NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Unfazed by the absence of their greatest player Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Swedish fans believe the team may be more cohesive without him and could start the World Cup with a bang.
Ibrahimovic scored 62 goals in 116 games for Sweden, matching that dominance with a larger-than-life personality and ego but he retired from international duty before the qualifiers, and, despite speculation he could reverse his decision, there was to be no comeback for Russia.
“We were second at the 1958 World Cup, third in 1994. Now we’re coming first — yes, even without Zlatan!” said ebullient fan Nicklas Haellman, 38, predicting a 5-0 win for the Sweden in their opener against South Korea on Monday.
“He was the best we ever had. We all love him. But now he is too busy making commercials to play for us.”
While not sharing quite such heady expectations, compatriots at a sun-baked fan zone in Nizhny Novgorod where Monday’s game will be played, agreed there was life after Zlatan for Sweden.
“Now it is more of a team effort,” said Magnus Hurtig, 35. “And of course it is Forsberg’s time now to shine,” he added of Emil Forsberg, the pacy winger who has inherited Ibrahimovic’s No. 10 shirt and is Sweden’s main attacking threat.
Proudly wearing the yellow Swedish shirt in anticipation of Monday’s game, Marcus Karlsson confessed he had some split loyalties. He recently married a South Korean woman and was just back from holiday there.
“The Koreans are not very hopeful. They think their team is pretty bad!” he laughed while watching Saturday’s France v Australia game at the fan zone.
The official Swedish fan club predicted between 6,000 and 8,000 fans would be arriving in Nizhny Novgorod.
“We have a good team, we are optimistic. Remember we didn’t get to Rio in 2014 with Zlatan, and yet here we are in Russia without him. We have great team spirit, and that takes you a long way,” said fan club manager Christoffer Lund, 31.
“Even so, there’s no-one like Zlatan. He has great personality, even though some would say it’s not the typical Swedish manner,” added Lund, his face painted in mini-Swedish flags.
Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Ian Chadband