It’s time to give Sweden the credit they deserve. A team once lead by a “god” has fared much better without the LA Galaxy hitman Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
A man (some would say) with 116 international caps and 62 goals would surely help his nation at the most prestigious international tournament in sport right? This is up for debate but the rest of his countrymen haven’t missed a beat without him.
His last game was at the 2016 Euros in France against Belgium. It was a 1-0 win for the Red Devils and Zlatan didn’t have his dream swansong. His Sweden finished at the bottom of their group mustering up just 1 point behind the likes of Italy, Belgium, and Ireland to crash out of the tournament. Finishing without a goal and recording only one shot on target he subsequently announced his retirement.
Since that date Sweden have been even stronger without him with a record of 14 wins 6 draws and 7 losses in all matches. But they have fared even better when it really counts with 10 wins 3 draws and 3 losses all competitive matches. These competitive matches all come from World Cup Qualifying and the 2018 World Cup itself. (Stats via us.soccerway.com)
Looking at their qualifying group most (including myself) thought they would finish 3rd behind France and the Netherlands. Most were in fact wrong as they finished tied on points with Le Orange at 19 but edged out the Dutchmen on goal differential to set-up a home and away playoff with Gigi Buffon’s Italy.
Italy finished behind Spain in qualifying and were a shoe-in to beat a Zlatanless Sweden which would allow Gigi the chance to play at a record fifth World Cup. However without the main targetman for Italy to focus in on and shutdown Sweden played total team football and outstanding defense lead by their GK Robin Olsen and won the first leg 1-0 at the Friends Arena in Solna. This setup a showdown at the Stadio San Siro in Milan (where Zlatan called home twice at the club level with a stint for Inter Milan followed by a stint for AC Milan). With Zlatan looking on in the crowd recovering from a serious knee injury Sweden out Italy’d Italy and held Gli Azzurri to a goalless draw. They had done the impossible and taken down a giant in the process crushing my hopes of seeing my country win a fifth World Cup. Still to this day the tears on Gigi’s face on that fateful night in Milan show football is much more than a game.
Sweden got through qualifying and past Italy playing as a team and not as a one-man show. This has carried over to the World Cup in Russia where they have only conceded 2 goals in 4 games and are on to the quarterfinals to face a youthful exciting England side who just broke their penalty shoot out curse in the quarterfinals Saturday at 10 am (EST). They beat South Korea 1-0 and got their hearts broken by a Toni Kroos wondergoal and Germany 2-1 on the last kick of the game. Needing a multi-goal win, they beat group leaders Mexico 3-0 to advance to the round of 16 to set up a match-up with Switzerland. Another achievement without the King of achievements. Another game where they were considered underdogs but showed their resilience and kept a clean sheet yet again with a 1-0 win in Saint-Petersburg with their goal scored by their new star Emil Forsberg.
Football, Soccer, Calcio, whatever one calls it is truly a team game and with what we’ve seen so far in Russia this could not be more true. We’ve seen the two best players in the world head home early just like Zlatan’s Sweden in years past. Total team football is the formula for success in the international game and Sweden, maybe just maybe have figured something out.