The word Sweden’s players emphasize most when discussing themselves is “collective.” That comes direct from Andersson, the coach, of course, but it is also rooted in a reaction to what went before, when Sweden was a cult of an individual.
To observers of the team at Euro 2016, it seemed as though Ibrahimovic — arguably, though not definitively, the finest player Sweden has ever produced — inhibited his teammates, rather than inspired them. They seemed to fade when asked to live up to his high standards, seemed to find the need to satisfy him crushing.
The ethos Andersson has instilled without him is the polar opposite. This Sweden is the anti-Zlatan, a team stronger because it is, in theory, weaker. It is free to be itself — limited though that may be — rather than attempt to be what he needed it to be. The ethos has allowed Sweden to breathe.
The team has cherished the opportunity, enjoying the more relaxed mood that has surrounded its preparations. This is a small example, but a telling one: In the past, Ibrahimovic’s distrust of the news media spread to his teammates. They were nervous to talk to the press. Now, they stop and chat breezily. The fear has gone, as has the need to keep him happy.
The timing could not be better. This World Cup has been one for the collectives, rather than the individuals: An Argentina designed to get the best out of Lionel Messi has fallen, and so too a Portugal dominated by Cristiano Ronaldo. Farther down the food chain, Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, Robert Lewandowski’s Poland and the Serbia of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic have all been eliminated by teams with less star power but more unified purpose.
Sweden fit that description perfectly. Andersson’s team is best summed up by Ibrahimovic’s heir as captain: Granqvist, a 33-year-old central defender of old-fashioned virtue, a gritty, grizzled presence, all heart and no pretense. He is an anti-Zlatan, too, and has become a cult hero in Sweden. His nickname, Granen, means Christmas tree; at the height of summer, firs (mostly artificial) have been put up in several places in his honor.
That is not to say that Sweden would not benefit from Ibrahimovic — especially the one that was, for a decade or so, among the very best on the planet — as evidenced by the finishing in St. Petersburg: Marcus Berg and Albin Ekdal, the worst culprits, do not have his clinical efficiency.
But it is a price worth paying. Sweden is waiting and wondering again, for its trip to Samara, for an unexpected quarterfinal, for the chance to see if it can go farther still, even without the player who can still dominate, even now, even when he is very far from Russia indeed.