Sweden show they can succeed without Zlatan Ibrahimovic
MOSCOW -- If not for his social media feed, you might almost forget that he could have been here.
Yes, in between welcoming LeBron James to the Lakers ("Now LA has a God and a King!"), hawking credit cards, telling us on what brand of TV he's watching the World Cup and jumping around with his buddy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been cheering on, rather than playing with, his countrymen. Who, truth be told, are not missing him much at all.
He may be Sweden's greatest ever footballer (though perhaps if Gunnar Nordahl hadn't been forced to retire from the national side at age 27, we might feel differently). He may be a lion, wolf, viking, god or whatever avatar his social media handlers pick for him.
But this Sweden team is doing just fine and coach Janne Andersson's decision to stick with the guys who slogged it through World Cup qualifying and the playoffs, rather than considering Ibrahimovic after he made himself available two years after retiring from international duty, has been vindicated.
We will never know if Sweden would have been better with him. We do know, though, that even at 36, he's not just a little better, he's a lot better than the guys playing up front, Ola Toivonen and Marcus Berg -- and let's not even get started on John Guidetti.
But we also know that things like chemistry and teamwork matter. Just as we know that Sweden failed to qualify for the last two World Cups with Ibrahimovic on board. And that in the six major tournaments for which they did qualify with him as part of the side, he scored four goals in 18 games.
His absence has enabled Andersson to field a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Managers say this all the time, spouting the usual cliches about togetherness and cohesion and philosophy. Yet Andersson is a true believer.
Even a guy like Forsberg who, to make a Scandinavian parallel, could be to Sweden what Christian Eriksen is to Denmark, isn't given half the freedom and responsibility afforded to the Tottenham midfielder. He's a grunt, a cog in the machine like everybody else. A talented one, sure, but not one who stands out amongst his teammates.
That might be by design; after Sweden's group-stage win against Mexico, he seemed proudest of his team's discipline: "We had a game plan and we did not stray from it one millimeter! It was wonderful to see!"
You can forget the measured, Ikea-assembling Dad tropes when it comes to Andersson. He has a temper, as he showed after Toni Kroos' buzzer-beating heroics. When two fringe members of the German backroom staff appeared to approach the Swedish bench applauding sarcastically in celebration, a furiously red-faced Andersson confronted them with all the might of a mama bear defending her cubs.
He has every reason to be, at once, proud and protective of his guys. And maybe he can even get carried away just a little bit after the group stage saw his team achieve more than many expected. Sweden beat South Korea and Mexico and almost got a positive result vs. Germany.
It is worth noting that, while that thriller will be remembered for late heartbreak (and for Sweden's strikers not killing the game by simply taking the ball into the corner when they had the chance), it featured one of the bigger officiating blunders in this tournament when Germany's Jerome Boateng was not punished for chucking Berg to the ground. No VAR, no penalty and no red card (Boateng was sent off for two yellow cards much later).
In other words, Sweden have produced in every game and, with half the Swiss defense out -- fullback Stephan Lichsteiner and centre-back Fabian Schar are suspended -- they may well feel they have the edge on Tuesday.
Win and they are looking at either England or Colombia; by no means an easy opponent, but by no means an unbeatable one either. And then it's the winner of Russia vs. Croatia. Ditto. And then you're in the final, where anything can happen. Maybe even that you play Brazil, in a replay of the 1958 final ...
OK, time to wake up! It's fine to fantasise and, while this is not an impossible dream, it's certainly improbable. Maybe with Ibrahimovic around they would be speaking openly about this -- he would -- but he's busy with LeBron right now. Best to keep things understated and level-headed.
Andersson knows better than most how thin the margin is between success and failure. He knows that a deflected goal in the World Cup playoffs is what got Sweden to Russia. But he also knows that, precisely for that reason and because of the many upsets we've already witnessed, his crew has everything to play for.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.