The talismanic skipper has been at the heart of speculation over unrest in the camp, and his side now stare down the barrel of an early exit
Midsummer is a big deal in Sweden, but it was with a heavy tinge of regret that the national press pack spoke on Tuesday of returning home in time for the event on June 21. Their side’s defeat to Ukraine on Monday came as a huge blow, but the sense that everything is broken came from much more than that.
The general consensus had been that the losers of the opening day Group D would practically be out of Euro 2012 anyway, but with rumours of unrest in the camp - sparked by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s post-match outburst at other players - the feeling at the moment is that this is the exact opposite scenario to the one that had been widely promised back in Scandinavia.
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For the Swedes, this was seen as an opportunity to go far in the tournament, with many believing that Greece’s unlikely Euro 2004 run could be emulated by Ibrahimovic and Co. It is not only in Sweden that this is considered one of the more open championships in recent memory, and they saw this as a key positive in their build-up to flying into Ukraine.
But, rather than the promise of a glorious three weeks, Erik Hamren’s side now face the threat of their dreams being ended by Friday night, with a defeat to England ensuring their demise at the first hurdle.
And that seems all the more credible as a scenario given the circumstances surrounding Monday night’s intra-squad clashes.
Ibrahimovic left the pitch at the end of the first half squabbling with strike partner Markus Rosenberg after a misplaced touch towards the wandering Werder Bremen man during stoppage time had summed up the lack of understanding between the pair. And little over an hour later, now fuelled by the 2-1 result at the hands of Andriy Shevchenko, he was blasting almost the entire squad.
With a fair proportion of the 23-man party still busy chatting with their wives and girlfriends as the post-match warm down got underway, Ibra let them know that their behaviour was not acceptable. It came at a time when the skipper was hurting – Hamren would later say he and the players were "mourning" - and he clearly took offence to their seemingly nonchalant attitude to the loss.
Wandering straight through the mixed zone after the game, Zlatan had the demeanour of a talisman scorned. With his head down, a sullen face, and trudging feet, he stopped only briefly to speak in Swedish before departing for the team bus. Clearly, this was about more than just a defeat, devastating though it was.
Martin Olsson | "Zlatan wanted everyone to warm down before talking to the ladies"
The reaction of his team-mates has been stoical but unconvincing. “It’s bulls**t,” claimed Anders Svensson, while Jonas Olsson said he had no idea where the talk of a division had come from.
Svensson provided a good impression of somebody taking the stand in a courtroom, delivering a well-rehearsed testimony which detailed every part of the event as he saw it so as to absolve Ibrahimovic of any blame in the kerfuffle.
"Some of the other guys came out and talked to their wives, and then we waited for five or 10 minutes for all the players to come out," he told reporters at the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadion before training on Wednesday. "When all the players came out, the physio said: 'Come on, let’s start the warm down', so we went to start the warm down."
Speaking to Goal.com, Martin Olsson was more certain that his skipper had been involved though.
"It was more like he [Ibrahimovic] wanted everyone to come and do their warm down before going to talk to the ladies," said the full-back. "I don’t think it’s something he did just because he was upset about the players, he just wanted everyone to cool down together."
The situation has not really been helped by the furore back home over the game of 'Pig' in training which finished with reserve goalkeeper Johan Wiland having footballs fired at his bare backside, sparking scathing criticism from anti-bullying campaigners.
It seems that the Swedes just can’t win at the moment. When there are calls for focus and professionalism, it sparks debates over unity. When they show togetherness, with smiles on faces, they still have questions to answers. But deep down, this is a squad with a long face, and it's very evident just looking at them.
Whatever the moral questions over the training incident at Koncha Zaspa, and whatever the role of Ibrahimovic in the developments in the post-match silence of the Olympic Stadium, they have to turn things around and beat England to stand a real chance of progression.
It will be a tough ask. Roy Hodgson’s side are buoyed by their point against France in Donetsk, meaning that the Three Lions are the squad bearing a greater resemblance to the winning model many in Sweden thought they had before arriving in Kiev.
Friday night provides an opportunity to get off the mark; a chance to put the disagreements, disillusionment and dissenting voice behind them. But from now on, every game is Sweden’s last chance.