ZAGREB, CROATIA - FEBRUARY 29: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden prior to the International Friendly between Croatia and Sweden on February 29, 2012 in Zagreb, Croatia. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Sweden find themselves in Group D for Euro 2012, which includes Ukraine, England and France. But if Zlatan Ibrahimovic keeps his wits about him, he could create enough magic to see the side through.
There's a story floating around the Balkans that, when Zlatan Ibrahimović was 17, he wanted to play for the national team of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Born in Sweden to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, young Zlatan could have played for any of the three national sides. But, as the story goes, the coach of the Bosnian team dismissed the striker, looking down his nose at Malmö FF, his club at the time. If this tale is true, Džemaludin Mušović must be the most hated man in Bosnia. Well, the most hated man connected to football, that is.
Instead Ibrahimović plays for the country of his birth, and man, Sweden fans must really appreciate the misjudgement of Mr. Mušović. With 76 caps for his country, the captain has scored 30 goals. After qualifying for Euro 2008, Ibra helped Sweden defeat Greece with a goal against the reigning champions. But the imposing forward scored just twice in 2010 World Cup qualification, and Sweden lost out on a place in South Africa.
This time around, though, Ibra scored five goals and provided three assists in the eight matches he played for Sweden. The country made it into the tournament by virtue of being the best second-placed team in the group stages -- but when Holland more or less demolishes the group, and the other sides are Hungary, Finland, Moldova and San Marino, it's not that difficult to find a way in. Still, should Sweden make an impression in Group D (which also includes co-hosts Ukraine, France and England), it'll be due in large part to Zlatan.
Ibrahimović is, without a doubt, the most valuable player for his club. AC Milan may have finished second in Italy this season, but a not-insignificant reason for that lower finish was the absence of Ibra to injury (and, let's be honest, to suspension). That, and the unwillingess of Max Allegri to play attacking football. When set free, Zlatan makes magic on the field. The top scorer in Serie A last season, the forward is able to use his sheer strength and athleticism to get himself into prime goal-scoring positions -- or to strike such fear in the heart of defenders that they commit hasty challenges, allowing Ibrahimović the opportunity to shoot (and almost certainly score) from the spot.
Make no mistake, though -- Ibra is not a simple poacher. This is a forward who will create goals from nowhere. They can come from a powerful shot thirty yards out. He'll take the ball upfield to go one-on-one with a terrified goalkeeper. Or he'll slot the ball in from such an impossible angle that you'll be forced to watch again and again, wondering how the Swede has bent the laws of geometry.
There's one weakness that plagues Zlatan, however, and it's one that opposing sides can easily use to their advantage. While most footballers grow out of their tempers as they age, Ibrahimović seems to be becoming even more firey. A sharp elbow or a flagrant slap could easily see Sweden's captain spending the majority of his time in Poland / Ukraine watching from the stands. Which would be a definite shame, as football is certainly more exciting when Ibra is involved.
National Team: Sweden
Club Team: AC Milan
Role in first team: Is there anyone else playing for Sweden besides Ibra?