F365 Says: Sweden make Emil of it thanks to ordinary hero

Matt Stead

There was no ‘X-Factor style’ emotional crux, no ‘tragedy and death’ to provide a gripping storyline. The biggest hardship Emil Forsberg discussed in his Players’ Tribune column was his agent engineering a move to a second-tier German club.

As it just so happens, not even that was a particular nadir in this nascent career. Forsberg may have left his native Sweden at the age of 23 to move to an unknown German side, but Red Bull Leipzig have given his career the wings to soar.

He has played an equally important role in the first chapters of Sweden’s own story post-Zlatan. This side had already over-achieved before they had even reached Russia, beating France in qualifying, pipping Netherlands in their group and beating Italy in a play-off. No-one had traversed such a dangerous path to get here.

To top a group containing the reigning champions Germany and qualification experts Mexico was the icing on an unfathomable cake. Reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 1994 is the glass of lemonade to wash it all down.

It said much about the quality of the penultimate last-16 tie at this World Cup that much of the social media discussion still revolved around a matter of comparative insignificance more than half an hour in. Why did this player’s story require the skills of a ghostwriter to tell? Are these articles not all too similar? Is this not just PR, or a transparent marketing exercise?

Whichever side of the tiresome fence you sit on, Forsberg’s never pretended to be a rags-to-riches story. His offered valuable insight into Sweden’s failed Euro 2016 campaign instead.

‘It was a disaster,’ he, or indeed someone else, wrote. ‘People in Sweden were slaughtering us. Zlatan and I had been the two players who people really had expected to deliver, so we had to hear about it. If you read the press, you’d have thought I had scored an own goal in every game.’

A similar pressure must have been building this summer, even if his teammates had done plenty to help release it. All that hard work was almost undone on Tuesday.

‘If you see me play a bad game at the tournament in Russia, you can save your comments,’ Forsberg also said, having already been subjected to national criticism. But it was not that he in particular played a bad game here, just that he played in one. Sweden and Switzerland were all foreplay and no penetration. They shared 30 shots in 90 minutes, but just seven on target. Fifteen players had at least one effort on goal.

Marcus Berg cast himself as the villain early on, missing two sizeable early opportunities, and retreating into his shell thereafter. No player has had more than his 13 shots without scoring at this tournament.

It was bad enough that some were postulating just how far ahead Sweden would be with Ibrahimovic in the team. What a player with no goals in five World Cup career appearances across two tournaments would have offered is anyone’s guess.

Switzerland were guilty too. Xherdan Shaqiri threatened to make a mockery of Phil Neville’s pre-match comments, while Blerim Dzemaili and Steven Zuber missed presentable chances. All things considered, barn doors were spared; banjos were untested.

The only goal came in the 66th minute. A tentative shot from Sweden’s No.10 was destined to roll into the welcoming arms of Yann Sommer, only for the previously impeccable Manuel Akanji to deflect it into the corner. It was a goal from Forsberg, for Berg. The relief was etched on the striker’s face.

At times, this simply felt like a contest between Forsberg and Shaqiri as to who could step out the furthest from the pattern of predictability. The latter’s delivery was wonderful, while the former’s dribbling was a constant worry for the Swiss. They were the only two players willing to take a risk; Forsberg was finally granted the ultimate reward.

Neither England nor Colombia will see Sweden as daunting quarter-final opponents. Yet Forsberg has stepped out from the shadow of a unified side to give them something a little more unique, more of an edge to this blunt outfit.

The greatest tragedy he may be willing to disclose is that he was only two when his country last ventured this far at a World Cup. Sweden’s ordinary hero has prolonged their extraordinary story.

Matt Stead