La Fin. In France, the country where Zlatan Ibrahimovic has won so many hearts as he played out the past few years of his career in his own inimitable style at Paris Saint-Germain, a yellow curtain fell.
Sweden put their guts into a last dance, but it was a brutal, thumping strike from a player who likes to think he has a big personality – Belgium’s Radja Nainggolan – which whisked the wind out of their sails. Ibrahimovic watched on from the centre circle. He knew. He has etched so many defining moments of his own and he knew.
So the chapter closed, after a remarkable 116 caps and 62 goals. This turned out to be a game played out with two concurrent story lines.
One for Belgium, who are a peculiar team to get your head around. At the end of it all they took a group bow in front of their supporters, content to be progressing into the knock-out round in the half of the draw that is supposedly envied by the other grandees. They meet Hungary next, but such is the patchy nature of their performances it should not be a given that they will waltz on. Pure talent? Of course. But there remain kinks to iron out in terms of team balance and pattern.
Sweden’s story requires reflection too. They produced their best performance in Euro 2016 here, even if it fell short. Naturally most eyes were drawn to Zlatan. He had some nearly moments. Those clever flicks that manage to look brawny and balletic all at once. A shot slashed across the face of goal. A fizzed free-kick repelled by Thibaut Courtois. Some powered headers. He even steered the ball into the net with one of those giant outstretched legs straightened to make contact with a point of the toe. It was disallowed, unclearly. It was not offside, and if there was doubt about whether Marcus Berg lifted a pass over Toby Alderweireld with a high foot in the approach it looked more like a low head. It was not to be.
Sweden’s coach, Erik Hamren, was wistful at the end of it all. “I’d hoped he could have a better finish,” he said. The coach, who is stepping down after seven years in charge also namechecked two other centurions who are retiring from the international scene, the goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson and the midfield string-puller Kim Kallstrom. Both had excellent games. “All three are stopping playing and they have been really, really good for a long time,” said Hamren. “I wanted them to have a better ending than this.”
He made it plain Sweden should not hold out too many high hopes of finding another Ibra. “No. He is special. I hope we can find another player who is not Zlatan but is really good. I don’t think in a small country like Sweden you find another Zlatan as he is really unique.” A once-in-a generation player steps back.
Meanwhile a cluster of high-class players for Belgium press on, seeking a method of playing that welds them into a more cohesive force. They were a bit bewildering because they switched on flashes of talent, of sweet football, and then switched off for a while. It was easy to find yourself suddenly gasping at some of their combinations, and then doubting why they are not as refined as a team as they ought to be.
Kevin De Bruyne’s Velcro control was central to so much of their best work. Positioned in the middle, free to roam and do damage, he was a pivotal influence. Belgium’s threat came in a variety of ways – woven passing moves one moment, mazy dribbles the next, whipped crosses hoicked in from the flanks at times.
De Bruyne was the man who lifted them with a shot out of the blue, a low crack which invited a strong one-handed save from Isaksson as they turned the screw late on. The Swedish goalkeeper excelled again to deny Romelu Lukaku on the run. Finally Belgium summoned a moment that counted. Nainggolan let fly and his shot finally defeated Isaksson and that was that. “Some people thought we were dead after the first game [against Italy] but we are here, we came back and we are going to Toulouse to play Hungary,” remarked Marc Wilmots.
The Belgium manager found a moment to seek out Ibrahimovic. “A big person of football stops, so I told him bravo for your career,” he said. “I know when you finish your international career it is very difficult. I wished him good luck for the future.”
The song “Don’t take me home” has been a soundtrack to this tournament but Ibrahimovic departs. He leaves to ponder his club future and the end of his international efforts. It will be a summer of big reflections for such a huge figure in Swedish football. Au revoir Zlatan. It has, at times, been absolutely spectacular.
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