June 27, 2018 / 6:27 PM / 19 days ago

Sweden step out of Zlatan's shadow

YEKATERINBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Swedish fans exploding with joy as their tall captain from the county of Scania smashes home a penalty is a familiar sight, but it is Andreas Granqvist and not Zlatan Ibrahimovic they have been cheering at the World Cup in Russia.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group F - Mexico vs Sweden - Zocalo Square, Mexico City, Mexico - June 27, 2018 Mexican soccer fans celebrate with a South Korean citizen. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

For all his individual brilliance, Ibrahimovic’s last two tournaments, the 2012 and 2016 European Championships, ended in ignominious failure, but the current squad have gone back to basics and are reaping the rewards.

They beat South Korea in their first game before a stoppage-time goal brought agonising defeat by Germany, and in the past era of cliques and divas that might have been it.

But shorn of the need to play to Ibrahimovic’s individual strengths since he retired from the national team after Euro 2016, the players embraced the all-for-one spirit on which their country is built.

Janne Andersson’s side will face Brazil, Serbia or Switzerland in the last 16, and their tight defensive system and muscular attack is capable of causing problems for any of the teams left in Russia.

Andersson is steeped in the nation’s rich soccer heritage. He has kept the books for small clubs, trained junior and women’s teams and won a surprise domestic league title with IFK Norrkoping in 2015.

Following the departures of record goal-scorer Ibrahimovic and previous coach Erik Hamren, Andersson reinstilled the sense of collective responsibility that is at the core of the sport in Sweden, and the players have responded.

One could hardly imagine Ibrahimovic, the ultimate sporting alpha male, shedding tears as Granqvist did following the 3-0 win over Mexico.

“It’s unreal. What a performance. We were very disappointed after Germany, but what a performance we did,” an emotional Granqvist said.

It is still a problem, both for Swedish society and its national teams, that they struggle to accommodate big personalities.

All too often, children with immigrant backgrounds feel they don’t belong, and there is little diversity in the boards of the country’s clubs.

But if there is one positive remaining from the Ibrahimovic era, it is that there are still traces of his boundless self-confidence in the squad.

When asked about who he would like to face in the last 16, Granqvist smiled.

“Brazil are a great team, but we’d prefer to meet them in the final,” he said.

Reporting by Philip O'Connor in Sochi, editing by Ed Osmond

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