The 'Swedish Gascoigne'

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The Independent Football

Those who believe the words Swedish personality to be an oxymoron should consider the story of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a 20-year-old striker who has exploded on to the international scene with all the force of Paul Gascoigne before his moment of truth in the 1990 World Cup.

The Swedish coach, Lars Lagerback, prefers to compare him to Tomas Brolin, whose Italian restaurant in Stockholm was used to host the after-show party for the first Swedish Football Personality of the Year awards in which Ibrahimovic finished second behind a certain Sven Goran Eriksson.

In the absence of Sweden's major footballing characters such as Henrik Larsson, Patrik Andersson and Fredrik Ljungberg at Old Trafford this afternoon, the spotlight has fallen on someone who would be regarded as interesting merely from the circumstances of his birth – his father is Bosnian, his mother a Croat.

However, since coming to prominence with Malmo last year and being invited to join Arsenal, an offer he spurned in favour of a £3.4 move to Ajax this summer, Ibrahimovic has been noted as much for his impact off the the pitch as on it.

Malmo threw Ibrahimovic out of their training ground after he was involved in a bust-up with the goalkeepers Jonnie Fedel and Lee Baxter. He was then arrested for impersonating a police officer and attempting to arrest a punter who was kerb-crawling in the city's red-light district. His impact in Sweden's effortless qualification for next year's World Cup finals (eight wins and two draws) was peripheral but interesting.

To Lagerback, Ibrahimovic is: "Probably one of the biggest talents we have ever had; he could be as good as Brolin. He still has a lot to learn but it is not often we come across a player like this. Certain sections of the media try to paint a different picture but I think he is a nice guy."

The Swedish team is, of course, full of nice guys; it is in the nature of being Scandinavian. However, many question their toughness when it matters. In last year's European Championship Sweden, after qualifying way ahead of England, made no impact whatsoever. The yearning is still for a team which will match the achievements of 1994, when the Swedes finished third in the World Cup.

Coventry's Swedish keeper, Magnus Hedman, was a reserve goalkeeper in America seven years ago, understudying the great Thomas Ravelli. "We were lucky; everything went our way," he said. "Afterwards, some decided not to pursue their international careers while others thought: 'What are we training for, we finished third in the World Cup?' The hunger wasn't really there and things fell apart. Now we have some good young players in our side and that hunger has returned.

"As for Eriksson, when he won with Lazio all of a sudden the television and the papers focused on him. Then, when he took over England, his profile went through the roof."

Should England make a decisive impact in Japan and South Korea next summer, Eriksson's profile will rise still further but, if his native land can match the heights of 1994, Ibrahimovic may stop him retaining the title of Sweden's football personality of the year.

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