THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Striker now undisputed leader of team

icon ibrahimovic25 October ~ There are few constants in this fickle and mutable world, but Sweden's national team used to be one of them. Sensibly managed, cautiously egalitarian, always preferring defensive solidity to flamboyant risk-taking and individual flair, it seemed to be moulded after the old image of Sweden as the homeland of pragmatism and consensus politics. Former manager Lars Lagerback in his training ground wear and his hilariously drab statements used to be the manifestation of our way of life. However, since Erik Hamren took over in 2009 everything's changed.

Hamren sports the three-piece suit and the conspicuous and unseasonal tan of the door-to-door-vendor of astonishingly attractive investment opportunities, completing the picture with an unfortunate predilection for David Brent-style management-speak. His favourite maxim states the need to "behave like a winner, in order to be a winner". This has at times rung fairly hollow, especially combined with Hamren's irascibility when he runs out of motivational cliches.

His Sweden team have at times reminded one of the kind of fighting drunk that will gladly accept three blows in order to deliver one, and the only constant in this qualification has been the laughable goals conceded against the likes of the Faroe Islands and the Republic of Ireland.

However, Hamren has been saved so far by the emergence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic as someone who not only scores wonder goals at will against quality opposition, but as a patriarchal figure, in sharp contrast to the brooding, maverick role he's successfully cultivated so far. Unencumbered by former rivals Fredrik Ljungberg, Henrik Larsson and Olof Mellberg, Ibrahimovic has turned into the undisputed leader of a Sweden team that has confusingly morphed into one of the one-star Eastern European outfits we used to view with such amazement in the old days, something along the line of Gheorghe Hagi's Romania or Hristo Stoichkov's Bulgaria.

The idea seems to be for Ibrahimovic to single-handedly score more goals than our stupefied defenders can serve up to the opposition and, weirdly, it's worked so far. Ibrahimovic scored the goals that saved Sweden from embarrassment against the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan, as well as the decisive one against Austria that took the team into the play-offs.

Some of us are disoriented by all this, viewing former national manager Lagerback's Iceland as being like Yavin's Moon in the first Star Wars movie: the rebel base to which our best forces have fled while our home planet is occupied by the evil Empire. However, no one can deny that Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden are a totally unpredictable force. They could just as likely see off Portugal as be comprehensively thrashed by them.

In the away qualifier against Germany, Sweden were outplayed and four down against an obviously superior team, but still managed to equalise after a miraculous come-back. But in the return game, the Germans illustrated what any reasonably competent attack can achieve against this Swedish defence, by scoring four in 20 minutes once the Swedes had made the mistake of goading them into action by going two up. If Sweden manage to overcome these deficiencies and qualify for Brazil, it will have less to do with behaving like winners than the genius of one man. Jesper Högström

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