It promised to be an emotional night for Sweden and for Zlatan Ibrahimovic in particular.
The 34-year-old revealed in the build-up to Wednesday’s final Group E game against Belgium that he would retire from international football after Euro 2016. Only a win at the Stade de Nice would extend the iconic attacker’s Sweden career. It was not meant to be.
Sweden lost the game. Sweden lost Ibrahimovic. Sweden lost a legend.
There was a moment of brilliance halfway through the first half when the former Paris Saint-Germain striker lifted the ball off the ground with a subtle touch, before seeing his volley blocked by a Belgian defender, while he again came close minutes later when he aimed just wide from 20 yards out. He even had a goal disallowed after the break.
There would not be a breakthrough, though.
Belgium proved to be too strong, with Radja Nainggolan eventually making the difference six minutes from time. Sweden’s tournament thus came to an abrupt end – and with it Zlatan’s international career.
It all began some 15 years ago in an international friendly versus Faroe Islands. That time, Ibrahimovic failed to score for his country. But his underwhelming start did not stop him from becoming a true Sweden legend over the next decade and a half, with the Euros perhaps his most favourite hunting ground.
He scored twice at Euro 2004 as Sweden made it to the quarter-finals, with his acrobatic strike versus Italy in the group stages without a doubt one of his most memorable moments in the yellow jersey.
The striker netted two more goals at Euro 2008, despite Sweden’s premature exit, only to repeat the trick four years later at Euro 2012.
There would not be any goals in France at this year’s showpiece, but it will not have any effect on his reputation as an icon of the game. Indeed, Sweden would not even have been at Euro 2016 had it not been for Ibrahimovic, with the forward scoring three times in the play-offs alone versus Denmark.
“There was the thought that this would send me into retirement. I sent their entire country into retirement,” he said after the tie.
‘Retiring’ Denmark and his goals at three different European Championships were by no means the only highlights of his Sweden career. There was the double against Estonia that saw him become his nation’s all-time leading goalscorer. There was the match versus Austria when he won his 100th cap. And, of course, there was the four-goal masterclass against England.
There were also difficult days as well.
He refused to play for Sweden for six months after he and two other players were sent home by coach Lars Lagerback for staying out too late two days before a Euro 2008 qualifier against Liechtenstein. And he failed to find the net for Sweden for two-and-a-half years between October 2005 and June 2008.
But the fact remains he has been a spectacular player for Sweden.
“You’d need a whole press conference for what I’d like to say about Zlatan. I don’t think we can assess his overall contribution to Sweden here. We could talk about that for hours,” national team coach Erik Hamren said at a news conference.
“He’s been an important and fantastic figure for Swedish football.
“I think we have one international player at the same level as [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and that’s Ibra.”
He ends his Sweden career with an impressive 62 goals in 116 appearances, stats that are only further proof of his immense quality.
Sweden have had players such as Sven Rydell, Gunnar Nordahl, Gunnar Gren, Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson.
But there was only one Zlatan.
They will now have to make do without that man, arguably their greatest player ever.
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