by Chipp Reid

Before he returned to duty with the Swedish national team, Zlatan Ibrahimovic said one of the reasons for his short-lived retirement from international play was a lack of talent among Swedish players. He claimed Sweden would never be able to compete with the likes of Spain or England or Germany unless it developed 11 players just like him.
How wrong can a guy be?
A new generation of players is forcing Ibrahimovic to take back his criticism as they inject new life and a blend of techniques into Swedish football. From Elfsborg striker Denni Avdic to Helsingborg duo Alexander Gerndt and Rasmus Jonsson to Daniel Larsson and Agon Mehmeti of Malmo, the newest crop of Swedish players are showing they don’t need Zlatan’s ego to validate their play.
“I think right now there are a lot of really good young players,” said Avdic, who leads the Allsvenskan in scoring. “Of course, I am happy that I am one of them, but if you look at our Under-21 team, there are a lot of really good players that have a lot of interest from bigger leagues.”
The Elfsborg striker currently is pulling double duty for both the Under-21 and the full national team. He leads the Allsvenskan with 19 goals and has Sweden in position to qualify for the UEFA Under-21 European Championships with a team leading four goals in four qualifiers.
“I think every team in Sweden has some very good young players,” Avdic said. “Some of them maybe don’t get the media attention because the teams aren’t so good, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get noticed.”
Sweden’s Under-21 team, especially, has flown under the media radar, until now. The transfer fee Elfsborg received for midfielder Emir Bajrami opened eyes all around Europe to the talent pool on the junior national team. Bajrami moved to Dutch outfit FC Twente for $4.5 million, the second-highest fee for a Swedish player after Zlatan’s $7 million move to Ajax Amsterdam from Malmo.
Bajrami isn’t the only player to suddenly grab attention. John Giudetti, who came up with Brommapojkarna, is a regular with the reserve team at English giants Manchester City and a starter on the Under-21 national team. Guidetti first caught the attention of City as a school boy and spent time at the City football academy before moving up. He said playing in both the Allsvenskan and at the academy accelerated his development.
"At Academy level you come up against top-drawer players, but at reserve level you have to be more physical, which is a side of the game you need to cope with in top-level football,” Guidetti said. “(In the Allsvenskan) it was good for me because it was a more physical form of the game and you’re playing against men. You learn from that kind of experience.”
Just as important as playing time is the style many young Swedes have learned, one that owes a great deal to the influx of players from Africa, Brazil and especially the former Yugoslavia. The eastern European country once had a reputation as the “Brazil of Europe” and the breakup of the nation did little to change its football. Now, many first- and second-generation players from Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo are in the Allsvenskan and have fundamentally changed Swedish football.
“The Allsvenskan is nothing like it used to be,” said Trelleborg manager Tom Prahl. “The style of play has changed a great deal thanks to foreign players. It’s become quicker, more technical and many of the young players now coming up with Allsvenskan clubs probably have seen the old style of Swedish football.”
New media has also played its share in introducing young Swedish players to Spanish and South American football styles and techniques. Avdic, the Elfsborg striker, said he didn’t even watch the Allsvenskan when he was growing up.
“My friends and I watched the leagues in Spain or England to see our favorite players,” he said. “We wanted to copy the Brazilians or the French players because they had the best technique.”
Young talent was on prime display Sept. 15 in the super derby between Malmo FF and Helsingborgs IF. Malmo played without its leading scorers, 21-year-old Agon Mehmeti and 23-year-old Daniel Larsson, both of whom also play for the Under-23 national team. Despite missing those two players, Malmo had 22-year-old Guillermo Molins, a Swede of Uruguyan descent, and 18-year-old Dardan Rexhepi on the field and both played key roles, with Rexhepi scoring a goal and assisting on the other in MFF’s 2-0 victory.
Helsingborg responded with its duo of Gerndt and Jonsson, but it was another 20-something, 22-year-old goalkeeper Johan Dahlin of Malmo, who came out on top as Dahlin stopped the HIF strikers on several point-blank tries.
It was proof, Avdic said, of just how much talent remains and continues to develop in the Allsvenskan.
“Every team has some really good young players,” Avdic said. “I think Swedish football has a really good future.”