Ten long years have passed since Sweden last progressed from the group stage of a tournament. Since reaching the last 16 at the 2006 World Cup and losing to hosts Germany, they’ve failed to reach another global event, while exiting difficult groups first at Euro 2008 – where they were up against holders Greece, would-be semi-finalists Russia and eventual winners Spain – and then Euro 2012.
This time, with an enlarged format allowing 16 teams to progress instead of eight, the odds look more promising. However, the draw was unkind to the Swedes, and there are serious doubts about whether they can qualify from a group containing Belgium, Italy and the Republic of Ireland.
Can someone other than Zlatan stand out?
This is the most important question for a team that looks desperately lacklustre without their superstar. History has proved that Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn’t able to single-handedly carry Sweden on his shoulders at a tournament. Even when he was brilliant at Euro 2012, that wasn't enough, and he had more support then.
In years gone by, Ibra wasn’t alone – Freddie Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson starred alongside him in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Midfield star and record appearance-maker Anders Svensson was still hanging about in 2012. Now, though, it’s all about Zlatan. He scored 11 of Sweden's 19 goals in qualifying, including three in the two-legged play-off against Denmark. Without him, the team had little to offer. Supporters are pessimistic; indeed, some consider the current squad to be one of the weakest in Sweden's proud history.
There is some hope, however. John Guidetti is a very talented striker who could be one of the tournament’s stars if coach Erik Hamren gives him a chance – though he has been reluctant to do so until recently. Palermo's Oscar Hiljemark is also a good prospect and Allsvenskan top scorer Emir Kujovic, who netted 21 times for champions Norrkoping in 2015, could spring a surprise.
What they’ve learned
Alarmingly, the biggest lesson learned is that Hamren doesn't have a clear idea about his best line-up. The coach changed his squad quite frequently during the qualifying campaign, and the results weren’t encouraging – Sweden took only two points from their four games against Austria and Russia. Their only clean sheets came against Liechtenstein and Moldova, and the fact that the Swedes’ fixtures against those minnows brought four 2-0 wins shows they had problems at the other end as well.
In short, Sweden fans wouldn’t hold out any hope of their team making the European Championship knockouts if it was still a 16-team tournament. As it is, they’re still not confident.
Strength through unity
Ibrahimovic has been Sweden’s clearest strength for years now. Their game is based around him, though it remains to be seen if he’s still fresh enough to lead the team in his mid-thirties.
As usual, the Blagult are very strong physically, with centre-backs Andreas Granqvist and Erik Johansson standing out in that respect. Former Manchester City goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson is past his best at 34 – exactly the same age as Ibrahimovic, in fact, to the day – but brings vital experience and has been playing at a decent level in Turkey for the past four seasons.
Another of the Swedes’ typical strengths is their togetherness. They might not all be very talented, but every player will do his utmost for the team and there’ll be no shortage of effort made. Expect them to fight for every ball – the game against Ireland will be especially tense in that respect.
Creative types wanted
Apart from Zlatan, the side is very limited as far as improvisation is concerned. The basic gameplan revolves around giving him the ball, which makes them rather predictable. If Sweden’s star picks up an injury or gets himself suspended, everything could easily fall apart for the team.
Their midfield looks uninspiring (though Malmo’s Oscar Lewicki may prove otherwise). Kim Kallstrom’s best days are behind him, as the 33-year-old races Isaksson to close in on Svensson’s record of 148 caps, and Hamren has resisted the temptation to start his most combative midfielder in CSKA Moscow’s Pontus Wernbloom, who was instrumental to their Russian title win. Seb Larsson is no longer a man who should be seen on the wing.
Ibrahimovic needs no introduction, but Swedes are certainly glad to see him going into an international tournament on the back of his best ever personal season, at least as far as goal tallies are concerned. His 38 Ligue 1 goals broke PSG’s long-standing club record, held by Carlos Bianchi. Overall the 6ft 5in striker netted 48 times in 50 games for the Parisian giants, although his Champions League campaign ended in disappointment yet again, aborted at the quarter-final stage.
He’ll be looking forward to facing Italy again. Arguably Ibrahimovic’s best moment for the national team came against the Azzurri at Euro 2004, when he scored with a delightful flying backheel to earn Sweden a point that ultimately sent the Italians home. It was one of the reasons Juventus signed him from Ajax that summer, kickstarting his career in the major leagues.
Pleasant memories aside, the match against Italy is a big one for Ibrahimovic. He is likely to retire from international football after Euro 2016 and would dearly love to go out on a high – such as scoring past his former Juve team-mate Gianluigi Buffon in a crucial group stage victory.
Hamren will step down after the Euros, following six eventful years at the helm. Jan Andersson will replace him, having led Norrkoping to a sensational championship title win last year – only the club’s second in over 50 years.
It is hoped that Andersson represents a brighter future for Swedish football. The 58-year-old Hamren didn't make any glaring mistakes during his tenure but overall he failed to leave any significant legacy; in fact, it could be said that Sweden have stagnated in recent years. Euro 2016 is his last chance to change how he’ll be remembered as national team coach.