Jill Roord.
“We hope Amanda will go all the way and win the Golden Boot,” Gerhardsson joked a few weeks ago.
It’s no laughing matter now. She might need two more games and a couple more goals to claim the award presented to the tourney’s top scorer, but the fact is Ilestedt actually has a realistic shot.
Never before has a defender finished any one of the 30 previous World Cups, men’s or women’s, with the most goals. Ilestedt’s four career World Cup strikes are already among the most of all time by a backline player; men’s legends Lothas Matthaus, Franz Beckenbauer (both Germany) and Fernando Hierro (Spain) are the only players with more.
Whether she ends up with the Golden Boot or not, Ilestedt’s goals have helped put Sweden on the brink of just its second-ever World Cup final. And while hoisting the trophy on Aug. 20 in Sydney is clearly Ilestedt’s ultimate goal, fans and opponents will be keeping an eye on her the rest of the way.
She might not be done scoring yet.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDougMcIntyre.
FIFA WORLD CUP WOMEN trending
Get more from FIFA Women’s World Cup Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more