Should Zlatan Ibrahimovic return for Sweden at the 2018 World Cup?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic could return for Zweden... sorry, Sweden... at the World Cup. Here are two open letters why he should/shouldn't come back.
PLEASE COME BACK, ZLATAN
The 1-0 victory over Italy in the playoffs means that your beloved Blagult will enjoy their first World Cup since 2006 but it also means that you simply must -- I repeat MUST -- un-retire and come back to help lead them to glory. Or, at worst, a quarterfinal defeat on penalties to Belgium.
I know you're already thinking it: Why else tweet a crafty "we" and swap the S for a Z in the name Sweden after the full-time whistle in Milan?
That kind of killer instinct and opportunism will come in handy around Russia next summer. Though your boys did score a robust 26 goals in their World Cup qualifying group -- only Portugal, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Poland (well, Robert Lewandowski) managed more across Europe -- the remarkable tally owed a lot to playing Belarus and Luxembourg four times. Your knack for scoring against the best and most difficult defences is just what this team might need in order to reach the round of 16. From there, it's anyone's game and your astronomical individual talents could be the difference-maker. (No disrespect to Marcus Berg, of course.)
Sweden's style of play was simple when you were around -- I believe it was known as "Get-It-To-Zlatanaccio" -- because nobody else was capable of providing the clinical finish.
Yes, you haven't played a game since crumpling in a heap against Anderlecht back in April, but that's hardly the kind of ending that a man of your stature deserves. The fans won't believe in your Wolverine levels of durability until they see you curl a few bicycle kicks into the top corner without howling in pain. They can't go by your word alone.
You're Zlatan! You're so phenomenal that your name works as a noun, adjective and verb. You're this close to ascending to join Prince, Sting and Bono as legends of their craft who shed their surnames forever. The World Cup isn't just football's biggest prize; it's the sport's biggest stage, too. And massive stages need massive stars. With no Gianluigi Buffon, Alexis Sanchez, Arjen Robben or, um, Christian Pulisic next summer, your presence is needed now more than ever.
Nobody is suggesting you return and become captain, manager and head physio: just that you're back with the boys. Especially as a defence anchored by players from mid-level teams in Italy, Germany and Man United's worst summer signing could use a couple of goals to help steady the nerves.
Plus if Sebastian Larsson's still allowed to amble around in midfield, why not you?
PLEASE STAY AWAY
I suspect that 'Zweden,' your typically modest tribute to the success of the Swedish team this week was a gentle piece of ironic self-deprecation. You have, after all, created a successful public persona built on relentless displays of arrogance, tinted with just enough charm to make it all somehow endearing. Only those close to you will know the real Zlatan.
But if it was a joke, I fear that some people missed it. I don't know if anyone in your entourage has been brave enough to let you know, but it's been interpreted by many as a narcissistic attempt to hijack the achievements of others in an effort to boost your brand. And there are many who also believe that 'Zweden' was a signal of intent. They think you're going to try to force yourself into the World Cup squad.
Zlatan, you are free to do as you choose, but I think you should leave well alone. That team qualified without you against the odds and they should be allowed to compete without you, too. It's a new era. It's the post-Zlatan age.
They play differently now, and it's working for them. With you in the team, they were compelled to get the ball forward to you. You're not as mobile as you used to be and that limits the options. It makes Sweden easy to neutralise. In denying Italy a place at the World Cup, they bucked the odds, they defied a superpower and they did it all without you. Indeed, you could make the argument that they might not have been able to do it WITH you.
It's probably tempting to look at Russia next year and think, "It's three games, maybe four or five if things go well. I can do that." And you know what? You probably could. You've spent your life proving critics wrong. Here in England, the prevailing wisdom used to be that you were a flat track bully who never played well against English sides in Europe and probably couldn't hack it away at Stoke. Yet you have provided enough moments of genius to get United out of trouble and, if it hadn't have been for you, Jose Mourinho might have been in a spot of bother.
But how much football are you going to get this season? You've been out since April and you're not expected back until January. You've got Romelu Lukaku ahead of you in the pecking order; you'll be Fernando Llorente to his Harry Kane. You'll be a great option off the bench, you'll be there for cover, you'll get starts in the FA Cup. But you're not going to get the sort of sustained action you'll need to get back into your stride.
It's also worth remembering your original swan song with the national team. You played all 270 minutes of Sweden's Euro 2016 campaign last summer, you failed to score a single goal and you only put one shot on target in the entire tournament. That's half of Gareth McAuley's total. And he's older than you.
And yes, we have to talk about your age. You were 34 in France. You'll be 36 when the next World Cup comes around. The sun is setting. You are not the player you once were.
You remain a magnificent footballer, you've fought back bravely from an injury that many, myself included, assumed had ended your career. We're all looking forward to your return to the Premier League and your impact on what looks like an exciting title race. But the next World Cup is a bridge too far. Let them go on without you, Zlatan. You've done your bit.
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