Should Zlatan Ibrahimovic come out of retirement to play for Sweden in the World Cup?
Fans do a disservice to the Swedish squad by focusing on Ibrahimovic's possible return
Amidst the cacophony of jeers mixed with tears on an eventful night where Italy had failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Sweden celebrated on the hallowed San Siro turf. They had finally qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2006.
It was a shocking anti-climax as the European World Cup qualifiers comes to an end. Nobody predicted Italy to miss the flight to Russia next year.
With loads of talented players - enough to outfit two teams capable of competing in the qualifiers - the campaign was shipwrecked by the bizarre tactics and selections of coach Gian Piero Ventura.
However, make no mistake. It was also well and truly deserved for a Swedish side that had beaten overwhelming odds to finally clinch a ticket to the quadrennial event in Russia. It was the product of a complete team effort, resolute defending, and ironically overcoming Italy with their own brand of catenaccio.
But it wasn't just about this one playoff fixture. Sweden were never expected to get this far.
They were in Pot 3 when the draws were made for the qualifiers. They were drawn with France and managed to beat them in the group stages of the qualifiers. They also eliminated Netherlands - a team that finished third in 2014.
And yesterday, it was Italy's turn to give them safe passage. Sweden were so besides themselves that they had no idea how to celebrate - eventually gatecrashing a group of television panelists covering the game and hilariously destroying the set in a fit of stupor.
And amidst all this came the cries for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to return to the national side.
The Swedish striker had retired after they crashed out of Euro 2016 and has never put on the yellow shirt since. So why now?
Fans do a disservice to Sweden by focusing on Ibrahimovic
After the game, Janne Andersson was outraged when the media asked him whether Sweden's qualification would prompt Ibrahimovic to come out of retirement, seeing as he had missed the trip to Brazil in 2014.
It was Ibrahimovic's cryptic tweet that had toungues wagging as die-hard loyalists of the man with a cult following salivated at the chance of seeing their hero at a World Cup for the first (and last) time in over a decade.
"This is incredible! This player [Ibrahimovic] has just stopped to play with Sweden one year-and-a-half ago and we are still here talking about him?
"Gosh, we need to talk about the great players we have in this team I believe." - Janne Andersson
Andersson is absolutely right.
This is a Sweden side that has worked their socks off to qualify for the World Cup. They had defended with their lives against Italy who, in spite of their deficiencies in attack, did fashion a number of chances to make Sweden sweat.
This is a Swedish side that have improved without Ibrahimovic in their squad. With the focus no longer on one player, they have come together as a team to do what is required to get results.
Stepping into Ibrahimovic's shoes is no mean feat but it was ably handled by 31-year-old Marcus Berg. In spite of not plying his trade in Europe (he plays for UAE side Al-Ain), he still scored 8 goals in the qualifying campaign - the same number of goals as France's Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud combined.
Following Ibrahimovic's departure from the national team, Sweden had to (borrowing from a popular meme) improvise, adapt, and overcome. They changed their style of play with Andersson deploying a 4-4-2 with Berg up top and Ola Toivonen playing in support.
The qualifiers also heralded the coming of Emil Forsberg, who had also scored four times in the qualifiers. The 26-year-old RB Leipzig midfielder started games out on the left and cut inside often to influence play.
"We have many heroes tonight," Andersson said after Italy were eliminated. None more so than defender Andreas Granqvist who made 3 successful tackles, 5 interceptions and 10 clearances as Sweden held on.
So to focus on Ibrahimovic's possible return is doing a great disservice to the many players who got Sweden over the line in the qualifiers over 12 games.
Should Ibrahimovic return to the Swedish national team?
Ibrahimovic is Sweden's top goalscorer. But a return would upset this team's balance.
"If I listen to my ego, I have to say that when I played we were better. Without me, they are not so good. Now they started from scratch again, everybody has the chance to prove themselves."
"Without Ibrahimovic maybe they are more of a team now." - Zlatan Ibrahimovic
For what it's worth, it was a typical response from Ibrahimovic. Half-cocky but a realistic outlook on the current scenario from a man who loves to spin the media with his little finger.
The Manchester United striker is 36 and hasn't played a single minute of football since he injured his knee in April last season. Although his contract has been extended at Old Trafford, nobody knows how effective he will be when he returns to action.
He has posted numerous videos of his recovery but fans have blown his feats out of proportion. Most people can literally walk away from an ACL tear and lead normal lives; it's the 'playing' that eventually does the knee in.
Of course, Ibrahimovic is no normal human being. His physique and suppleness (attributed to his martial arts training back in the day) make him a model athlete. But whether he can continue in the same vein of form where he scored 28 goals for the Red Devils remains to be seen.
If he returned to the squad, Sweden would have to throw out all the preparation and homework they did while learning to play without him following his departure in 2016. It could do more harm than good.
Should the need arise (perhaps, due to injuries) and when there is no other option, Ibrahimovic could make himself available for selection. However, he has less than six months to prove he can still play at the highest level.
But until they are absolutely sure, Sweden are probably better off without their former talisman.