Between 2007 and 2016, the Swedish Football of the Year awards ceremony was a one-man show. For ten consecutive years, Zlatan Ibrahimovic took home the trophy, and nobody could contest that he deserved it.
Yet it was uncharacteristic of Swedish football for one man to have such dominance over the accolade. No other footballer had ever won the award more than twice. Not Tomas Brolin, not Henrik Larsson, not Freddie Ljungberg.
Zlatan was cut from a different cloth, and it would be difficult to claim that his effect on Sweden’s national team was anything but positive. Yet between his debut in 2001 and his retirement in 2016, Sweden never won a knockout match at a major tournament.
At their first World Cup since Zlatan stepped down, Sweden have laid that ghost to rest. Their last 16 victory over Switzerland was their first knockout win since the 1994 World Cup, when they reached the semi finals. Only England now stand in the way of a repeat performance this summer.
In the post-Zlatan era, Sweden have no standout individuals. The highest scoring striker in their squad is Marcus Berg, with 18 international goals. If the team has a star player, it is centre back Andreas Granqvist, the captain and undoubtedly one of the best defenders of the World Cup so far.
These players seem happier and freer than they did in the waning years of Zlatan. Once they looked to him for inspiration, and at his peak he was happy to oblige, most famously with that incredible four-goal haul that demolished England in 2012.
But at Euro 2016, they were still looking to him as their leader, and he no longer had the ability to carry the team on his shoulders. Sweden’s only goal at that tournament was a Ciaran Clark own goal against Ireland; Zlatan managed just one shot on target across three games. It was clear that he had to retire for the good of the team.
Zlatan’s departure has not magically transformed his former teammates into world-beaters. Granqvist plays for the Russian side Krasnodar; Berg is at Al Ain in the UAE; four of the squad play in the English Championship. Manchester United’s Victor Lindelof is the only one who will be playing Champions League football next season.
It’s a ragtag bunch, but a very united one. The squad rallied behind Jimmy Durmaz, the winger with Turkish heritage, as he responded to race-fuelled death threats for giving away the free kick that resulted in Germany’s late winner in the group stages.
At manager Janne Andersson’s instruction, the squad’s buzzword in media interactions is ‘collective’. Like Gareth Southgate, Andersson has been keen to keep the press onside, encouraging his players to participate in the sort of laid-back interviews that Zlatan balked at.
If Ibrahimovic defined the talented but underachieving Sweden of the mid-noughties, Granqvist defines this new collective. It was he who ended Zlatan’s streak by winning the Swedish Player of the Year award for 2017. Granqvist is something of a throwback for Sweden – humble, hardworking, and decidedly Viking in appearance.
Known as the Christmas tree in his home country, Granqvist got the party started with Sweden’s first goal of the tournament, a penalty against South Korea. He also scored from the spot in the group decider against Mexico, and his defensive performances have been every bit as important.
Granqvist acknowledges that Zlatan was one of the best players of his generation, maybe a talent that Sweden will never see the likes of again. But he also recognises that this team is proving greater than the sum of its parts.
“We’ve lost one of the world’s best football players,” the former Wigan defender is quoted as saying by the Evening Standard. “But with Janne, we’ve built, laid a foundation over the two years of qualification. We fight for each other, we’ve shown that very clearly as a team — we can be very strong, we can get good results.”
“She doesn’t want me to come home, she wants me to be here playing football so I’m just listening to her. I will play the quarter-finals for sure.”
– Andreas Granqvist on his wife giving birth… pic.twitter.com/jkddlIqsfN
— FourFourTweet (@FourFourTweet) July 6, 2018
Granqvist’s wife Sofie gave birth for the second time in the early hours of Thursday morning. The 33-year-old had considered returning home for the birth, but his wife encouraged him to stay in Russia. He now has one more person to make proud on Saturday.
Those making England clear favourites for the game in Samara should be wary, for this is a Sweden team that fears nobody. They were the only side to beat France in qualifying, finished ahead of the Netherlands in their group, and overcame Italy in a two-legged playoff.
Even after achieving all of that, Sweden were still pondering a recall for Zlatan as recently as April. Managing director Lars Richt called the LA Galaxy man to see if he would consider return for the World Cup, but he closed the door on that possibility after months of teasing.
Not that Sweden were still pining for their blue-eyed boy. Andersson had long since made it clear that he would be reluctant to recall Zlatan even if he’d made himself available, and a poll earlier this year revealed that two thirds of Sweden fans agreed with him.
That number will now be closer to three thirds because of what Sweden have achieved this summer. Though of course, if Sweden lose to England because of missed chances, Zlatan’s name will inevitably crop up again. His is not a spectre which can be easily exorcised.
But there are new memories to cherish now, and new heroes to be proud of. What Zlatan achieved in his career was indeed remarkable, but what Sweden are doing in Russia is equally so. BBC Sport pundit Pat Nevin believes that England would beat Sweden 99 times out of 100. Based on what they’ve achieved so far, Sweden will take their chances with that 1%.