Euro 2012: Sweden's hopes rest on Ibrahimovic

In between two of Sweden's European Championship qualifiers last year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic invited the entire team to his house for a barbecue, serving up a wild boar he had shot himself.

Updated: May 13, 2012 16:17 IST
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Stockholm, Sweden: In between two of Sweden's European Championship qualifiers last year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic invited the entire team to his house for a barbecue, serving up a wild boar he had shot himself.

The team better hope his shots deliver some more big-game trophies in Ukraine.

Sweden will enter Euro 2012 counting heavily on "Ibra" to provide the spectacular, and the team's fate is largely tied to the play of the AC Milan striker. As its only true star, leading scorer and captain, Ibrahimovic is Sweden's clear focal point and biggest threat — an asset that makes them dangerous for any opponent, but also threatens to make them one-dimensional.

For group opponents England, France and Ukraine, the plan is simple: Stop Ibrahimovic, and they'll probably stop Sweden as well.

"You can always view something as a problem or an opportunity," Sweden coach Erik Hamren told The Associated Press. "For me, it's about seeing the opportunities. Zlatan is a world-class player who gives us opportunities. He's the kind of player who can decide a game, the kind of player every team wishes they had."

And the type of player Hamren wishes he had more of.

With Henrik Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg out of the picture, Ibrahimovic is the only member of the Sweden squad playing for a top-level European club these days. The backbone of the Sweden lineup is made up of players like Lyon midfielder Kim Kallstrom, Sunderland winger Sebastian Larsson and Galatasaray forward Johan Elmander — who are all capable of producing goals but are unlikely to strike much fear in opposing teams. A handful of other players, like playmaker Rasmus Elm and forward Ola Toivonen, can be found in the Dutch league.

"We may have had more big individual players in previous years, playing in bigger clubs than we have now," Hamren said. "But that doesn't mean that our team is worse. ... This is a team that is ready to work extremely hard for each other. That is our true strength."

Still, one of the first things Hamren did when he took over Sweden following its failure to reach the 2010 World Cup was to make it clear that this is Ibrahimovic's team.

The temperamental striker had quit international play following that failed qualifying campaign, but Hamren lured him back with the promise of the captain's armband and a more free role at the center of the attack. While Ibrahimovic has been Sweden's top player for the last decade, previous coach Lars Lagerback preferred to have players like Ljungberg or defender Olof Mellberg wear the armband and centered the attack as much on Larsson as on "Ibra."

The 30-year-old Ibrahimovic responded to Hamren's challenge by leading Sweden with five goals in eight games in qualifying and has become more of a leader off the field as well, taking on a bigger role in dealing with media and welcoming new players to the squad — or welcoming the entire team to his house.

"He's done a fantastic job as captain," Hamren said. "Not least for the younger players, he takes a great responsibility for them. ... You have to remember, a lot of these younger players grew up with him as their idol."

In Sweden's last game in February — a 3-1 friendly win over fellow Euro 2012 qualifier Croatia — Hamren experimented by putting Ibrahimovic in more of a playmaking role rather than at center forward. He dominated that game, scoring one goal and setting up the other two, and said he would like to continue playing as a No. 10 at Euro 2012.

"I get the ball a lot more. When I'm up there (as a lone striker), the balls are harder to receive," Ibrahimovic said. "Here, I get the chance to get the ball on my feet, turn around and attack with speed. That's what I want to do."

While Ibrahimovic has said he wants to continue playing through the 2014 World Cup, this could be his last chance at leading Sweden to international success. And he does have a few exciting up-and-coming players to help him out.

Elm has impressed for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league and has been linked with a move to a top Premier League club for next season. While he has only scored one goal in 22 appearances for Sweden, he could be set for an international breakthrough in Kiev, where Sweden will play all three of its group matches.

Then there's John Guidetti, the 20-year-old Manchester City striker who scored 20 goals in 23 games while on loan at Feyenoord this season — including hat tricks in three straight home games.

Guidetti has been lauded as perhaps Sweden's biggest talent since Ibrahimovic, and made his international debut in the friendly against Croatia.

While Guidetti is struggling to get fit from a right leg injury, he is one player that Ibrahimovic wants to see in the squad.

"He's an exciting player," Ibrahimovic said. "Every team has to have a young joker, and he's our joker."

But "Ibra" is still the ace.

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  • Football
  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic
  • Alou Diarra
  • Lech Poznan
  • Sweden
  • Euro 2012

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