Zlatan Ibrahimovic has revealed he felt really weird watching Sweden play without him and believes there’s far less pressure on the team in his absence. The hulking striker, who won the FIFA Puskás Award 2013 for a breathtaking bicycle-kick against England, ended his 15-year international career following UEFA EURO 2016, having scored a record 62 goals in 116 appearances – 13 more than previous record-holder Sven Rydell.
Sweden kicked off the post-Ibra era with a 1-1 draw at home to the Netherlands in 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying. They then won 1-0 at Luxembourg, beat Bulgaria 3-0 in Solna and were edged 2-1 in France, which left them third in Group A, behind the Dutch on goal difference and the French by three points.
“The first time, it felt very strange,” explained Ibrahimovic. “It felt different. I sat at home – I had three or four days off, and that doesn’t happen a lot – and I watched the others running around, working out, training and playing games. I was imagining myself doing it, but unfortunately I wasn’t there.
“But there’s nothing I regret. What’s done is done. What I experienced with the national team is indescribable. I could sit here all day, every day for a few weeks, and just talk about everything I experienced. 99 per cent of it was positive. One per cent was where you don’t succeed all the way, win a tournament, but we had a brilliant time.
“The new team is in a different position. They have no pressure from within, they have no pressure from outside, there is nobody who expects anything.
“Before, because we had established players, we were going to win the European Championship, we were going to win the World Cup. It was taken for granted that we’d qualify. Now they ask, ‘Will we get there?’ If we do, it’s fantastic. If we don’t, it’s still ok.
"We lost against France but it was still a ‘damn good game’. If I was there and we’d lost it would have been, ‘We should have won’. It says everything about the level I was at. And I appreciate that, because I put the pressure on myself, to succeed and win all the time.”
Sweden won 2-0 away to Hungary in a friendly in their latest outing, and Ibrahimovic believes Janne Andersson, who succeeded Erik Hamren following their first-phase exit at EURO 2016, has done a good job.
“The two [Sweden sides] are in different positions, and Janne has done well, he’s built something in a short space of time,” said the 35-year-old. “But that’s just the beginning – we need more time to make a proper assessment.”
Sweden have participated in 11 World Cups, but missed out on the last two. They finished runners-up to Brazil on home soil in 1958, and third in 1950 and 1994. The Scandinavians finished the latter tournament as its highest-scoring team, with the late Klas Ingesson, Tomas Brolin, Martin Dahlin and Kennet Andersson starring in the USA.