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Would Zlatan Ibrahimovic Have Made That Much of a Difference at the World Cup?

May 08, 2018 8:31 PM EDT

The Highlights

  • Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not come out of retirement to play for Sweden at the World Cup.
  • Zlatan’s star shines so brightly that even his staying retired became an international news story.
  • Considering Sweden’s tough draw, would the 36-year-old striker have moved the needle at all?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has never turned down a chance for attention. That’s why it should come as no surprise that the 36-year-old Swedish superstar somehow managed to make the fact that he’s staying retired a week-long news story.

After hinting that he might be returning to the international game in order play for Sweden in this summer’s World Cup, he confirmed last week that, actually, nothing had changed. Ibrahimovic, who hasn’t played for Sweden since they were eliminated from the 2016 Euros, still isn’t going to play for the Blågult.

What’s Left in the Tank?

Exactly how much Ibrahimovic has left in the tank anyway is an open question. During his last full season of top-level competition with Manchester United in 2016-17 Ibrahimovic was still an incredibly effective goal scorer. He notched 17 goals in 28 appearances before suffering a severe knee injury. And while those goals somewhat outpaced his expected goal total of just under 15, even that total was impressive. Generating 0.54 expected goals per 90 minutes is exactly the kind of return that a club wants from a top-level forward.

That said, Zlatan is 36 years old and coming off major knee surgery. Since his return, he’s moved to Major League Soccer, where he has now appeared in a grand total of six games and made only four starts for LA Galaxy, although in that time he’s managed to score three goals (two of them in his debut substitute appearance) and three assists. Could Ibrahimovic potentially help Sweden at the World Cup? Probably. Could he play twice a week at the elite level that he’s spent his career at and put his home country on his back during its first World Cup since 2006, almost certainly not.

Surplus Goods

And that’s before we get to the fact that Sweden aren’t actually in desperate need of a striker. The team scored 26 goals during World Cup qualifying; only five teams in Europe scored more. And sure, part of that is because they hung eight on a hapless Luxembourg side, but everybody gets their shot to beat up on the minnows, and Sweden was just the side that was best able to take advantage. That’s not a minor point either, since they finished second in their group, and tied with the Netherlands on points, it was precisely because of their superior goal difference that they advanced to the playoffs where they stunned Italy.

Emil Forsberg is probably Sweden’s most well-known non-Zlatan attacker. He plays on the wing for RB Leipzig and has been an integral part of the club’s unlikely climb to the upper echelon of the Bundesliga. But, while Forsberg might be the best player at a club level, two more workman-like strikers have occupied the forward roles and taken care of most of the scoring. Ola Toivonen plays a supporting role for Toulouse in France’s Ligue 1, although the 31-year-old is probably more well-known from his years at PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and he often pairs with Marcus Berg, a striker who made his name with Panathinaikos in Greece before moving last year to Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates. It’s not a flashy strike force, but it managed to get the Swedes into the dance.

Into the Sunset

A healthy Ibrahimovic would obviously be an upgrade over Sweden’s current strike force, but at his age — and with his lack of healthy legs — it’s unclear how much. And on top of that, Sweden are faced with a brutal group.

They’ve been drawn with Germany, one of the favorites to win the tournament; Mexico, who makes the Round of 16 every tournament, and South Korea. Oddsmakers currently have Sweden listed at +125 to advance from Group F, which puts them in between Mexico (+100) and South Korea (+300). Going off the betting market, this will be one of the tightest groups in the competition. Would a slow, if still lethal, 36-year-old striker really put them over the top against that lineup?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has spent 15 years as an elite striker. During that time he has also become an iconic media force. Now more than ever, as his playing days wind down, it’s the power of his celebrity that remains. That power is great for generating news cycles about how a 36-year-old striker who retired from the international game almost two years ago is still retired. It would be less valuable on the field against Germany as an outgunned underdog desperately tries to mount a shocking victory to advance. That’s why Ibrahimovic is staying retired, and it’s why Sweden are probably going home after three games regardless.


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