When the tall, lean Swedish striker, a shock of dark hair set against his bright yellow jersey, leapt into the air in the opening minutes against Nigeria, fans in Al Ain’s Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium might, for one brief second, have thought they were watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself.
But it wasn’t the renegade PSG striker telescoping out a long leg to score, Taekwondo-style. It was unheralded teenage sensation Valmir Berisha, a rising star in Sweden’s youth set-up. “He has everything, Zlatan does” the youngster, who scored twice in the 3-3 draw with the Golden Eaglets, told FIFA.com about Ibrahimovic, the hero he models his game after. “He’s smart. He scores. He runs right and nobody can touch the ball when he has it. He’s just fantastic.”
The parallels between the two players are many, and go beyond their shared position and the national-team jersey they wear. Berisha was born in Albania before coming to Sweden with his family at a young age, while Ibra has roots in Bosnia and Croatia. Young Berisha is combative. He won’t hesitate to get into an opponent's face and tell him what he thinks. He even gave the referee a piece of his mind in the 1-0 loss to Mexico, arguing that his team were getting the short end of the calls against a wily El Tri.
And like Ibra, there’s no lack of confidence in Berisha, who wears a rogue’s smile and talks straight. “We are a very good team, both in attack and defence,” said the striker from club side Halmstads, who likes to drop back and link into the midfield, and is deadly in the air. “The Nigerians thought when they played us, ‘oh, it’s just little Sweden and I’m sure we’ll win.’ Some of their players even told us that when we saw them around the hotel. We showed them we could play football, even though I think we should have taken all three points.”
He’s tough too. A Google search of ‘Valmir Berisha’ returns a picture of the player, his face mangled and bandaged from a broken nose he suffered in the European qualifiers. “I tried to head a high ball, but I got pushed and ended up heading a big Swiss defender’s skull instead,” he said, laughing about the injury now. “I had to wear a mask for the rest of the tournament, and it was too big so I couldn’t see anything!”
Better with every game
Perhaps his protective blindfold is the reason he didn’t score in the European junior championships, but he insists Sweden are getting better with every game. He certainly is, and his off-field bluster is refreshing. “We can go very far in this tournament,” he said, again channeling the spirit and style of hero Ibrahimovic, who Berisha has not had occasion to meet yet. “We’re not only getting better with every game, but even with every training session we’re developing more and more as a team.”
It’s a team with a special combination of players that Berisha insists gives them an edge. There are ten different nationalities represented in the Sweden team, with players either born in or having roots in places as far-flung as Macedonia and the Gambia. It’s a multicultural collection, and while there are the prototypical blond-and-blue-eyed guys like Elias Andersson, Berisha’s strike partner Gustav Engvall, Anton Seletros, Sweden’s juniors – playing in their first FIFA U-17 finals – are a heady cocktail of styles and cultures.
“There are so many different cultures in the team,” said Berisha. “It’s a totally interesting thing. Swedish players, and Swedish football, has one certain type of player and one thing they’re good at – maybe it’s strength and fitness. But the players from Africa, they have another thing they’re good at, and the same with us from the Balkans. It’s a good mixture, a good cocktail.”
Up next for Sweden, whose loss to Mexico in their final group game was their first in a span of 16 matches, is a date with Japan. A team with a decidedly distinct approach to football: get the ball, move the ball and keep it greedily away from the opponent. Berisha, typically, has no fear. “They’re fast and technical, sure,” he said, his mouth turning down at the edges, a kid who believes in himself and his friends. “But we’re big and physical – and we have a few surprises of our own – so I think we’ll go through.”