Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now 39, decided to come out of international retirement five years after quitting the Swedish National team. He played 84 minutes in the first qualifying game for the 2022 World Cup on Thursday, assisting Viktor Claesson for the game’s only goal.
Sweden will now travel to Kosovo for another official qualifier before hosting Estonia for a midweek friendly. Sweden is part of Group B in the qualifiers for Qatar 2022 alongside Spain, Greece, Georgia, and Kosovo.
For Ibrahimovic, last week’s match against Georgia was a warm-up. This preparation will continue until the Euros in June, when he faces the first big test of his much-anticipated comeback. Ibrahimovic is looking to shine at the European finals, where Sweden will fight Spain, Poland, and Slovakia for a seat in the knock-out stages.
Why did Ibrahimovic retire in the first place?
Ibrahimovic said his goodbyes to the Swedish team after Euro 2016. At the final tournament hosted by France, Sweden went out in the group stage following two defeats (0-1 against both Italy and Belgium) and a draw (1-1 vs Ireland), finishing last in their group. Zlatan captained that side and played the full 270 minutes for his team without scoring or assisting. In fact, he only shot once on goal during the entire tournament.
At almost 35 years old, Ibrahimovic, who had only agreed on a free-agent move from PSG to Manchester United, took Sweden’s exit personally. He was heavily criticized by the media at home and didn’t take it well.
In 2017, Ibrahimovic insisted he’d never play for Sweden again, explaining his decision to Sky Italia. “People are now expecting less [from Sweden]. When I was there everyone expected the team to win the World Cup and the Euros. My impression is that changed and they will play without any pressure and have nothing to lose.”
World Cup European Qualifiers: Betting odds: Group B winner
- Spain 1/3
- Sweden 11/4
- Greece 12/1
- Kosovo 66/1
- Georgia 200/1
Still, before the World Cup, Ibrahimovic said the National team would “look better” with him than without him, fueling part of the media and millions of fans to call for his return.
Then and current manager Janne Andersson, who was appointed after Ibra’s exit, didn’t encourage the “Zlatan debate” once the possibility of having him at the World Cup in 2018 seemed to exist:
“This is incredible,” Andersson said. “A player has stopped playing for Sweden one year and a half ago and we are still talking about him. We need to talk about the great players we have in this team right now.”
Why is Ibrahimovic returning?
Last autumn, Ibrahimovic hinted once more that he was ready to play for Sweden again, saying he was “missing” the yellow jersey and the vibe that he got from playing while wearing it. Coach Andersson forgot about their public feud from the past and flew to Milan for talks. The pair have kept contact, with the Swedish FA confirming to AFP early this year that Ibrahimovic and Andersson “are continuing their dialogue.”
In the press conference prior to the game with Georgia on Thursday, Andersson explained his decision to recall Ibrahimovic. “First of all, he is a very good player. He’s our best ever player, in fact. It is surely a good thing that he wanted to come back. Apart from what he can do on the pitch, he has incredible experience and can offer a lot to the others on the team.”
For Ibrahimovic, who made his debut for Sweden 20 years ago in a game against the Faroe Islands, coming back was emotional. When asked about his sons’ reactions to his leaving home to play for the National team again, Ibrahimovic burst into tears and needed a few seconds before he could take questions again.
“It’s not a good question to ask [about his sons],” Ibrahimovic said. “I had my youngest son, Vincent, crying when I left him, but now it’s OK.”
Apart from the drama international football guarantees, Ibrahimovic has a personal ambition that only the Swedish National team can help him achieve. With the [now] AC Milan striker holding the record for most goals ever scored by a player for the National team, Ibrahimovic is yet to score at a World Cup.
“I have a thing with World Cups,” Ibrahimovic added. “I never scored a goal. I have to beat that. I can’t leave a zero over there.”
In the autumn of 2022, when the World Cup in Qatar is supposed to take place, Ibrahimovic will be 41. If he plays a game, he’ll become the fourth-oldest player in the tournament’s history after Egyptian keeper El-Hadary (who was 45 at the World Cup in Russia, in 2018), Colombian keeper Faryd Mondragon (43 in Brazil, 2014), and Cameroonian forward Roger Milla (42 in the US, 1994). If he does manage to score, then Ibrahimovic will become the second-oldest player ever to do it, after Milla in 1994, in Cameroon’s game vs Russia.
Age is just a number for Ibrahimovic. After leaving the LA Galaxy last year, the Swede, who also played for the likes of PSG, Man United, Juventus, Inter, and Ajax during a fantastic career at club level, netted 28 times in 43 games in AC Milan’s shirt.