Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from international football two years ago but Sweden’s former talisman looms over their World Cup campaign like only he can.
It is only too tempting for Sweden fans to wonder what might have been had the former Paris Saint-Germain player been in the side for Saturday’s match against Germany, which ended in a painful last-gasp defeat.
Or allow themselves to imagine what impact Ibrahimovic could have had this Wednesday, when Sweden face Mexico in a make-or-break final group game in Yekaterinburg.
Now 36 and in the twilight of his career at LA Galaxy, the giant forward hit 62 goals in 116 games for Sweden before quitting the international scene in 2016.
There was speculation in the build-up to the World Cup that he might make a dramatic return and the much-travelled Ibrahimovic, who also played for Manchester United and Barcelona, mischievously dropped numerous hints.
But Sweden coach Janne Andersson did not court him — “Zlatan is very welcome to call me” — and Ibrahimovic ended up being in Russia only for commercial reasons.
Swedish fans began trickling into Yekaterinburg, the most eastern city at the World Cup, on Monday and mention of the swaggering Ibrahimovic brought wistful smiles.
“Everyone misses Zlatan, but he does not fit into our new team,” said Maria Bronk.
Companion Ditte Helwig, sporting a yellow hat, yellow shirt and blue leggings with the word SWEDEN, disagreed.
“I think he fits, but I think he’s had enough of it. He’s not too old, but I think he does not want to be here. It is he who said ‘no’.”
Helwig and Bronk are such big Ibrahimovic fans that they will travel to the United States in September to see him in action.
Helwig, playing the Pokemon Go game on her smartphone as she ambled in the sunshine, said Sweden would have at least drawn with Germany had Ibrahimovic been on the pitch.
“I think so because he’s the best scorer in Sweden of all time so it would have been a better result with Zlatan.”
Peter Jonsson, freshly arrived from watching the agonising loss to Germany in Sochi, said it was time to move on.
“We have a new team with a new spirit. Zlatan of course is a unique player but he was always the spearhead, which meant it was not always easy for the other players.
“We need to build now with younger players,” said the 53-year-old from the city of Uppsala, outside Stockholm. “But unfortunately, there is not another Zlatan coming through.”
– ‘The best’ –
Philip Henriksen, with his parents and sister to see their first game at the World Cup, is adamant.
“He should be here, he is our best striker,” said the 18-year-old. “The score would have been different against Germany because he did not just score goals, he was our leader as well.”
There may never be another Ibrahimovic, but many Sweden fans hope that winger Emil Forsberg can be the closest to it.
The 26-year-old has been linked with an array of top Premier League sides after another stellar year in Germany with Leipzig.
But he lacks the dominant personality of Ibrahimovic and is yet to set the World Cup alight.
“I love Zlatan and I would welcome him back for the Mexico game,” said Philip’s mother Eleni, 50.
“He would not need to run, he could let the young players run and give him the ball, and he can just score the goals.”