Few players have occupied as singular a role for their national teams as Zlatan Ibrahimovic has for Sweden. The towering striker has scored 62 goals in 116 matches for the Swedes, making him the nation’s all-time leading scorer. He’s also had one of the most decorated club careers in world soccer, winning titles with top teams in Holland, Italy, Spain, France and England.
Ibrahimovic, who is currently with MLS side LA Galaxy, announced his retirement from international soccer following Sweden’s disappointing exit from Euro 2016. However, when Sweden qualified for its first World Cup since 2006, there were calls, many seemingly from Ibrahimovic himself, for the striker and former team captain to be reinstated.
After all, who wouldn’t want to have a larger-than-life, talismanic striker whose résumé includes successful stints at Barcelona, Manchester United and AC Milan in their team heading into a major tournament? Even if he is 36 years old, Ibrahimovic’s performances with the Galaxy suggest he’d at least be a capable option to bring off the bench when in the hunt for a late-game match winner or equalizer.
Just check this out.
Ibrahimovic’s over-the-top personality — he typically refers to himself either in the third person or as a “Lion,” or sometimes “The Lion” — and goal-scoring prowess continues to cast a long shadow over Sweden. It’s no wonder then that the prevailing question on many people’s minds regarding the team heading into the World Cup was, “Why isn’t Zlatan coming?”
Ibrahimovic himself fanned the flames, making cryptic statements about being at the World Cup. He is, as it turns out, although only as part of a promotional campaign for VISA. Even Sweden midfielder Emil Forsberg admitted Sweden would be “better” with Ibrahimovic in the team.
And yet, in its first appearance in a major international tournament without its former talisman since 2002, Sweden has comfortably topped a tough group that included defending champion Germany, perennial CONCACAF hopeful Mexico and a South Korea side ranked near the top of the Asian federation.
The current crop of Sweden players may lack an obvious figurehead like Ibrahimovic who can change games on his own. But manager Janne Andersson’s well-drilled team plays together well and has thus far gotten the job done. It looked especially impressive in derailing a red-hot El Tri side that had won its first two matches in some style.
A quick reminder that this is also a team that came in second in its group in qualifying, behind France, which eliminated a Netherlands side that had finished second and third in the last two World Cups. That put Sweden through to a playoff, which it had to win to qualify and did.
The team it beat in that playoff? Four-time World Cup winner Italy.
Sweden also handed France its only loss in qualifying.
The Swedes nonetheless started off slow in Russia and needed a VAR-awarded penalty to get past South Korea. Following the loss to Germany, which would have probably been a draw had the ref taken Jerome Boateng’s foul on a charging Marcus Berg to VAR, Ibrahimovic commented that he could “do it much better than” the current Sweden team.
But while Ibrahimovic’s record at club level is on par with just about anyone’s, yes even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, his record in international competition suggests that might not necessarily be the case.
In its last two World Cups with Ibrahimovic in the team, Sweden failed to make it out of the group. And, surprisingly, Ibrahimovic has never found the back of the net in a World Cup match. His record at European championships is better, but only slightly. While Ibrahimovic has scored six goals at four European championships, Sweden has won just two games combined in the last three editions of the Euros he appeared in.
The question of whose decision it ultimately was to leave Ibrahimovic out of the Swedish World Cup team this summer remains a little murky. While it was the player who retired from the national team two years ago, his constant press flirtations with the idea of rejoining it for the World Cup seemed to suggest he was open to a return.
Although the official statement from the Swedish Football Association indicated it was Ibrahimovic who declined the opportunity of a World Cup comeback.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic has previously said no to playing for the national team — and he hasn’t changed his mind. I talked to Zlatan on Tuesday. He told me he hasn’t changed his mind regarding playing for the national team — it’s still a no,” said the team’s sporting director, Lars Richter, in the statement.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic is therefore, for the same reason as previous national team gatherings, not a candidate for the World Cup squad that coach Janne Andersson will present on May 15.”
Whether the decision to not recall Ibrahimovic to the team rests with the player, the coach or the Swedish soccer federation, it’s turning out to have been the right one.
Sweden faces the runner-up in Group E next Thursday, July 3 at Saint Petersburg Stadium.
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