NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia – There will come a day when this Sweden team can rid itself of the albatross of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but it has not come yet. Sweden beat South Korea 1-0 on Monday, its first victory in the opening match of a World Cup since 1958. Two draws will see it through to the last 16 for the first time since 2006. It may not have been particularly fluent, but Janne Andersson’s side was compact and coherent, controlled the game and applied enough pressure to win. Yet even as the final whistle blew there were whispers on social media: what if Zlatan were there?
This is modern football, in which celebrity threatens to dwarf all sense. With Ibrahimovic, Sweden did not qualify in 2010 or 2014. This time, it not merely made it to Russia, but did so by beating France and the Netherlands in the group and then beating Italy in a playoff. With Ibrahimovic, Sweden was dreadful at Euro 2016, so bad that after two games it had managed only two shots on target, both from Ireland center back Ciaran Clark.
It's been a long time since Ibrahimovic was beneficial to Sweden, and the growing sense is that the internal dynamics of the side, psychologically and tactically, are healthier without Ibrahimovic.
“We’re a team, we really fight,” the Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist said. ‘We’re really running on behalf of each other.”
A quick survey of the (many) Swedish fans on the train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday suggested for them the issue of Zlatan is over–and perhaps should have been earlier than after the Euros.
“We’re better without him,” said a supporter named Pelle, who opened his first bottle of vodka at 9:58 a.m. local time. He looked to be around 60 and was proudly wearing the T-shirt of the Yellow Wall, one of two competing Swedish fan groups whose job seems largely to be to pick the pub in which fans will congregate. “Now we are a team.”
Ingvar, who owns a restaurant in Stockholm and was perhaps five or 10 years younger, restricted himself to coffee, but kept sending selfies to his wife to prove “I’m not drunk yet.”
He agreed that Sweden is better without Ibrahimovic, although he seemed to blame the 36-year-old rather less than many fans. Where others dismissed him for being “too old,” “too slow” and “too arrogant,” Ingvar suggested, “the other players were over-awed by him. That’s why everything became about Zlatan.”
There followed a lengthy discussion about what Ibrahimovic had ever done for the national side. There was his goal against Italy in Euro 2004, and his brilliant lobbed bicycle kick in a friendly against England, the fourth of the four goals he scored that night in a 4-2 win.
“Only a friendly,” said Jan, a Panama-hat wearing veteran of every tournament Sweden have qualified in the last two decades. “And only against Joe Hart.”
That seemed a wilfully mischievous comment, but it stirred Pelle. “Was it better than Toivonen against France?” That was an argument that drew widespread nodding. Nobody could claim Ola Toivonen, currently playing for Toulouse, is at remotely the same level of talent or celebrity as Ibrahimovic, but he did score a brilliant winner against France in qualifying, smacking a shot from the halfway line into an unguarded net after Hugo Lloris has scuffed a clearance after leaving his goal.
That, more than anything, broke Dutch hearts and secured second place in the group and a playoff spot for Sweden.
Toivonen has been much questioned, and his record of 13 goals from 58 internationals means he is far from prolific, operating from the position Ibrahimovic used to occupy behind Marcus Berg. But there was a broad consensus among Sweden fans that that one goal meant his effectiveness for his country was roughly the equal of Ibrahimovic’s. His work rate, similarly, gives Sweden a greater defensive presence higher up the pitch.
Ibrahimovic, clearly, is a wonderful player–nobody who is not can win 11 league titles with five different clubs–but he is also a myth, an icon of his own creation. He kept fans in media in suspense as he proclaimed he may be at the World Cup–and he is indeed in Russia, but as a Visa sponsorship tool. As he has aged and become increasingly skilled at playing the media, so the myth has grown. And as Ibrahimovic has slowed, so a gulf has emerged between the projected image and the reality. Even in that first season at Manchester United, in which he scored 17 goals in 28 games, Ibrahimovic seemed of dubious value. He scored chances, but he missed them as well, and his lack of movement made United sluggish and predictable, leading to that series of draws in games United has ostensibly dominated.
The extraordinary volley–and offside header–he scored on his debut for the LA Galaxy didn’t change that, didn’t signal a new lease of life. That’s what he does: moments of eye-catching brilliance that occlude long periods in which he doesn’t really do much. That may excite a generation that consumes its football in GIFs and YouTube clips, but in a Sweden side founded on solid organization and hard work, there is no place for such intermittent involvement.