STOCKHOLM, June 5 (Reuters) - 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 soccer 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 finals.
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. (Editing by Mike Collett)