Who is Sweden’s next Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Who is Sweden's next Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
The Swedish footballers at the Estádio do Marítimo ahead of Tuesday's friendly against Portugal. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
Sweden is still waiting for their next Zlatan, writes AFP's Hugues Honore. Will they ever find him?

Swedes have a reputation as level-headed and patient, and it's just as well: they'll have to wait a while for a new “Zlatan” to suit up on the national football squad.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden's all-time high scorer with 62 goals, put an end to his 116-cap international career in June 2016.

Since then, the team has had no star player of top international calibre to fill Ibrahimovic's shoes.

Some young hopefuls have however shown promise, like Emil Forsberg and Alexander Isak.

Commentators have repeated the phrase so often it's almost comical. “The next Zlatan. Or the new Zlatan, Zlatan junior, Zlatan of the North (…) It's a journalistic genre that's existed for almost 15 years,” Swedish Radio sports commentator Johannes Finnlaugsson once joked.

That was back in 2014, when no one came close to Ibrahimovic's star power on the Swedish squad.

Many young talents have been compared to him over the years, but none have lived up to expectations upon arriving in the big league.

But 17-year-old wunderkind Alexander Isak hopes he'll be different.

The AIK forward was sold to Borussia Dortmund in January for a reported ten million euros ($10.7 million), just two weeks after becoming Sweden's youngest-ever international goalscorer.

But despite that, Isak was not selected for Sweden's 4-0 win against Belarus on Saturday, nor for the friendly against Portugal on Tuesday in Funchal in the Azores.

Instead, coach Janne Andersson called on Anderlecht's Isaac Kiese Thelin to replace striker John Guidetti. Thelin scored.

“I want to play on the national team, and to do that I have to make a good impression,” Isak told football channel Fotbollskanalen in January.

But for now, he's setting his sights on the Euro Championships for the under-21s, where he's still a novice having made the team just once.

“I'm really keen. Obviously. This tournament would be my first, because I missed the under-17 one in 2016 and I'm a little bitter about that. So my goal is to be in Poland this summer,” he said.

Swedish TV4 commentator Olof Lundh says he's following Isak's progress with Dortmund, where he's only played for a few minutes in the German Cup. “It's clear he's making an impression so it could go quickly,” he told AFP.

But for now, other, older players are trying to make up for the gaping hole left by Ibrahimovic's absence.

Wearing Ibra's old number 10 is 25-year-old offensive midfielder Emil Forsberg, who plays for another Bundesliga club, RB Leipzig. He scored twice in Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Belarus.

“Together with Victor Nilsson Lindelöf, he's part of a new generation of players who have taken important roles in Janne Andersson's new team. They can become even better,” Lundh told AFP.

Lindelöf, a 22-year-old defender, will feel at home against European champions Portugal on Tuesday – he has played for Benfica since 2012.

Last week he was preparing the game against Belarus when he learned that he had been elected to the Portuguese All-Star team by his peers.

Article by AFP's Hugues Honore