Most Swedes already know Rule No. 1 when it comes to soccer: Don’t mess with the Zlatan. Swedes will learn just how well the rest of Europe follows that rule when the 2016 UEFA European Championships open on June 10 in France.
Superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the Blue and Yellow into the tournament in what is likely to be his international swan song. Zlatan has said he plans to retire internationally following Euro 2016 and he is eager to add to his trophy haul. Sweden head coach Erik Hamren obliged his team captain as he selected a 23-man roster designed to support Zlatan in his quest.
Hamren included six members of the under-21 team that won the European championship last summer, while eight players are left from Sweden's Euro 2012 squad. He said the burden is on all of his players to coalesce prior to their opening match June 12 against Ireland. Sweden is playing in Group B with Belgium, Italy and Ireland.
"We need our only world class player to be at his best," Hamren said. "We have a good mix with a world-class player taking a big responsibility for the team ... but also the team taking a huge responsibility for the world-class player."
Hamren’s mix of players showed his preference for experience over youth. In goal, veteran Andreas Isaksson remains Sweden's clear No. 1 going into his fifth and final major tournament. The 34-year-old Isaksson was born on the same day as Ibrahimovic, Oct. 3, 1981, and the two have been mainstays on opposite ends of the pitch for the national team since 2004. The former Manchester City and PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper now plays for Turkish side Kasimpasa and may be past his prime, but he remains a reliable presence at the back with a wealth of experience. FC Copenhagen goalkeeper Robin Olsen will be his main backup, with AIK's Patrik Carlgren, who was the keeper for the U-21 side last year, the third choice.
For the back line, Hamren is only taking seven defenders to France, with Celtic's Mikael Lustig the only recognized right-back. Veteran center-back Mikael Antonsson is out injured, which could provide an opportunity for Benfica's promising 21-year-old Victor Lindelof to form a central pairing with Andreas Granqvist. Notable omissions include West Brom's Jonas Olsson and Borussia Monchengladbach's Oscar Wendt, who is considered Sweden's best left-back by many but has fallen out with Hamren. The other defenders are Erik Johansson (Copenhagen), Ludwig Augustinsson (Copenhagen), Martin Olsson (Norwich) and Pontus Jansson (Torino).
In the midfield, Hamren selected Albin Ekdal despite his injury in a bizarre nightclub incident. Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson also provides experience, while exciting winger Emil Forsberg (Leipzig) and Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo) could also play a big part in their first major tournament. Premiership sides Liverpool and Everton have expressed interest in Forsberg and the 22-year-old will want to be at his best to boost his chances of moving to England. Sweden has a solid midfield defensively, but Forsberg is perhaps their brightest creative spark going forward. Jimmy Durmaz (Olympiacos), Pontus Wernbloom (CSKA Moscow), Oscar Lewicki (Malmo) and Erkan Zengin (Trabzonspor) round out the list.
Up front, there is the Zlatan. Sweden’s iconic team captain has won just about everything he can, except for a major international tournament. Zlatan is Sweden’s all-time top scorer with 62 goals in 112 internationals, and will need to add to that tally for this team to get anywhere in France. The only question is who will play next to him in Hamren's normal 4-4-2 formation — Marcus Berg of Panathinaikos or Celta Vigo's John Guidetti. Berg is the safe option, but Guidetti has arguably the bigger upside. Emir Kujovic of native club Norrköping can bring some X-factor off the bench.
As excitement builds ahead of Euro 2016, Zlatan made sure he would remain the center of attention as he held a press conference June 1 to deny reports he might return to his first club, Malmö FF, and Swedish football. News reports have linked him to Malmö and to Manchester United, where his former coach, Jose Mourinho, is now in charge. Zlatan, however, said a move to Old Trafford was unlikely and unequivocally ruled out a return to the Allsvenskan.
"I'm too good for the Swedish league," he said.
Zlatan fueled the speculation of a return when he told the crowd at Malmo's Swedbank Stadion on Monday that he would return, having sat out Sweden's friendly against Slovenia because of a sore calf.
"What I meant when I said I'll come back is with the national team," he said. "They'll have to be patient and they'll see me again in the national team shirt."
Sweden's largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, reported on May 27 that Zlatan had decided to retire from internationals after this summer, when he will captain the team at the European Championship. Zlatan, who will turn 35 in October, told the news conference he has not made up his mind yet.
"It's not something I've thought about, it's not something I've spent energy on. I haven't discussed it with anyone," he said. "I'm here to play the Euros and prepare myself in the best way possible. It's not something I've thought about. I'm enjoying myself as long as I'm here. How long I'll be here I don't know."
Zlatan has been linked with a reunion with new United manager Mourinho next season after leaving Paris Saint-Germain, but his agent suggested in recent days that a move to Old Trafford is unlikely. Zlatan said he enjoys all the speculation about his next stop.
"I want you to still write a lot of stories,” he told the press. "I get excited when I see them because I want to see who is making up the best story. And when I am tired of it, I will let you know where I will go."