As their 3-2 victory over the
Netherlands showed when they qualified, Sweden are far from a
one-man team, but Milan forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic casts a long
shadow over Erik Hamren's side.
Always a controversial figure in Sweden, his absence for
that victory over the Dutch had many commentators suggesting
that Sweden played better without the big striker.
But there is little chance that coach Hamren will drop one
of Serie A's most prolific scorers of the last decade.
The 30-year-old has divided opinion since he burst onto the
Swedish football scene with hometown club Malmo FF in 1999.
Flamboyant, outspoken, and outrageously talented, the most
common description of him in Swedish media during the early part
of his career was 'un-Swedish' - it was not always clear if this
was a positive or negative attribute.
Not that it bothered Ibra. He moved swiftly from Malmo to
Ajax Amsterdam where he continued his footballing education, but
it was in Italy that he became a household name, winning title
after title with Juventus, Inter and AC Milan.
The only blip in his prestigious career was a short spell at
Barcelona, where the individualist Ibra had a hard time.
Used to being the big fish in a small pond, Zlatan found it
tough to adapt to the Catalan collective despite a good start to
his career at the Camp Nou.
A move back to Italy and Serie A saw a return to form and
his experience and leadership were rewarded with the captain's
armband for his country.
It was not a unanimously popular decision - in true Zlatan
style, opinion was divided as to whether such an individualist
was the right man lead the Sweden's team, until then firmly
rooted in the collective consensus.
There have also been doubts about the influence he exerts
over other players, particularly the younger ones - many of them
are in awe of Ibra and his achievements and defer to him on and
off the pitch.
What has never been in doubt is his ability to score goals,
and he has netted 30 in 76 internationals for his country.
Perhaps more than any other striker in Europe, it is the wide
range of goals he scores that is most remarkable.
His powerful free-kicks and penalties make him a threat from
set pieces, and he is happy to shoot with either foot from well
outside the box. He is also an excellent header of the ball.
An injury-time rocket from the most acute of angles against
Hungary in 2009 is now part of Swedish folklore, as is his
back-heel to claim a point against Italy at the 2004 Euro
Long dismissed in England as over-rated, his improved range
of passing was never more apparent than in this season's first
Champions League meeting with Arsenal, when he was instrumental
in a 4-0 victory.
Sweden coach Erik Hamren has used recent friendlies to
deploy Ibra as a playmaker rather than a target-man, allowing
him to create chances for others as well as score himself.
Now the wrong side of 30, opportunities are running out if
Zlatan wants to make a lasting impression on the world stage.
Opinion might still be divided, but he has been a winner all
through his career, and he will once again be seeking to prove
his critics wrong in Ukraine this summer.
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