Who is Sweden’s next Zlatan Ibrahimovic?

Sweden is still waiting for their next Zlatan, writes AFP's Hugues Honore. Will they ever find him?

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

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


Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”