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No more Swede dreams as Zlatan prepares to quit national side

Football Soccer - Euro 2016 - Sweden Training - Allianz Riviera Stadium - Nice, France - 21/6/16 - Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic during training. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Football Soccer - Euro 2016 - Sweden Training - Allianz Riviera Stadium - Nice, France - 21/6/16 - Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic during training. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Philip O'Connor

LILLE, France (Reuters) - It was has been looming on the horizon for some time, but now the day that Swedish fans have been dreading is almost here -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic will quit the national team as soonas they are knocked out of Euro 2016.

And with a tough final Group E game against Belgium in Nice on Wednesday, the 34-year-old may be departing sooner rather than later.

He will say goodbye having left an indelible mark on Swedish football: his nation's all-time top scorer with 62 goals in 115 internationals, many of them spectacular.

He broke the mould of the Swedish game, blowing away the cobwebs after decades of collectivism and paving the way for individual brilliance -- and cockiness.

Often ridiculed in the international press for his proclamations about his own brilliance, in Sweden he can do little wrong.

Few dare to criticise him at all, and newspapers sell better if their front page includes a headline about the Malmo-born striker. But for all his success at club level, where he has harvested trophies at Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint Germain, his time in the national team has been less fruitful.After a promising start under the pragmatic Lars Lagerback, who is now in charge of Iceland, Ibrahimovic has spent the last six years being indulged by both the Swedish FA and coach Erik Hamren, with mixed results.

On two occasions he has led his side to the Euro finals, but in 2012 -- and in the current competition -- the Swedes have fallen well short of expectations.

During that period they have also missed out on two World Cups, with Zlatan famously opining that the 2014 tournament in Brazil would not be worth watching because he was not playing – despite the fact he had not scored at either of his World Cup finals appearances.

But none of this matters to fans in Sweden, where he is almost universally adored.

His debut was unspectacular, a goalless draw with the Faroe Islands in front of a meagre crowd, but from that inauspicious beginning he has gone on to become a major figure in the game.

He gives few interviews when with the national team, yet fans hang on his every word. His pre-match press conferences, such as the one on Tuesday when he announced his international retirement, are broadcast live on the internet by a variety of outlets.

The absence of Zlatan for friendlies at the Friends Arena, where he scored a stunning volley to round off a four-goal salvo against England, has a marked effect on ticket sales, and the Swedish FA faces some dark times ahead as it prepares for life after "Ibra".

The team he leaves behind is much poorer than the one with which he scored his first goal, in a World Cup qualifier in the old Rasunda Stadium in Solna in 2002.

But having won the U21 European Championships last year, there his a glimmer of hope for the Swedes.

Though none of them is anywhere near as good, the next generation of Swedish players has grown up with the tall, powerful striker as their undoubted idol, and for many the goal would have been to play alongside him in the gold of Sweden.

But now that arguably Sweden’s greatest player of all time is set to depart the stage, the battle will be on to see who can take his place in the hearts of the nation.

(Writing by Philip O'Connor,; Editing by Neville Dalton)

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