Sam Marsden, Barcelona correspondentJul 28, 2023, 03:30 AM ET

UPPER HUTT, New Zealand – Sweden and Bayern Munich defender Magdalena Eriksson has a target on her back. “Everyone wants to beat Magdalena,” her Sweden teammate Olivia Schough says.

Eriksson and Scough are both part of the Sweden squad that hope to win the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, but they are fierce rivals when it comes to what has been dubbed “The Alternative World Cup,” a Cornhole competition that has gripped the camp between games. In the run-up to Sweden’s nervy 2-1 win in their opener against South Africa, the Cornhole “group stage” took place, with the knockout rounds being played this week ahead of their second World Cup match against Italy at Wellington Regional Stadium.

Cornhole is a simple game, but one that’s stirring strong emotions among the Sweden players. The competition is ferocious; there have been tantrums and wild celebrations, while both players and coaching staff have come up with far-fetched reasons not to take part because they can’t handle the idea of losing.

Avgörandet när Jennifer Falk och Rebecka Blomqvist vinner Cornhole-VM! 🌽🏆@JenniferMFalk 💯🔥#SWE #FIFAWWC

— Svensk Fotboll (@svenskfotboll) July 27, 2023

The idea for the competition was proposed by team psychologist Rasmus Liljeblad as a way to help cure the boredom that can set in when you are away from home for potentially more than 40 days. For Sweden, whose base camp is in the quiet town of Upper Hutt, some 20 miles north of Wellington, that was a particular danger; therefore, they sought ideas to keep the players entertained. There are table tennis tables, a basketball court and a massive indoor screen alongside one of the training pitches where they can play interactive games. There is also an area where they can practice their golf swing.

However, Cornhole is the one activity that’s created a frenzy across the squad.

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Teams of two – some opted for a three-player squad – met in a “group stage” before this week’s playoffs. The games take place in the players’ lounge, using boards branded with the national team’s crest. The aim is to throw a small hand-held sack through the hole in the board. If you manage that, you get three points. If the sack lands on the board, you get one point. The winning team is the first to 21 points.

The game is popular in the United States, one of the seldom-seen sports from around the world that features annually on “ESPN 8: The Ocho.” The American Cornhole League events, which are broadcast globally, allow ACL pros to team up with celebrities for the competition: maybe the winners of Sweden’s Alternative World Cup could get an invite next year?

Eriksson, who recently left Chelsea for Bayern Munich, hopes she will be in the running when the final comes around. “It’s extremely competitive, as you can imagine,” she told ESPN. “We don’t know who is the best yet. We are coming into the playoffs now after a very tight group stage.”

Slutspelet inlett i cornhole-VM! 🌽

Här säkrar Amanda Ilestedt, Zećira Mušović och Tove Enblom semifinalplatsen efter att ha vänt 6-20 till vinst 23-20 💪#SWE #FIFAWWC

— Svensk Fotboll (@svenskfotboll) July 26, 2023

After a tough start, Eriksson and her partner, Barcelona forward Fridolina Rolfo, progressed to the knockout rounds, although they needed a win over the team’s physios to kickstart their campaign. “If we had lost that, I think we would have withdrawn from the tournament,” Eriksson added. “We wouldn’t have deserved to be included.”

Rosengard midfielder Schough, part of a team with defender Linda Sembrant and Sweden captain Caroline Seger, is waiting for Eriksson in the next round. “We had an easy group stage, four out of four wins,” Schough told ESPN. “We are a strong team, but now we are facing Magdalena and Fridolina. [Eriksson] is a tough one, but I am very excited to beat her.

“Of course there is a fun side, but we always want to win … and everyone wants to beat Magdalena.”

Once the competition is over, there may still be some debate about who is the best. That’s because Everton right-back Nathalie Bjorn and Manchester City midfielder Filippa Angeldal are not taking part.

Bjorn and Angeldal have known each other since they were six. They have gone on to play in an Olympics, a European Championship and now a World Cup together, but perhaps more importantly, they won the inaugural Cornhole competition, which took place at a camp before the World Cup. Given their 20-year relationship, they might have already had an advantage over their teammates, though some previous training with Bjorn’s dad also helped hone their skills.

“My dad plays a little bit at home in Sweden, in Uppsala,” Bjorn told ESPN. “He took me at Christmas, with Filippa and her girlfriend, and we went and played and had a competition against other players.”

So why are they not trying to retain their crown? “I already won once,” she added. “This time I felt like I can be a coach or referee and just see because I get easily bored. I can play two games and not be focused anymore. I just thought no, I am just going to watch now.”

Eriksson is not so sure. “They don’t want to come back and do worse after winning the last tournament,” is her opinion. That gives an idea of how competitive the games can become.

“We have some players that get so angry and frustrated which is just funny to watch,” Bjorn said. “You sit on the sidelines and just laugh. I would say everyone here is so competitive, so it’s hard to name one or two because it’s the whole team. When they are going to throw the bag and it goes somewhere else, it’s just bad words coming out.”

While some members of the backroom staff are involved, the coaching staff are not. Schough jokes that we should ask assistant manager Magnus Wikman why he didn’t sign up.

“I like to play and I think I am quite good,” Wikman laughed when asked by ESPN. “But in this situation, I think it’s bad for the players to play [with me] because I talk a lot with them and [have to make decisions], so I think it’s better I don’t compete. If I lose, I am not going to control my emotions and that’s not good for the players!”

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Ultimately, the silliness and competitive Cornhole helps take some of the pressure off a group of players who headed to New Zealand with heady expectations placed on their shoulders by those back home in Sweden. Peter Gerhardsson’s side are ranked third in the FIFA rankings and have a rich history in the women’s game. They were runners-up at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and finished third at the World Cup in France four years ago. There is a demand for them to go far this summer.

“It is important to do these type of things as a team, to not always only think about football,” Eriksson said. “Talking from my own perspective, I know I can be quite obsessive about football so I need things to distract myself and other competitions.

“It is a really nice way to get the group together. These games have been the highlights of the evenings. It’s been fun and now we have the playoffs, so I will keep you updated.”