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Emil Forsberg - Sweden's Zlatan successor and heir to a family dynasty

09:00 BST 23/06/2021
Emil Forsberg Sweden
With his grandfather and father both accomplished players in their own right, Sweden's playmaker is carrying on a proud family tradition at Euro 2020

Lennart Forsberg died last September at the age of 92. He should have been able to see his grandson, Emil Forsberg, star at Euro 2020 but the Covid-19 postponement changed all that.

The Sweden star is instead dedicating his performances at the rescheduled tournament to his late grandfather, a local Swedish footballing legend, just as he has done throughout the season with his club RB Leipzig.

The Forsberg dynasty is an unusual one. Lennart started it back in 1945, making his debut for local club Sundsvall aged just 17. Nicknamed ‘Foppa’, he was a skilful left winger, renowned for his pace, imagination and dribbling skills.

Foppa was considered a huge talent, but his hopes of playing for the national team after moving to Stockholm outfit Djurgarden never materialised due to injury.

His son, Leif Forsberg, naturally nicknamed ‘Little Foppa’ (Lill-Foppa in Swedish), also made his debut for Sundsvall aged 17. A physical, brave centre-forward, he scored 143 goals for the modest northern club, becoming a legend in the process. His No.10 shirt was retired after Leif hung up his boots.

That's why his own son Emil never got to wear it, even though he was a worthy heir to his grandfather especially. "I am much closer to him in style," he used to say.

A silky playmaker, capable of performing on the left wing as well, he has been a joy to watch ever since making his debut for Sundsvall – aged 17, of course. It couldn't have been any other way, and he was immediately nicknamed ‘Mini-Foppa’.

Shy and untalkative, Forsberg has often been seen as the opposite to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Exactly 10 years younger than the self-proclaimed best Swedish player in history, 'Mini-Foppa' was supposed to take over from Zlatan as the leader of the national team but their only tournament together - Euro 2016 - proved to be a massive disappointment. The Swedes took just one point from the group stage and criticism was merciless.

"People were slaughtering us. Zlatan and I had been the two players who people really had expected to deliver, so we had to hear about it. If you read the press, you’d have thought I had scored an own goal in every game," Forsberg wrote in The Players' Tribune.

Ibrahimovic retired from the national team thereafter and Forsberg was the main creative force at the 2018 World Cup. It was better for him - and for the team in general - that way.

Having scored four goals in the qualification campaign, Forsberg also netted the winner in the last-16 clash versus Switzerland in St Petersburg. Zlatan-less Sweden performed much better as a group and reaching the quarter-finals was hailed as a major success by fans and pundits alike.

By that time Forsberg had become a big star in the Bundesliga after choosing a non-traditional career path. Back in January 2015, having won two Allsvenskan championship titles with Malmo, he stunned his fans by moving to German second division side Leipzig. Many saw it as a step backwards, but the reality has proven very different.

The midfielder played a major role in getting the Red Bulls promoted to the top flight in his first full season and Leipzig have fast established themselves as title contenders and a major force in the Champions League.

Nine players who represented Leipzig in the second division in 2015 are playing at Euro 2020 – Joshua Kimmich, Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Halstenberg for Germany, Marcel Sabitzer and Stefan Ilsanker for Austria, Peter Gulacsi and Willi Orban for Hungary, Yussuf Poulsen for Denmark, and Forsberg for Sweden. No fewer than seven of them are still at the club – Bayern Munich star Kimmich and Ilsanker being the only exceptions.

That stability has enabled players to develop steadily. In Forsberg's case however, his progress at one stage looked to have stalled.

His best season on a personal level was that debut Bundesliga campaign when he scored eight goals and provided a record number of 19 assists. Since then he has no longer been a certain starter - mainly due to injuries and increasingly tough competition in the squad.

It was especially painful when then-coach Julian Nagelsmann chose to bench him during the final stages of the Champions League tournament in August 2020. But after the death of his grandfather, Forsberg suddenly found form.

He scored in the two Bundesliga fixtures after his grandfather's funeral and, overall, had a magnificent campaign last season. The bond with Nagelsmann was rebuilt and when the trainer was announced as the new Bayern Munich coach in April, there were persistent rumours that Forsberg could join him in Bavaria.

Such a move is still possible, even though Leipzig reacted very quickly by extending the Swede's contract until 2025, but he is fully committed to the national team adventure at the Euros this month.

Zlatan is missing again; his sensational comeback proving short-lived due to injury and Forsberg is the new leader of the team in midfield. He now has to guide a new generation with emerging talents like Alexander Isak and Dejan Kulusevski almost a decade younger than he is.

Imaginative and hard-working as always, he had a decent game in the goalless draw against Spain but was rewarded for his efforts by scoring the winning penalty against Slovakia. The Swedes have already collected three more points than they did at Euro 2016 and can approach the final group game against Poland in a confident fashion.

Forsberg, for one, is used to facing Robert Lewandowski. In December he scored and assisted in RB Leipzig's 3-3 draw at Bayern in the Bundesliga while Lewy didn't find the net. The Swede could well have the upper hand once again this time.

And while Foppa is no longer with us, this is the first tournament for a new ‘Micro-Foppa’ to watch. Florence, Emil's daughter born in 2018, is the new heiress to the family dynasty, who duly received the hereditary nickname. With no boys in the family so far, she could be the one to continue the tradition.

After all, Shanga, Emil's wife, was a top footballer herself at RB Leipzig and she is her husband’s harshest critic too. She can only have good things to say about his performances so far at Euro 2020, and for Sweden the hope is that the best is yet to come.