STOCKHOLM: The show must go on for Sweden as its national football team is set to face France in Paris on Friday without its superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“There is a future after Zlatan,” Sweden’s sports minister Gabriel Wikstrom told AFP. “I am sure there will be new fantastic football players from Sweden. We’ve had them before.”
After a dismal showing at Euro-2016, Sweden’s all-time high scorer in June put an end to his 116-cap international career, in which he has scored 62 goals, leaving big football cleats to fill.
The Swedes are now turning the page to begin the post-Zlatan era, leaving the national team to launch not only a new line of attack but a rejigged team after the retirement of other key players.
Wikstrom said this would pave the way for more team work following “Zlatan’s domination of Swedish sports”.
“We have a team with cooperation,” Wikstrom said. “The point is that (we) stand together … the team will be able to perform better.”
Sweden’s draw with the Netherlands (1-1), a narrow but important victory against Luxembourg (1-0) and a strong showing against Bulgaria (3-0) gave the impression that the national team is growing well, keeping it safe from criticism.
For Ibrahimovic, Sweden is no longer a place to play football, but he could come to the annual football awards on November 21, where a tribute to his international career is in the making. He could then win the prestigious National Golden Ball award for the 11th time.
The yellow and blue team cannot afford the luxury of nostalgia, as it faces a tough game in France on Friday.
“It’s going to be a difficult match. France has many world stars in its team,” Wikstrom said. “I believe in Swedish victory.”
– ‘Many good laughs’ –
Without Ibrahimovic, known for his large grin and fierce attitude when facing the press, everything has become less colourful around the team.
“I almost miss Zlatan Ibrahimovic…he gave us many good laughs,” Swedish journalist Fredrik Jonsson told on Aftonbladet TV after a dull news conference.
The public most likely shares his opinion, as fewer than 22,000 people tuned in to watch Sweden’s match against Bulgaria last month.
Ibrahimovic is the man everyone thinks of all the time but do not talk about, or at least as a Premier League striker.
His every match with Manchester United is dissected carefully, perhaps even more so than during his time in Paris. But few people will ask him to come back, as there is too much respect for his choice, at the age of 35, to avoid the strains of international football.
But in his working class neighbourhood of Rosengard in Malmo, with a high immigrant population, veneration for Ibrahimovic is still the same.
“It’s Zlatan who fixes the whole team. Without him it’s not worth watching,” Ahmad Ali, a 17-year-old fan, told AFP. “I might watch highlights or something,” he said, referring to Friday’s game against France.
For 29-year-old Massar Nazam, who will watch the game on TV, there is hope of new superstars emerging in Sweden.
“Zlatan leaving the Swedish football team means Sweden has to find new players, it has to find a solution to the problem,” he said.