EURO 2020: Sweden returns to life without Ibrahimovic

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Sweden was just starting to dream a little bigger ahead of the European Championship with its greatest ever player back in the squad after Zlatan Ibrahimovic ended his five-year international retirement in March.

All that optimism has been punctured, though, after the 39-year-old Ibrahimovic ruled himself out of the tournament last month because of a knee injury.

So, Sweden is back to square one after a frenzied two months of Zlatan-mania.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

OK, Ibrahimovic had slipped seamlessly into his new role as simply one of the gang in the Sweden squad in his first days back in the yellow and blue of the national team.

“I’m just a piece of the puzzle,” he said in March during his first week back, when he played in low-key World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Kosovo and set up three goals.

For arguably the most brash, self-confident soccer player around — he marked coming out of international retirement by writing on Twitter: “The return of the God” — there did appear to be a change in his attitude.

Would Euro 2020 have been a different story, though, when the eyes of the sporting world were on him once more? His teammates — many of whom regard Ibrahimovic as their sporting icon and grew up wanting to be him — would have expected more. The country would have expected more. The casual soccer fan would have expected more.

There’s no chance of it being “The Zlatan Show” now. For Sweden coach Janne Andersson, that might mean simply going back to the approach that hardly served the team badly without Ibrahimovic.

After all, Andersson led Sweden to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2018 without the country’s record scorer. During the 4½ years Ibrahimovic was away, Sweden established a new identity and better team ethic. Play no longer went through one individual.

Players came out of their shells. Like striker Alexander Isak and wide midfielders Emil Forsberg and Dejan Kulusevski, exciting attackers who can make a difference in their own right.

Of course, Ibrahimovic is still among the world’s standout strikers, as he has showed with AC Milan in Serie A this season. He is from that rare breed of players who can create something out of nothing.

And it would have been fun watching Sweden take on Spain, Poland and Slovakia in Group E with Ibrahimovic leading the line.

Sweden quickly needs to move on. Who knows, Ibrahimovic’s absence may yet prove a blessing in disguise.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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